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Planning education for Teens
Detail: A handful of planning focused high schools have opened recently in urban areas around the United States as more and more high schools bring planning to teenagers in grades 9 through 12. From Milwaukee to Brooklyn to Philadelphia to Los Angeles, high school kids are being given the opportunity to explore students’ roles in their communities, to understand the process of change that goes on in the cities around them and to consider a future career in the field.

The East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy of Urban Planning and Design opened last fall in the LA Unified School District and has currently 375 students enrolled in three grades. Its part of the brand new, five academy Esteban Torres High School in east LA, a part of the town where high schools typically cram in more than 4000 kids.

But the east LA school is just the latest example of its kind. The first such program, the New York City Academy of Urban Planning, was started in 2003 in Brooklyn. Urban Planning is a running theme within the school’s curriculum, with teachers peppering it into class work rather than focusing on it intensely –a model that similar schools have followed as well.

“The idea was always to be very expansive in the way we think about urban planning, and to use it as a tool to get students out of the classroom and into the community, understanding how things work and how they can be involved" says Josh Lapidus, an urban planning teacher at the academy.

For a recent project students researched a new city initiative aimed at building public plazas for traffic calming. They looked into how the program is run, what traffic problems the city is trying to address, and how proposals are selected. Students then identified streets in their community that would benefit from plazas and submitted proposals to the city. Lapidus says that it was mainly the theoretical exercise, since actual projects must be maintained by an active community group, but the effort has helped students understand local decision making.

Urban planning education isn’t limited to a handful of specialized schools. A mock development program created by the Urban Land Institute called Urban Plan has been used in more than 20,000 classrooms nationwide since 2004. Its 15 class-hours stress economics and government. Students are organized into groups that respond to an RFP for the redevelopment of a blighted piece of land in a fictional city.

Whether these sorts of programs will produce future urban planners is hard to say, but for most of the educators involved, that’s almost immaterial. The common theme throughout these programs is that planning offers a way to approach a variety of issues and concepts that are both based in reality and related to the lives of students.

“Everybody is a planner. And everybody has an idea about cities”, says James Rojas in describing how to teach urban planning concepts to kids. “I just want to reinforce that ideas are valid and valuable and that this is how to articulate them”.
Source: “It’s Never Too Soon to Start” by Nate Berg, Planning, February 2011.
Date: July 15 2011