Think you want to be an urban planner?
FALL 2012 — This summer, 63 young people who answered ‘yes’ spent six intensely creative and sometimes exhausting weeks engulfed in the complexity of sustainability goals, zoning requirements, land use, and transportation issues as they redesigned six troubled Berkeley transportation corridors.
Their assignment? Transform (on paper) troubled stretches of Adeline Street, Shattuck, San Pablo, University, and Telegraph avenues into more inviting and interesting corridors while balancing the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers and meeting the goals of the City of Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan.
Six weeks later they did.
Working in teams of five or six, they created multiple plans for each street. Their solutions encompassed ‘road diets’ to slow traffic and improve bike and pedestrian safety, pop-up restaurants for long, dark stretches of roadway, parklets, mobile raised vegetable beds for empty lots, 'grasscrete' paving for parking bays that could double as parks while alleviating storm water runoff problems, and new systems of way-finding to direct pedestrians and cyclists to off-the-beaten-track parks, schools, and other institutions.
Their ideas included enhancing Adeline's burgeoning identity as a nascent art scene with night time art walks and branding other thoroughfares with completely new identities: One team came up with 'UniShare,' suggesting University Avenue, the corridor that runs from the western edge of the Berkeley campus to the bay, become the city’s answer to wasteful consumerism by creating a sort of home base for car sharing, bike sharing, tool sharing, and other types of cooperative consumption.
Boot camp for would-be planners
For three years running, UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design has offered students who are considering enrolling in graduate school a unique crash course in urban planning called [IN]City. (The college offers similar programs
in architecture and landscape architecture.)
The [IN]City program provides a 12-course meal served at a fast-food pace.
Most of the students are recent college graduates with degrees in diverse areas. Some have been out of college for a while and have had a variety of work experiences. They are all interested in urban planning, or some aspect of it, but are reluctant to commit to graduate studies until they’ve had a taste.
The [IN]City program provides a 12-course meal served at a fast-food pace.
“[IN]City is a little like boot camp,” explained Karen Frick, UCTC’s Assistant Director and program director of [IN]City. Mornings are devoted to lectures on a diverse set of sustainability planning issues. They begin with a talk by Timothy Burroughs, the coordinator for Berkeley’s Climate Action plan, which serves to underpin the student projects. The plan, passed by the Berkeley City Council in 2007, sets emissions reduction targets and other goals for reducing waste, conserving energy, and empowering local communities.
Frick gives a transportation-in-a-nutshell lecture, which covers how infrastructure is funded as well as what a planner or engineer needs to know. Her talk includes case studies of transit-oriented development, bus rapid transit, and parking issues. This summer’s reading material included articles by planning and transportation experts Elizabeth Deakin, Robert Cervero, former ITS Director Marty Wachs, Department of City and Regional Planning chair Paul Waddell, and a number of other Department of City and Regional Planning faculty.
The projects are multi-faceted and incorporate interrelated core sustainability issues.
“They tend to have a transportation focus to them because the students who come in with an interest in affordable housing or water quality quickly realize that part of the issue with the corridor they’re looking at gets back to the bare bones of transportation,” said Frick.
Eric Anderson, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian planning coordinator, gives a lecture each year on current city plans, and the move toward “complete streets,” street design that accommodates everyone.
Out on the streets
Afternoons mean studio and field work. The teams visit the streets they’re trying to improve at various times of
the day and night. They snap photos and talk to residents and business owners; community perspectives and participation is an important component of the finished projects.
They also observe traffic patterns. Most are newcomers to the Bay Area, about 20 percent come from foreign countries, many of the domestic students come from other parts of the country. Few come with cars.
“They’re new to the area so they’re seeing it for the first time, often on foot or on bicycle,” said Frick. “So they’re looking at these streets with new eyes and a different perspective.”
Back in the studios of Wurster Hall, the teams mark up maps, dig up data on their assigned areas, develop resident surveys, learn how to draw and present plans, and quickly figure out the fine art of collaboration and team work.
“Students might come into the program deeply interested in planning or engineering, but they quickly realizes they need to design or engineer their idea with students who have different ideas, backgrounds and experiences,” said Frick.
Someone’s streetscape conflicts with street movements and car movements. Someone else remembers the plan needs to consider storm water improvement, while another sees the need for affordable housing.
Bottom line, however, is the team has to work together, added Frick. “That’s how it works in the real world.”
The assignments consisted of University Avenue, from the Bay to the campus; Adeline Street between the Ashby BART station and the Oakland border, the grubby area of Telegraph Avenue that runs for several blocks from the south side of the campus; San Pablo between Dwight and Ashby, and two sections of Shattuck, the stretch between University and Rose, and from Dwight to Stuart.
