Astronaut. Athlete. Artist. Why not Urban Planner?

What do you want to be when you grow up? This is the definitive question of childhood, with the answers often changing…quickly. 2nd grade career aspirations went something like this: Monday, I’ll be a scientist; Tuesday, an artist; and by Friday, a professional soccer player.

For many kids, the notion of urban planning as a career is never on the tableplanning isn’t the most common field to learn about at elementary school career day. Many current students can reflect back on two distinct moments that helped lead them to the field: (1) the realization that this field called urban planning even exists; and (2) the decision to pursue it. But what would the implications be if these moments could happen much earlier? If students could learn about urban planning the same time they learn about so many other career tracks?

In recent years, non-profit organizations, private firms, schools, and universities have been working on just that. This post provides an overview of some of the most compelling urban planning youth education projects happening across the country. While they vary in method and medium, the projects and organizations below share the goal of sharing urban planning with younger audiences.

Urban planning embedded in school curriculum

Perhaps the most obvious intervention of planning education is incorporating it into school curriculum. The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) is a New York City based nonprofit which “uses the power of design and art to increase meaningful civic engagement.” They have a rich breadth of ready-made urban planning focused curricula for teachers to use in the classroom or in extra-curricular activities. Projects vary in both design and intended ages, from longer project-based work to small in-class assignments.

Extending the concept of embedding urban planning in school curricula to a comprehensive scale, there are a handful of urban planning themed high schools across the country. These include the Academy of Urban Planning and Engineering in Brooklyn, which focuses on “building communities of learners,” and the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy School of Urban Planning and Design, which partners with a local university and one of the largest global architecture firm, among others.Both use these promote platforms to engage in advocacy and interact with local communities. These schools also offer a comprehensive and immersive introduction to planning and potential launch pad for university paths to this field.

Creative arts with an urban planning mindset

Planning education doesn’t need to be confined to a formal classroom or workshop setting; it is also a natural companion to more creative fields. Just last August, the Chicago Architecture Foundation published a graphic novel, No Small Plans. No Small Plans centers on the escapades of Chicago teens as they design their city throughout time, in 1928, 2017, and 2211. Closely referencing Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, it provides a beautiful and engaging crash course to urban planning and how it shapes our lives. Urban-themed coloring books targeting older audiences, such as Steve McDonald’s Fantastic Cities, presents urban form in a stunningly beautiful way, encouraging artists to perhaps view their own cities just a little differently.

Planning programs driving outreach

There are also a number of ways for professionals to engage with the next generation through a variety of organized activities and events. For example, in March 2018, faculty, planning students and professionals came together at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs to host a workshop on urban planning for 100 high school students in Los Angeles. High schoolers who attended received a crash course in urban planning and were able to ask questions and advice from current planning graduate students, practitioners, and faculty. 400 miles north, the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley houses the Center for Cities + Schools (CC+S). One of the core missions of CC+S is youth engagement in urban planning and social change, through which they facilitate programs such as Y-PLAN (Youth: Plan, Learn, Act, Now!). Y-PLAN is an educational strategy that can be implemented in schools to encourage students to make change in their communities. Similar educational tools and mentoring programs are operating in graduate urban planning programs across the country.

Moving forward

High schoolers of today are the planners of the future. Actively engaging youth in planning can open doors beyond the typical occupation buffet of career musings. With programs and workshops, in-school curricula, and creative arts like the ones mentioned here incorporating planning, perhaps future planning students won’t have to stumble into this field. Instead, they’ll deliberately drive towards it.

Furthermore, as current planning students, we occupy a unique space. In these brief two years, we transition from non-planner to planner. We can pause and look both to the past and future: remembering when we didn’t know what we now know, while also visualizing how to use this knowledge and experience to create meaningful impact. This positioning makes us ideal ambassadors to young students now.

Feature image photo credit: Chicago Architecture Foundation, No Small Plans

About the author: Margaret Keener is a second year Master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, focusing on land use and environmental planning and hazards resilience. Prior to UNC, Margaret worked as a graphic designer for a global city network. Outside of class, Margaret enjoys listening to podcasts while running, playing outdoor team sports, and exploring new places on foot.