Profiles of the Next Generation of Planners II

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In the second edition of our series profiling urban planning, development, and design students from across the country, masters students from the University of Southern California, University of Pennsylavania, and The Ohio State University reflect on what led them to the planning field, their academic experiences, and their professional aspirations.

 Robert LopezRobert A. Lopez
Degree Objective: Planning
Expected Graduation: May 2007
University of Southern California, School of Policy, Planning, and Development

What compelled you to attend planning school?
I decided to go to planning school because, after three years of working in the planning profession, I felt that it would be beneficial to complement my "real-world" experience with an academic background in the planning field. I am an academician at heart, and enjoy the analytical and critical thinking environment that the classroom offers. I also felt that academic training in the understanding of urban processes would further enlighten my interactions and job duties as an Associate Planner for the City of Cerritos, CA.

I plan to apply to a Ph.D. program in planning to further develop my knowledge of urban history and comparative planning and to contribute to the scholarly body of intellectual inquiry related to the field of planning. I also hope to gain experience in teaching at the university level, helping students acquire the skills that are necessary to understand urban processes, regardless of whether they wish to become city planners or they simply have a minor interest in planning and are taking an undergraduate general education course on urban history or the built environment. I currently volunteer as a docent for the Los Angeles Conservancy, through which I give tours of Downtown Los Angeles on Saturday mornings. I cover such topics as urban history, architecture and urban design, adaptive reuse, and historic preservation. As a Los Angeles Conservancy docent, I have discovered my passion for sharing my perspectives about cities and the built environment with a larger audience. I hope to develop these research and teaching skills at the doctorate level.

What do you hope to pursue after graduation?
Ideally, I would like to maintain ties to both the academic and professional worlds. I would like to work as a college professor and also play a role in the public sector either as a consultant or as an administrator. I think that involvement in both worlds would help to inform my work in each of them. An association with the professional world would keep me grounded in the realities of planning problems and challenges and would add a textural dimension to my academic work, while my academic association would influence and foster creativity in addressing those complex planning problems.

What do you see as the future of planning?
I think that planning will continue to evolve as a profession and will become more complex. This is not simply because our cities are becoming more diverse and our population is growing, but because the city planner is increasingly responsible for addressing a wider range of concerns than in the past. As legal obstacles increase and environmental concerns come to the forefront of planning issues, one might say that it now takes an even greater effort to accomplish a goal or task that, a century ago, would not have been difficult at all. However, I believe that the complex challenges that planners face in accomplishing a goal are for the better, as the overall increased citizen participation and legal actions and requirements that have made planning more (seemingly) "difficult" will engender more informed decisions in addition to practical, appropriate, and sensitive solutions to planning problems.

The future is exciting for planners, especially in built-out urban areas, because the challenges of accommodating a larger population will force planners to rethink the environments in which they work. I think that regional planning will become more crucial to the welfare of individual communities, as traffic and air quality know no borders and a jobs-housing balance that some say is necessary to improve such conditions requires large-scale coordination. It is difficult to say exactly how the regional government-local government relationship will play out, but I do think that the powers of regional planning agencies will expand.


 Gideon BergerGideon Berger
Degree Objective: City Planning
Graduation: May 2005
University of Pennsylvania, School of Design

What compelled you to attend planning school?
My curiosity about the built environment stems from being born on the Rockaway Peninsula of Queens, New York. It had once been a multi-ethnic community of summer cottages and beach bungalows but was transformed by urban renewal into the very thing it was supposed to be replacing: an urban slum.

After earning my Bachelor's degree in communication from American University in Washington, DC, I worked as a writer and editor in both community and public affairs journalism. It was on a return visit to Rockaway that I fully realized how little Americans understand about how their cities and towns are developed. One reason so little had improved there is that most residents didn't see the planning of their community as a democratic process in which they should play a role.

Searching for answers, I began reading books like James Howard Kuntsler's Home from Nowhere and Andres Duany's Suburban Nation. I took an urban planning class at The University of Virginia and wrote an independent study on how Loudoun County, Virginia's efforts to fight sprawl could change the way Americans think about suburban development. It was then that I thought I should become an urban planner.