Over the six-week period, their ideas developed from sketches on tissue paper laid over maps to professional-level, artistic renderings of their assigned streets and neighborhoods. Some early ideas were discarded as the reality of funding availability, maintenance costs, neighborhood resistance, and other insurmountable obstacles set in.
Their final deadline was August 8 when they presented their work to their 'client,' the City of Berkeley.
With newly-honed professional presentation skills, beautifully rendered graphics, and wearing their best clothes, each student team gave a succinct but comprehensive background of the street, its residents and businesses, its strength and weaknesses, and then presented a vision for the future.
“San Pablo,” said Brock Hicks, “is a really nice street with a bad reputation.”
Then he and his teammates laid out their plan to establish a 'kitchen incubator' to help aspiring cooks start and grow their businesses while revitalizing a broad street with entrepreneurial leanings but a lot of empty lots. Perfect for mobile raised vegetable beds.
A team that worked on north Shattuck between University and Rose pointed out that the popular weekly farmers’ market was crammed into a too-small area, while Cheese Board customers routinely moved onto the grassy street median to eat, a safety hazard and hard-to-miss clue that north Shattuck needed more space for people to
gather and socialize. Their plan focused on removing one lane of traffic, redesigning the sidewalks with more build-outs, increasing green space, and developing a better bike plan.
At the other end of Shattuck, between Dwight and Stuart, cars drive too fast, the diagonal parking bays are dangerous for cyclists, and the very width of the street itself is not conducive to walking. One team prescribed a 'road diet' that would allow for wider sidewalks, parallel parking, a bike lane, and a buffer zone between that lane and the parked cars. They suggested more restaurants mixed in among the car dealerships might enliven the area at night and bring more pedestrians to the area. Car dealerships might also want to offer a 'green' show-room for alternative vehicles.
The six instructors who had nurtured and challenged the students for six weeks beamed with pleasure at the final results.
“This year we had a couple of projects that were focused on virtual interfaces and the built environment,” said lead studio instructor, Hector Fernando Burga.
“I thought this was quite an innovation from previous years. Overall, I am always amazed by the capacity to graphically represent the complexity of each project. Given that you have a combination of different skill sets and disciplines in each team each project always ends up being something special. The graphic quality of each project is top level.”
Instructor Joseph Godlewski said that what most intrigued him was the ability of students to synthesize information supplied from such a diverse range of actors and competing viewpoints in such a short period of time.
“These were collaborative projects among students with very little (if any) planning experience. So the capacity to set aside differences and communicate boldly imagined, clearly articulated, and generally feasible mission statements was particularly compelling.”
[IN]City creator and Dean of the College of Environmental Design, Jennifer Wolch, agreed. “The students come from a wide variety of academic backgrounds. Yet the quality of work that these students produce, over the course of a few short weeks, is really impressive.”
For the most part, reviewers from the city of Berkeley’s senior level staff, the Metropolitan Transportation
Commission, the Association of Bay Area Governments, consultants, and [IN]City alumni, were impressed, too.
“I and other city staff are continually inspired by how the students bring the Climate Action Plan to life with their ideas,” said Burroughs, “The work is innovative and thoughtful, and the presentations are professional and engaging.”
He said he hoped to invite students to share their presentations with local organizations that may be able to help advance their ideas.
On to grad school?
As for the students, most said that although the program was sometimes exhausting it was also exhilarating and they remained interested in pursuing a graduate degree.
“I think it only strengthened my desire to go into this field,” said one.
It’s also a helpful addition to an application to grad school.
The summer programs are really designed to help students learn more about planning, architecture, and landscape architecture—professions unlike law or medicine that many students don’t know too much about, explained Danelle Guthrie, who oversees all three College of Environmental Design Institutes programs.
“Making the decision to go to grad school is a big commitment in time and money,” she said. “This program lets them explore the discipline before they make that final decision.”
It doesn’t hurt applicants, either, to be able to show they took the course. In addition, they have a body of work to showcase.
“Ninety percent of those who apply are admitted to graduate programs in urban planning,” said Guthrie, “which is great to see because the competition is so fierce. A few end up here, too.”
One of those was Warren Logan, a former [INCity] student, now a master’s student in planning with a transportation focus at Berkeley, a member of the city’s planning staff, and one of the reviewers on August 8.
“Overall, I was very impressed with this year’s presentations,” he said, noting that the program is becoming increasingly valuable to the city of Berkeley because students are conducting studies that city staff hasn’t the time for.
“In the end, the students get real-life planning experiences and the city is able to benefit from all the studies produced each year.”