Anybody For Some Duck Duck Goose?: Planning School, Semester Two Begins

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On Friday, in the first week of my second semester of planning graduate school, we did the hokey-pokey. We put our right foot in, put our right foot out, put our right foot in, and then we shook it all about. We turned ourselves around. That was what it was all about.

The demonstration was all about pointing out common ground and how people were rooted in order to approach problem solving and conflict resolution. It sounds a little squishy, I know. But it got the point across, and more important, it introduced the dance to one international student who had never heard of the hokey-pokey.

Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, I won't even be able to keep the hokey-pokey class. In its place, five all-star joints guaranteed to keep this blog fresh and my sleep deprived for the next four months:

1) Planning Problems Workshop. This is the centerpiece of the first year for Penn planning students. We're split into groups of five and assigned a real-world client for whom we come up with a plan. I'll know a lot more about the specifics next time, because it isn't till the second class that they break us up and choose our projects, but suffice to say: We tackle actual problems. We get our hands dirty. We get into fights with each other. Delicious.

2) Law of Planning and Urban Development. I'll admit I walked into this one the first day kind of expecting it to be like the scene from Legally Blonde, where Reese Witherspoon is humiliated by the prof. And I'm not just stereotyping law classes-a few days earlier, the professor had emailed out a 21-page syllabus, several pages of which were devoted to which grammar rules must be followed in his class. (Lucky for me, he doesn't yet know about my secret alter-ego.) Even if it hasn't happened yet, there's still time to be like Legally Blonde: He warned us that in a few weeks he switches over to the Socratic method, under which we're all guaranteed to wither and fall. But in the end, she gets the nice guy and graduates top of her class, right? There's hope for us yet.

3) Urban Design Methods in Research and Practice. Other than a computer design class last semester, this is our first intense introduction to urban design, my concentration during my two years at Penn. Like in the law class, the professor threatens to call on students at random, and woe unto those who haven't done the reading. The scope of the class is daunting: We'll have urban design case studies, plan writing, hand drawing and more. "The first assignment"-to come up with three adjectives that describe yourself as a designer-"is the toughest because it requires you do know yourself," the professor told us on the first day. Far out.

4) Citizen Participation and Civic Visioning. Or, how to win over communities. Philadelphia's big ongoing drama (other than the fact that we have no money whatsoever) is the saga of the casinos, which developers want to put in along the waterfront that I-95 severed from the city when it was built. The bordering neighborhoods are largely opposed. Harris Steinberg leads the group that was tasked with coming up with a civic vision for reclaiming that waterfront, with or without casinos; in this class, we'll learn how he did it.

5) Modeling Geographical Space. "Imagine a fart," the professor said in this introduction to raster-oriented GIS. "How can you show graphically how close you are to it? How intense it is? Where it's spreading?" It was meant to show us the difference between raster and vector GIS. It got that point across, along with the point that this class is going to be fascinating, instructive, and completely batshit insane. The professor is clearly a computer genius-though he demurred, he basically wrote the industry-standard GIS software-and yet he types using just his two pointer fingers. Amazing.

Despite talk of Reese Witherspoon and bodily gases, the semester looks to be pretty rigorous-considerably more so than the fall. It's a little intimidating, but remember, after you put your head into all of it, take your head out. Put it back in one more time, and you can shake it all about. Penn professors said so.

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

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