What do you hope to pursue after graduation?
My dream job after earning a Master of City Planning degree from Penn is to work for a city planning agency as a neighborhood planner, which I consider an extension of my classroom education. I want to help give residents of blighted central-city neighborhoods a chance to articulate their visions for the kinds of communities they would like to have. I'd like to develop a relationship and sense of trust with residents through this process, then work to find ways to bring their hopes to fruition by utilizing the power of the marketplace: reinvestment and redevelopment that is both profitable and purposeful.

From there, my planning-related career options in the public, private or non-profit sectors seem limitless. Or I could return to writing to help raise awareness of the dangerous costs that sprawl-pattern development and urban abandonment have imposed on our country, and of the solutions offered by new urbanism and traditional neighborhood design. Promoting these ideas and educating the public are perhaps the greatest challenges facing the planning world, and the media and politicians will have to play a role in shaping future public opinion about the built environment.

What do you see as the future of planning?
There are very different planning priorities in different regions of the country. Here in the Northeast, the biggest issue seems to be how we can keep our older central cities economically relevant (i.e. change their value proposition to potential residents and businesses) while at the same time dealing with the growing social, economic and environmental costs of sprawl-pattern development at the regional level.

In cities like Philadelphia, PA I see tax reform and historic preservation playing key roles in creating demand for a product that few people in the region seem to want at present, as evidenced by high rates of vacancy and abandonment. I also see transit-oriented development changing the nature of suburban life. There are many underdeveloped areas around commuter rail stations in the Philadelphia suburbs, and newer commuter rail lines like New Jersey's River Line and the Virginia Rail Express are going to lead to new, denser suburban development in a mixed-use context.

The design of our cities should reflect the beauty of humankind's diversity and functions, just as the design of the natural world reflects the beauty of its own. If this vision, which I believe is shared by most people, is to be fulfilled, we need planners with skills, understanding and passion who care about cities and communities.


 Andrew OverbeckAndrew Overbeck
Degree Objective: City and Regional Planning
Expected Graduation: May 2005
The Ohio State University, Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture

What compelled you to attend planning school?
After graduating from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana with a degree in politics, I intended to attend planning school. However, I delayed my post-graduate work in order to spend a year in Southeast Asia on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship studying real estate and development issues. While that morphed into a career as a freelance writer and editor, I returned to school this past fall to learn more about the subject that I have spent the last five years reading and writing about.

I want to play an active role in defining the future of the American city. At this point, I have more questions than answers. In our increasingly decentralized and fragmented society and landscape, where do cities fit? As suburban sprawl continues and edge cities proliferate, what role will cities play? How can urban areas and suburban areas better interact? The desire to find answers to these questions drove my decision to pursue a master's degree in city and regional planning. My goal is to bridge my life and professional experiences with my belief that sound economic development, urban revitalization, and regional planning can create cohesive, vibrant communities. Urban or suburban, people ought to be able to live, work, and interact in places worth caring about.

What do you hope to pursue after graduation?
Upon graduation, I hope to work either as a neighborhood planner, or engage in public policy work in the realm of regional growth. I believe we need to strengthen our inner city communities and create regional growth strategies and governmental systems to build better metropolitan areas.

What do you see as the future of planning?
Within the timeframe of my planning career, I believe I will see tremendous changes in the function of cities in American society. Such changes will not come voluntarily. The cheap supplies of fossil fuels that we currently depend on will likely be depleted or become prohibitively expensive. Five thousand square foot homes and 20-mile commutes will no longer be a possibility. Cities will need to become more efficient and this will require more mixed-use development, shorter commute times, environmentally sustainable development, and a variety of transportation options. We need to start planning now for this eventuality.

The other change that must occur if we are to restore any semblance of equity to our cities will be to implement regional governmental systems that are based on a shared tax base. This would level the playing field in regard to city and governmental services and reduce the economic and social segregation that has proliferated in our metropolitan areas. Such a system would also encourage more balanced development and promote neighborhood reinvestment in the central city neighborhoods that have been left behind as the suburbs have expanded. A regional governmental system would also allow better funding and cooperation on regional planning issues. A comprehensive regional plan that brings political leaders from across metropolitan areas together will be paramount to meeting the demands of the 21st century and will enable the creation of functional and cohesive communities.

Tell us why you got involved in planning...


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