Each year, UNC Department of City and Regional Planning students have the opportunity to take a hands-on workshop course; the course is required for second year Master’s students. Workshops usually include client-facing work, collaborating with large teams on complex challenges taking place in a North Carolina community. This fall, the department organized two workshop courses: one focused on economic development, the other on transportation. Below is a description of each of the workshops and reflections about the value of practical, skill-based work in preparing Master’s students for the real world.
Economic Development Workshop
The economic development workshop was facilitated by Professor Bill Lester. It tackled two client projects and students worked on both projects, taking multiple “lead” and “support” roles on each. The clients for the projects were the National Employment Law Project (NELP) in Washington, DC, and the Word Tabernacle Church Impact Center in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
The National Employment Law Project (NELP) provides legal assistance and support to local, state, and National efforts to raise the minimum wage, pass workplace protections, and support a variety of related labor market interventions. The North Carolina Word Tabernacle Church (WTC) and its non-profit organization, the Impact Center of Rocky Mount, is a grassroots, faith-based community service advocate.
The two organizations stand in strong contrast: While NELP works on a national scale, the Impact Center focuses its efforts on local community assistance. NELP’s work is supported by high-level lawyers and policy-makers in DC and the Impact Center is run mostly by part-time volunteers. At the outset of the semester, the two client projects seemed worlds apart; but by the end of the semester they were united by common concern for access to resources and environmental justice.
The workshop class provided social science analysis and developed an interactive web-based tool for NELP to share information on the possible effects of raising the minimum wage in cities across the U.S. (The site, still under construction at time of publication, will be reachable at 15forall.web.unc.edu). The Impact Center of Rocky Mount proved a more organizationally challenging project. A dearth of existing data required the class to redesign its scope of work from data analysis to creating data collection methodologies for the Impact Center to implement.
In addition to having the opportunity to work with a well-resourced Washington, D.C., organization to create a polished finished product, the team was also challenged to be adaptive. The team was forced to adjust to unforeseen circumstances in Rocky Mount, due, in part, to geographic location. The workshop provided a valuable example of the substantial advantages that the combination of social capital and geographic proximity to resources can afford a city.
The transportation workshop was facilitated by DCRP PhD candidate and former land developer Bill Bishop, whose research focuses on Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) and maximizing the impact of mass transit through value capture. The workshop was tasked with taking a critical look at the city of Charlotte’s Blue Line Extension, a light rail line connecting the central business district with the UNC Charlotte campus about 13 miles to the north. City of Charlotte Planning and regional transit agency staff worked with the UNC workshop team to lay out the successes and shortcomings of TOD surrounding new light rail stations. The workshop team was then given the ever-so-easy task of rethinking TOD for the Charlotte Blue Line Extension.
TOD is hard to define, multidimensional, context-specific, and almost never gets built the way it looks on paper in the planning office. As much as the workshop team gravitated towards relatively simple policy changes, spurring private investment in close proximity to transit infrastructure is no small feat. Fortunately, City of Charlotte staff (serving as clients for the workshop) narrowed the scope of work by highlighting three specific station areas to explore in detail.
The final report focused on four distinct “strategies” that, after much deliberation and exploration, the workshop team determined were key components to creating the type of development near stations that the City of Charlotte was seeking. In addition to our four strategies, the team also delivered Charlotte staff a package of tools and recommendations to help implement new development strategies around station areas not currently receiving private sector investment. Recommendations included zoning and land use amendments, community outreach strategies, placemaking and design recommendations, connectivity and accessibility improvements, and much more.
Transportation, especially large-scale investments like light rail, is inherently interdisciplinary. This transportation workshop showed how interconnected transportation planning can be. It also gave the team an opportunity to look behind the curtain and learn more about how inter-agency collaboration, bureaucratic biases, institutional momentum, and political and regulatory environments further complicate already inherently challenging projects.
The workshop process is integral to synthesizing technical skills with practical application and team and client management. These courses also serve as a reminder that planning projects are never simple–even without a Hurricane thrown into the mix. While each workshop was challenging for different reasons, each gave DCRP Master’s students an opportunity to collaborate on tackling some real-world planning challenges and gave students great experience to carry forward.
About the Authors: Chris Bendix is a second year Master’s student in DCRP. He is specializing in Housing and Community Development and plans to work at the intersection of housing, real estate, and mass transit planning.
Rachel Wexler is the co-editor of the Carolina Planning Journal and is pursuing her master’s degree in City and Regional Planning. Her bachelor’s is in english from UC Berkeley; prior to beginning her master’s she worked as an editor, cook, and musician. Her academic work focuses on economic development, neighborhood revitalization, and placemaking. Her non-academic work focuses on playing in general and playing cello in particular. She also thinks frequently about Oakland, California and Berlin, Germany, both of which she calls home. These are also the urban spaces that brought her to this charming small town to study planning.