Perhaps no other program at ULI saw as much disruption to its knowledge-sharing model in fiscal year 2020 as UrbanPlan. But in that disruption, UrbanPlan saw opportunity and showed how it can still excite a new generation of community change agents and potential real estate professionals while keeping them safe through virtual delivery.
UrbanPlan is a realistic, engaging exercise in which participants—high school or university students, or public officials—learn the fundamental forces that affect development in our communities. Participants encounter challenging issues, private– and public–sector roles, complex tradeoffs, and fundamental economics when proposing realistic land use solutions to vexing growth challenges. Supported by member gifts to the ULI Foundation and local district council sponsors and offered through district councils and national councils, UrbanPlan has reached nearly 60,000 students and public officials globally.
At the beginning of the fiscal year, the program launched the UrbanPlan Equity and Inclusion Working Group. This kicked off with stakeholders, teachers, trainers, and staff meeting with an equity consultant to develop a report guiding the equity and inclusion impacts of the program. Since the summer of 2019, the consultant has spoken with volunteers, trainers, and district council staff from across the UrbanPlan network to gain a comprehensive understanding of the program’s challenges and its successes. Under the consultant’s leadership, the working group developed recommendations for enhancing the student and community experience, scaling the program, and improving the curriculum.
When UrbanPlan was created 20 years ago, no one could have imagined teams thousands of miles apart competing in real time. The new realities so abruptly forced on us by COVID-19 are driving the creative changes needed to bring the wonders of the UrbanPlan curriculum to any school anywhere throughout the world.
However, when COVID hit, UrbanPlan had to immediately pivot to a virtual learning environment—an especially daunting task for a program intrinsically linked to hands-on education. Educators and staff successfully navigated the shift to the virtual world, using a site–plan builder website for virtual community building rather than the usual Lego blocks, and engaging volunteers from across the country in a unique way. The site–plan builder tool now has a 3–D view feature to help students envision the scale and massing of their plans. Though the closure of schools reduced the number of students reached by UrbanPlan in FY20, many schools and universities were able to involve their students virtually and provide them with an engaging educational experience nonetheless.
In June, the virtual pivot culminated in the first–ever UrbanPlan National Competition for high school students. The competition involved 50 students comprising 10 teams from nine high schools around the United States (from Hawaii to New Jersey) and Canada; 50 volunteers were engaged as mentors, facilitators, and “city council members” judging the student plans. The competition was won by a team from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, California. (A video on the competition is available here.) Funding for the event was provided through a donation to the ULI Annual Fund from Ron Nahas, ULI trustee emeritus, ULI Foundation governor, and partner at Rafanelli & Nahas LLP in Lafayette, California, as well as several other donors.
“When UrbanPlan was created 20 years ago, no one could have imagined teams thousands of miles apart competing in real time,” Nahas said. “The new realities so abruptly forced on us by COVID-19 are driving the creative changes needed to bring the wonders of the UrbanPlan curriculum to any school anywhere throughout the world. I am excited to participate in this first National Competition and look forward to congratulating the teams for confronting the complex issues and frustrating compromises that govern the built environment.”