A Day in the Life of an UrbanPlan Volunteer

Differentiating between hope and reality is an important consideration when working with members of the public who are not involved in planning, design or development on a regular basis. The urban planner also faces the challenge of communicating clearly about a topic that involves four dimensions and many points of view.

As a volunteer with the Urban Land Institute’s UrbanPlan Program (recently profiled in the Boston Globe), I went through a challenging training course in January before becoming a facilitator for students going through the program at Boston University. UrbanPlan is an educational program in which students play the role of a development team responding to a request for proposal from a city eager to revitalize a blighted neighborhood. The students have about fifteen classes to explore and build their scenarios before they present to the City Council. Trained facilitators from ULI come in twice to review the students’ projects and play the role of the City Council at the end of the program. The City Council listens to presentations by the student development teams and chooses a winner.

The training session for volunteers is a single intensive day. We were assigned roles –Site Planner, Marketing Director, Financial Analyst, City Council Liaison, and Neighborhood Liaison – and our roles had to be different from our day-to-day jobs. As an urban planner, I was assigned the position of Financial Analyst. Full disclosure – I used to work in the investment management industry so I know my way around a spreadsheet. “How hard can this be?” I thought before going in.

Spoiler alert – it was hard.

Problem number one – you must remain within your role. We got to play with Legos – or rather, the Site Planner got to play with Legos while the rest of us watched. In theory. In practice, it is extremely difficult to keep away from Legos.

Next, we only had about ninety minutes to build our neighborhood. The site planner had to build all of the building shapes according to the models in the book, we had to decide upon a vision for our development, figure out what uses went where, understand the market demand for each use, place the buildings on the site, consider the requirements of the City Council, the requests and objections from businesses, nonprofits, and neighborhood groups, and make sure that the development met the financial requirements of both the development team and the city. Did I mention we had ninety minutes?

Now my group built everything out, made a profit, and, along the way, discussed (or possibly argued) over urban form, compatibility of uses, the various requirements, requests and objections, and, unsurprisingly how much money we were making or losing. You would be right to think that these discussions were somewhat chaotic.

But at the end we were pretty pleased with ourselves until the instructor came in and demolished our plan and presentation. UrbanPlan uses the Socratic method – no telling the person in the spotlight where they went wrong! Facilitators are expected to teach by asking questions – and every question from us received a question in return. Did I mention you had to stay in your role? No sneaking the answer to your colleague who is wilting in the corner. And despite making a profit, we received a FAIL – our profit was not large enough to meet the developer’s requirements. Lesson: if you build it, they will not come. Unless the City Council is satisfied, the neighborhood is largely satisfied, the market is satisfied and the investors receive at least their minimum return on their investment.

And, of course, this is exactly what we needed to impart when turned loose upon the students as facilitators.

Imagine, if this was challenging for the facilitators, all of whom have experience in some part of the real estate industry, how challenging it is for students who are just learning about economics. They have to balance the demands of the site, market, City Council, and neighborhood interest groups while learning about regulation, capital, and risk. Our responsibility was to treat them, not as students, but as a professional development team and reinforce that this was not for fun, but a chance to learn how to represent their ideas in a business context.

The students I worked with at Boston University were part way through their projects and had addressed some of the elements of the assignment while forgetting or downplaying the importance of others. This article will be published before their mid-term, so I won’t comment directly on either of the two projects I saw.

Working with the students was just as valuable to me as (I hope) it was to them. UrbanPlan, for all its complexity, is a simplified version of what we do in our professional lives. As consulting planners working with a community, we have to be aware of all the factors that affect the problem we have been asked to help solve. Our client has one view, but different neighborhood groups, local businesses, and institutions may have competing ideas and hopes of what should happen in an area – and may be caught up in a vision that cannot be supported by market realities. Part of what we do is to find the balance among these factors to arrive at a plan that can achieve the political and financial support to help a community move forward. I believe that plans that cannot be implemented are useful only as doorstops – volunteering with UrbanPlan helps me remember the complex forces that affect those plans and makes me a better resource for my clients.

Written by Emily Innes