Alumni Spotlight: Chris Steins, MPL ’95
By Nicole Zerunyan
A graduate of the USC Price School’s Master of Planning program, Chris Steins is the founder and CEO of the Los Angeles-based Internet consulting firm Urban Insight, Inc., and editor of Planetizen, the urban planning and development network.
A nationally recognized consultant in the field of technology and urban planning, Chris has worked with a broad range of clients in government, education and the private and nonprofit sectors. And, he previously served on the executive board of Urban Land Institute Los Angeles.
In 1997, he and a Price colleague launched Urban Insight, a technology consulting firm that plans, builds and operates websites — helping their clients apply technology to achieve business and social goals. Urban Insight also serves as the technical and editorial team behind the widely popular urban planning website, Planetizen.
Planetizen is a public-interest information exchange for the urban planning, design and development community. It is an online source for urban planning news, commentary, interviews, event coverage, book reviews, announcements, training and professional opportunities. Covering a breadth of planning, design and development issues, Planetizen provides a forum for healthy debate on topics ranging from transportation to global warming, architecture to infrastructure, housing and community development to historic preservation.
In addition, Chris previously served as an adjunct faculty member at the USC Price School from 2007 to 2011, where he taught a graduate course on technology and public participation. He currently serves as a lecturer at Cal Poly State University, where he teaches a graduate course on how to use web technologies to enhance planning and public participation.
How did the idea for Urban Insight and Planetizen come about?
A classmate from the Price School and I started Urban Insight with the idea of providing the latest demographic analysis techniques for planning. That business idea flopped, but positioned us in early 2000 to take advantage of the growth of the Web to launch a successful technology consulting company.
Today, Urban Insight provides expert web and mobile development services to some of the most important organizations in our region, like USC, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the City of Los Angeles.
Planetizen started off as a simple blog, and quickly took off. Within a few months, co-founder Abhijeet Chavan and I had thousands of visitors, and were tracking news around the United States; within a year, across the globe. Today, Planetizen is the most-visited urban planning website in the country.
Could you please describe the individual work of Urban Insight and Planetizen? Additionally, how do the two work together?
Urban Insight uses the latest technology to develop complicated websites, often focused on planning. For example, we’re working with the City of Los Angeles to build the city’s new web-based zoning system as part of the city’s first comprehensive zoning rewrite since 1950.
We use Planetizen as a real-life test bed to experiment with new community-building technologies for Urban Insight’s clients. For example, we recently launched Planetizen Courses, where we now offer over 60 hours of video training for planners on topics like SketchUp, Understanding the Census, Photoshop for Planners, Legal Issues for Form-Based Codes, Planning Ethics and dozens more. We add a new course every week.
What do you feel is your most important contribution to the field?
I’d like to think I’m following in the footsteps of leaders like Dr. William J. Mitchell (MIT), Dr. Jennifer Evans-Cowley (OSU), and Ken Snyder (CEO of PlaceMatters) to help pioneer the idea that there is market demand for helping our communities by combining technology and urban planning in innovative ways.
What do you consider to be the most rewarding aspect of your work?
I really enjoy meeting with our clients to hear about the challenges they are trying to solve, and figuring out how to connect planning and technology to solve those problems.
What do you find the most challenging?
As the father of twin 8-year old boys, I try very hard to find the right balance between having fun at work and enjoying time with my family.
When I’m lucky, the two overlap. For example, when my boys were younger, I realized that there were no children’s books about urban planning, so my colleague and I published one, called Where Things Are From Near to Far, the only children’s book about planning.
What skills and knowledge did you acquire as a graduate student at USC Price that you find beneficial in your work as Founder and CEO of Urban Insight and Planetizen?
My graduate experience at USC was fabulous. I was exposed to new ideas that have changed my view of the world. However – although it may sound odd – the most important skill I learned at USC Price was learning how to learn. Given the phenomenal rate of change in the field of technology, the ability to grasp, learn and adapt new concepts has enabled me to succeed. Urban planning and technology are not as different as one might expect.
During your time at USC Price, what did you like most? Was there anything or anyone who inspired you?
Professors like Dr. Peter Gordon challenged me to understand how I could use market-based thinking to make much more compelling arguments, which continues to serve me well today. Dr. Eric Heikkila and Dr. Martin Krieger introduced me to the exciting intersection of planning and technology, which has defined my career.