By Eric Ruble
Urban planning students at USC Price are designing site plans that could help address Southern California’s housing shortage.
In Community Development and Site Planning (PPD 623), master’s students conceptualized 10 different types of sites that could be converted to housing with a focus on equity, resilience and belonging. Their plans will be included in a design lookbook to provide guidance to cities trying to increase their housing supply.
The class is a collaboration between USC Price, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) and Studio One Eleven, a local architecture and urban design firm. Students were charged with testing land-use conversions throughout the SCAG region, which encompasses six counties: Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura. Before the winter break, staff from Studio One Eleven visited the class in-person to provide students with feedback on their drafts.
Making a difference while learning
Professor Liz Falletta designed PPD 623’s in-class experience to be hands-on and directly applicable to the real world. The site plan project may seem like an academic exercise – but it is so much more.
“Students’ work will help cities boost multifamily housing production of all types and sizes by creating a template for housing design on a variety of common site typologies seen across the SCAG region, from large underutilized sites in industrial areas to former gas station sites, to abandoned big box developments,” said Falletta, who is also the vice chair of USC Price’s Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis.
The sites are challenging to design and develop for a number of reasons; students have to contend with difficult dimensions, height and scale restrictions, and phased construction schedules.
“Most students come to the course without much experience with design tools and processes,” Falletta shared. “They usually make their way up the learning curve quickly and produce projects more sophisticated than one might expect.”
Using SketchUp and Adobe Illustrator, students created colorful renderings of their site plans to demonstrate the transformation of underused properties into exciting residential spaces.
Steph Wong, a second-year master of urban planning (MUP) student, weighed-in on the experience. “Mastering those [skills] while trying to have a good idea at the same time is pretty hard, but it’s a good challenge.”
Wong lauded Falletta’s approach of having both professionals and other students evaluate the projects.
“I think [Professor Falletta] does a great job of teaching us how to contribute to each other’s work through a critique,” Wong said. “It’s something we need to learn how to do as planners, but I think we all need to learn how to do in general.”
“The whole class feels like a workshop,” said Josh Albertson, also a second-year MUP student. “You’re learning with your hands, drawing and trying different stuff for 15 weeks. The hands-on approach has been really cool.”
The planning students also learned about the tangible work of architects and developers, both of whom they will be working with regularly after graduating from Price.
“This class is very topical, it’s very practical in the sense that we are taught to work with architects and developers – how to speak in their language,” said Moses Hsieh, a first-year MUP student. “It makes me more competitive as a professional and more relatable as a coworker.”
“Because urban planning is such an interdisciplinary field, learning to talk to real estate developers – learning how to read plans and to pinpoint areas where we have common jurisdiction – is very important. I want to know what a façade means, I want to know what the regulations for parking are,” Hsieh said.
Navigating hidden planning challenges
Albertson said that while planners frequently discuss the need for affordable housing, this class has helped him understand the massive effort it takes to bring a concept to fruition.
“This is the first time I’m learning about all the different things you need to think about when designing a project and what makes it work,” he said.
Albertson’s site, a golf course he was tasked with changing into a housing development, presented several obstacles, including the construction phasing.
“For a project of that scale, not everything happens at the same time. It’s a matter of what gets built first and why that gets built first,” he said.
With the sites offering such diverse sizes, shapes and settings, students were also able to learn from their peers’ projects and see how they approached problems.
Students say the course helped them think about things they otherwise did not consider. When discussing their projects with Studio One Eleven, for example, they learned about the importance of setbacks, sidewalks widths and where to place driveways.
“I hope students come away from the course with a deeper understanding of the nuts and bolts of housing design, but in a planning and development context,” Falletta said. “In their future roles as urban leaders, I want them to be able to have meaningful conversations about housing across all three disciplines.”
Wong said the class has helped her understand the complications that sometimes prevent an innovative project from being realized. She summed up her experience well. “It’s so easy to identify a good site, but it’s really hard to create one.”