Seeking diverse leaders to plan better communities for the future

October 26, 2015

By Matthew Kredell

Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa delivered the keynote address at USC Price’s Diversity in Planning workshop on Oct. 9. (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

USC Price School of Public Policy faculty, staff and alumni practitioners introduced college students and recent college graduates from underrepresented backgrounds to the field of urban planning, emphasizing the importance of the field and providing them with information on how to pursue a Master in Planning degree.

The workshop, held on Oct. 9 at Lewis Hall, was part of USC Price’s Diversity in Planning Program.

Special guest Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Mayor of Los Angeles who now is a Professor of the Practice of Policy at USC Price, welcomed the students by noting that planning wasn’t done well for a long time in Los Angeles, which has become known for being a city of sprawl.

“What we did was dismantle our public transportation system and built freeways, and we put housing far out, jobs in the inner city,” Villaraigosa said. “Most cities growing smart have housing next to jobs next to shopping next to recreation, so you don’t have to get in a car. As cities get denser, we need the urban planners – people like all of you – to help us think about how we grow smart, how we grow green, how we grow together.”

Reflecting the communities you serve

Associate Professor Liz Falletta shares her experiences with students. (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

USC Price Associate Professor Liz Falletta told the students that she started out as an architect, working on housing projects as a designer and real estate developer. From that perspective, she gained an admiration for urban planners and broadened her perspective “to understand urban planners as essential collaborators with architects and developers in the building of cities.”

“Planners really are the people who look out for the public interests in the private development of our cities,” Falletta said.

Looking out for the public interest requires that planners be representative of the public they serve, which is why USC Price offered the Diversity in Planning workshop for the second straight year. Twenty-nine students attended from 18 universities, with two coming from out of state. The workshop and the Price School’s Diversity in Planning Program are made possible by gifts from FivePoint Communities, Newhall Land, Fehr and Peers, WHA Architects, the USC Center for Economic Development, and individual members of the USC Price planning program advisory board.

“For any individual, I think the way you conceptualize a problem always depends in part on your past experiences and the nature of the community you came from,” said Marlon Boarnet, vice dean for academic affairs and director of graduate programs in urban planning at USC Price. “We can’t succeed as a field unless we are producing professionals who in aggregate reflect the very broad diversity of the communities we see here in California, in the U.S. and worldwide.”

Emerging career opportunities

From left: MPL alumni Jennifer Trotter, Jesus Herrera and Claudia Preciado (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

USC Price MPL alumni Jesus Herrera, Claudia Preciado, Elenna Salcido and Jennifer Trotter, as well as veteran practitioner Christopher Jackson, took part in a panel discussion on careers in planning, moderated by USC Price adjunct faculty member Cliff Graves.

They presented an optimistic view for the future of the field and illustrated how there is a wide range of job opportunities when it comes to planning.

Herrera and Jackson are on the public side, with Herrera a regional planning assistant for the L.A. County Department of Regional Planning, and Jackson the department manager for the Economic and Community Development at the City of Inglewood. Preciado, Salcido and Trotter are in the private sector, with Preciado focusing on transportation at Remix Software, Salcido working transportation and environmental projects at STV Incorporated, and Trotter a public involvement specialist at the engineering and environmental services firm Burns & McDonnell.

“It’s amazing to see such a good, diverse crowd here because we need you in planning,” said Preciado, who noted that an older field of predominantly White men in transit planning is reaching retirement age. “We need you to be able to connect with communities in ways people haven’t in the past. There is a market for you. There are jobs out there. We need you. There is so much work to be done.”

Trojan network

Students work on a housing development project as part of the workshop (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

The MPL alumni spoke about the benefits they received from attending USC Price — preparing them to work in Southern California, getting them hands-on experience with the required internship and providing critical connections.

“USC has a really strong network,” Herrera said. “If you’re going to work in L.A., a lot of the people who run businesses, private firms or work in local government are from USC. My boss is an alum of USC. Once I passed the test the county requires, he’s the one who pushed for me to get the job. How did I meet him? At a past USC Price Networking Night.”

Salcido added that for both of her internships while in the MPL program – first for the L.A. Department of Transportation and then for the Port of Long Beach – one of the people who interviewed her was a USC graduate. Now at STV, an engineering and architectural consulting firm, her supervisor is also an alum of USC.

Real-world insights

Price undergraduate student Sarahi Ortega, right (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

Sarahi Ortega, an undergraduate student in the sustainable planning tract at USC Price, said that, “The most important part of the workshop for me was learning from the planning professionals. Hearing how they came into this field, their experiences and how they have dealt with problems was invaluable. It was especially good to hear that the profession of planning is thriving and that there are jobs out there for planners.”

The workshop also included a presentation from the USC Price Recruitment and Admission’s Office and a real-world group planning exercise for the Jordan Downs housing development in the Watts area of Los Angeles.

“The Jordan Downs activity really shed light on the issues in taking a community that is fairly low-income, has challenges such as crime and poverty, and trying to improve it and turn it into something that hopefully will start an economic engine in the region so that these folks will have a better life,” said Daniel Enz, a political science major at UC Berkeley. “It gave me a better understanding of what I would face as a planner.”