Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Urban Plan – Democracy in Training

Dateline: 7:06 pm January 27, 2017 Filed under:

I celebrated inauguration day last week by observing democracy in action. “Democracy in training” is probably the more apt phrase. The Minnesota chapter of the Urban Land Institute has been working with Roseville High School for more than a decade with their Urban Plan program, and last Friday seven student groups presented their RFP responses to the mayor and city council, and a winner was awarded the project.

Here’s how it works. Students are put in groups of five and given a map of a redevelopment area in a city. Using oversized Legos, their task is to determine what uses go where, a mix of housing, retail, offices, and green space. The five students have unique roles, including site planner, marketing director, financial analyst, city liaison and neighborhood liaison, and like in the real world, outside forces make demands of those five that often conflict with each other. Compromise must occur.

The role of ULI members is twofold – facilitator and jury. I’ve volunteered several times as facilitator, and we visit the class early in their process. Our job is to get the groups thinking. Why did you choose to build a QMart (fictitious Walmart or SuperTarget)? How is your office absorption? Is your plan inspired by real world places you like? How is your ROI? What is it like to walk down 9th Avenue in your development? Are the neighborhood groups happy? (Hint: they never are!) The idea with the facilitators is professionals in the real estate industry use their real world experience to ask provocative questions, get the students to understand there are no right answers, and arrive at compromises and best possible outcomes.

The jury is a small group of professional colleagues who stand in as mayor and city council. On jury day, each group presents their blocks on the map and development proposal, each group member speaking from their perspective, and the city council and mayor are allowed to pepper the students with questions. The presentations are important, and it’s fascinating to watch future leaders find their voice, but it’s the questioning that really cuts through the B.S. Watching them reasonably defend their decisions, like why the park is so small, why they chose to build a tall tower that might shadow the existing neighborhood, or why they feel it is necessary to add a police substation next to the homeless shelter, is fascinating. Responses range from smug or overly simplistic to researched and elegantly defended to just made up, and they can make or break a team’s chances, kind of like the real world.

At the end, a winner is declared, and a good mayor and council explain each team’s positives and negatives, a good faith effort to teach. Urban Plan is an effective tool for learning how to work together, compromise, and be leaders. It teaches democracy. Plus, who doesn’t like to play with Legos? Watching these kids lay down creative plans, compromise and revise, then stand up in front of real adults asking real questions is inspiring. It gives me hope.

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