Ow! That hurt! Or: The Start of Planning School, Year Two

Jeffrey Barg's picture

Forgive me Olmsted, for I have sinned. I have strayed. I have coveted. I have had doubts.

I have thought about kicking urban design to the curb like a mangy puppy.

I just began my second year as a planning graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Some readers will recall the strange loves of my first year, or how I learned to stop worrying and love Cherry Hill, N.J. Since then, in my summer internship I organized a community visioning session and helped orchestrate a regional infrastructure charrette, while my classmates alternately drew maps, wandered the streets of Delhi, and hunted moose in Alaska. (No, Sarah Palin is not a graduate student at Penn.) Although my focus of study is urban design, thanks to the super-awesome economy, only one-in a class of 70-of my classmates got an honest-to-goodness urban design internship. No problem, I thought; I'll do plenty of urban design in the fall semester.

That was before a ton of bricks hit me in the face.

On our very first day, we learned of our upcoming studio: a project encompassing 20 square miles of the Central and Lower Schuylkill in Philadelphia-a site that includes Philadelphia International Airport, the city's historic Navy Yard, acres upon acres of industrial land covered in gigantic oil refineries, and housing projects we were advised not to go too far into for fear of crossfire. The site has plenty of amenities too, though: gorgeous open space comparable to Central Park, headquarters for major international companies, one of the finest collections of plant life on the Eastern Seaboard. Sounds challenging but good so far, right?

Then came the bricks.

The studio is a whopping 60 students, three-quarters of them landscape architects. Who, I've since learned, are completely insane.

We got the syllabus, and honestly, I freaked. At least one pin-up a week, sometimes two. Up to eighteen hours of class a week. During a break, one of my Cherry Hill urban design friends and I started making a list of things we don't know how to do. We weren't finished by the time class was ready to start up again.

So I thought about switching my concentration. Oh, hello there, Land Use and Transportation! Doesn't your course load look comparatively light! What's that, Community/Economic Development? You say you work with lots of neighborhood groups and CDCs? Why, I love people!

I went to see my adviser, and fortunately, he talked me down off the ledge. Yes, the class will be challenging, but three things were reassuring: 1) The learning experience will be unmatched. Landscape architects and planners work together all the time in the field, and so it's absurd that they don't do it more in school. 2) He promised the schedule will get better-apparently his domestic life wasn't faring any better from getting home at 9 p.m. than mine was. And 3) I shouldn't be afraid to turn the hose on the landscape architects every now and again. Because they need it.

So I'm sticking with the studio and with urban design. I think it'll be a good move. And if not, I hear that in a year come November, there's a nice job opening in Alaska.

Jeffrey Barg is an urban planner at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He can be reached at jeffreybarg@gmail.com.



Landscape architects and planners

Water-cooler conversation this morning at the transportation planning firm where I work touched on how landscape architects and planners seem to be at odds with each other. A former intern here is doing a dual master's in both of those subjects, and feels like a double spy, hearing each group diss the other. What is the nature of the insanity of LAs, and what do you think is the source of these professions not having more of a shared viewpoint?


i am intimately acquainted with said studio. you have my deepest sympathies.

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