Most students pursuing a master’s in Planning are required to complete either a thesis or original project as part of their degree. Ben Lykins, a 2016 graduate from the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC Chapel Hill, choose a practice-oriented route and created a small area plan for Bryant, Arkansas. Ben says that creating the “Bryant Reimagined” plan was a challenging way to incorporate the holistic planning education and wide array of data, mapping, and design skills he dabbled with both in the classroom and through professional experiences. Angles sat down with Ben to discuss his approach to the project, the challenges that arose during the planning process, and what he learned from the experience.
Angles: How did you decide on Bryant, Arkansas as the subject of your Master’s Project? BL: I decided to do a project in Arkansas because I am from there and a lot of my interest stems from the lack of planning I witnessed growing up in Arkansas. There aren’t many planning jobs in Arkansas, and I wanted to create an additional portfolio piece as a networking opportunity to explore the few jobs that do exist. Why Bryant in particular? I identified several projects and then thought Bryant would be the most interesting and would provide an opportunity to cover the full spectrum of planning themes: transportation, land use, mixed use, etc…
Angles: What was your general process for approaching the small area plan and how did you determine what sections to include? BL: I knew that the area was a good candidate for sprawl repair. I looked at a lot of cases of communities re-making their downtowns and fixing sprawl and I followed those examples. What I wanted to do was come up with guidelines for reshaping existing development and make sure that new development wasn’t poorly built, ugly, or car-oriented. I was mostly thinking about what steps you’d need to take to make the area a place people actually want to hang out. There wasn’t a specific plan I referenced because there isn’t anywhere quite the same.
Angles: Did anything surprise you when you were doing background research? BL: I was surprised by some of the current zoning regulations, and just how broad some of the categories were. I was surprised that there were zoning types the city had created but not actually implemented. For example, Bryant has a flood zone category, but they don’t apply it to their floodplain areas. The commuter habits were also really interesting. There are a total of 8,000 people who live in Bryant and have jobs. But of those 8,000 people, only 800 both live and work in Bryant.
Angles: Not that these are mutually exclusive, but what were the most enjoyable and challenging parts of the process? BL: Finding a lot of the regulation information for Bryant was challenging for a while. Once I found it, I had it, but initially I was looking in the wrong places. I really enjoyed quantifying the amount of infrastructure. I think it’s an easy way to show the lack of investment in public infrastructure. I can say how much sidewalk they have, but that doesn’t mean much until I tell you how much sidewalk they have as a percentage of how much roadway they have.
Angles: “Bryant Reimagined” is a set of policy suggestions. How much of it do you think can realistically be accomplished? What would it take for all of your suggestions to be implemented? BL: They would probably need to create and pass a funding mechanism and that would allow them to make some of the serious infrastructure changes in the transportation section. They would have to encourage developers to do things in a certain way, and keep up with their zoning in a more serious way. The plan provides no timeline, but instead lays out the steps needed for achieving the vision I suggest.
Angles: What was your biggest takeaway from the process? BL: The project was a good way to augment my skill set. It allowed me to take a bunch of separate skills that I had learned independently and combine them into one big project. It was exceptionally useful to reorganizing my knowledge in that holistic manner.
Ben Lykins is a 2016 graduate from the Department of City and Regional Planning here at UNC. His Primary interests are transportation planning, land use planning, and streamlining planning through the use of technology. Ben has a bachelor’s degree in geography & public administration from the University of Central Arkansas and has spent time working as a GIS analyst. He currently works as an urban planner for Garver Engineering in Little Rock, Arkansas.