UrbanPlan Program Aims to Inspire a More Diverse Generation of Planners

Urban planning can be a bit of a mystery, but especially in disenfranchised communities. That is changing in the Ferguson-Florissant School District where the Urban Land Institute St. Louis is teaching students how land use decisions impact their communities. It’s called UrbanPlan.

Now approaching its third year, UrbanPlan has engaged more than 100 students in hands-on urban planning projects, empowering them to have a voice in how development takes place. UrbanPlan is part of the Urban Land Institute’s Equitable Communities Initiative launched in response to three calls to action by the Ferguson Commission including prioritizing transit-oriented development, building healthy affordable housing and stabilizing middle-market neighborhoods. The institute is uniquely suited to address these issues with a membership comprised of urban planners, financiers, architects, real estate developers, legal and accounting professionals, and builders.

The UrbanPlan curriculum teaches students about the trade-offs, economics and other issues that shape realistic land use solutions to vexing urban growth challenges. More than 40 volunteers are trained to facilitate small group discussions among students as they work in teams to develop a responsible land-use project. The curriculum culminates in a presentation of a development proposal by each student team to a “City Council” comprised of Urban Land Institute volunteers.

“ULI is charting a much-needed pathway for a more diverse generation of urban planners and real estate professionals,” said Dr. Sarah L. Coffin, associate professor and urban plan and development program director at Saint Louis University. “More importantly it is empowering those in our underserved and often forgotten neighborhoods to engage in and guide more socially responsible land use decisions to energize their communities.” The effort to broaden diversity in real estate development will be further energized with ULI’s Real Estate Diversity Initiative (REDI) this fall to advance the careers of women and minority professionals.

The fractures in our community detailed in the Ferguson Commission have led to a profound introspection by ULI’s membership. For the St. Louis region to thrive, we must go beyond traditional urban planning and community development strategies and embrace the following:

• Promoting racial equity and investment in disenfranchised communities.

• Ensuring buy in and accountability to the affected communities.

• Embracing only viable and actionable strategies.

• Respecting limitations on funding sources to build projects.

• Fully considering and understanding what kind of development is “right for a place.”

• Building on successes to energize St. Louis as an epicenter of change, both locally and nationally.

UrbanPlan and REDI are just the education components to ULI’s Equitable Communities Initiative. ULI, with the assistance of the Clark-Fox Foundation, created an ecosystem map to better understand who is working on development in communities in Ferguson and the Promise Zone to engage those who have been traditionally disconnected from land use decisions. ULI is also creating a place-based map detailing neighborhood redevelopment areas, TIF districts, public transit routes, greenways, and commercial developments in progress, framed by demographic data reflecting the racial equity lens. The maps will be leveraged to analyze, debate, and strategize on how to get key redevelopment projects done. Additionally, ULI is poised to deploy its Technical Assistance Panels (TAP) program to further assist in identifying development areas, engage with neighborhood stakeholders, and help develop actionable development plans that the community can begin to take to the market.

It is an ambitious collaborative effort and the largest undertaking ever by the St. Louis ULI chapter. But we believe St. Louis has an incredible opportunity to set a new vision for what we want our neighborhoods to be so prosperity for all ripples throughout our region.

Chip Crawford is chair of the Urban Land Institute — St. Louis District Council and a managing director at Lamar Johnson Collaborative.


By Chip Crawford