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Resilience for an Era of Climate Change

Mary Nicol
Master in Urban Planning and Policy
2019
University of Illinois at Chicago

Why did you choose to pursue a graduate education in planning?

Prior to planning school, I worked as an environmental advocate and organizer on global campaigns with communities fighting for a better future. One of the most heart wrenching stories I heard was from a community member who had lost her whole family to Typhoon Haiyan. While efforts to mitigate future impacts of climate change are critically important, I became compelled by the challenges that society will face in adapting to the impacts of climate change. In particular, how will municipalities make choices about how to provide safe, affordable housing in the face of limited budgets and more severe climate impacts? When those most vulnerable are forced to relocate, will more resilient municipalities choose to welcome new residents?

What aspects of your program do you like best?

Those challenging questions led me to planning school at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) to focus on resilience planning. I intentionally chose to study in Chicago due to the complex set of social, environmental, and economic issues that the city faces, and the leadership the city has shown in thinking about how to adapt to climate change. In recent years, the city established the Chicago Climate charter, an agreement by over 70 mayors to meet the emissions targets of the Paris Agreement. The city has committed to power all public buildings using renewables by 2025, and it is making significant investments in adaptation strategies, such as green infrastructure projects in neighborhoods prone to flooding. Through the planning program at UIC, I have seen great opportunities to rebuild cities more equitably amidst unpredictable future change, and how the intersectional approach that resilience planning brings is critical to this effort.

My interest in resilience planning deepened at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference. UIC student organizations and the Urban Planning Department sponsored 30 students to attend the conference in New Orleans. I attended a visit to the relocation site of Isle de Jean Charles, the first community to receive federal funding to relocate due to climate change. I was able to hear first hand from the planners, policy makers, and engineers in the midst of the planning process the struggles they were facing, and the successes they had achieved thus far. 

I have many ongoing opportunities to learn from current planning challenges through the vast number of internship and research opportunities that come through the professional networks the Urban Planning Department has fostered. Several of my classmates have internships with government agencies, nonprofits, or private planning firms. I learned of the city of Chicago’s Mayoral Fellowship from a classmate in the program. I was selected as a fellow, which has provided me with several unique opportunities, including helping to write the city’s Resilience Strategy and supporting the work of the Mayor’s Mobility Task Force as they create a set of mobility recommendations for the next mayor. I have seen firsthand the difficult challenges that municipal policy makers face everyday, and in the midst of providing critical services, how a municipality can continue to plan for the future. Additionally, due to the breadth of research institutes at UIC, there are frequent talks or opportunities to learn more about emerging planning and policy issues from experts, or to get hands on experience with ongoing planning challenges. 

What advice would you offer someone considering a master’s degree in planning?

I chose a planning school that would offer me a solid foundation in planning and policy theory, critical emerging issues, and networking and career opportunities that can only be found in an urban environment such as Chicago. If you are considering a master’s degree in urban planning, consider the type of work you want to be doing afterwards and the type of opportunities that you want to create for yourself during the program. The classroom environment is only one part of a planner’s education. I knew that I would want to build a deeper network in Chicago, learn from how the city is adapting to climate change, and create opportunities for myself to make significant impacts on people’s lives soon after completion of the program. I have certainly found that at UIC. 

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