Learn urban planning via…Lego 

WHAT if you can learn the rudiments of building great cities in a day using mock techniques with childlike simplicity?

You can now do so with UrbanPlan.

UrbanPlan is a case-based educational program of the Urban Land Institute (ULI). It was developed in 2002 in partnership with the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a team of high-school economics and government teachers, as a learning-based module. UrbanPlan was the institute’s first foray into the K to 12 classroom, by giving high-school students a taste of the real-world complexities of real estate.

The mission of UrbanPlan is to create a more sophisticated level of discourse among local stakeholders involved in land-use decisions through education of tomorrow’s voters, neighbors, community leaders, public officials and land-use professionals so, together, we can create better communities.

UrbanPlan has reached over 43,000 high-school and university students since 2003 in the United States. It has been launched in the United Kingdom in 2014, and has since then been adapted in secondary schools and several universities in other parts of Europe, such as Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland.

For the first time in Asia, UrbanPlan will be taught in classrooms. ULI Philippines will be among the first National Councils in Asia to incorporate UrbanPlan in the senior high school and university curriculum.

“It’s an excellent way to introduce real estate to students,” said Raymond Rufino, the national chairman of ULI Philippines, and one of the main advocates of bringing the program to the Philippine shore, together with his father Charlie Rufino, chairman for Mission Advancement.

High-school juniors and seniors, and university students studying land use who are focused on disciplines in business, city planning, real estate, architecture or law will be able to benefit from the UrbanPlan experience. During the project, students develop a financial proforma and physical model of their plan for an urban infill, mixed-use redevelopment project, and present their proposal to a mock City Council that awards the development contract to the winning team. Over the course of the class, volunteers who are local land-use professionals interact with the students on a regular basis.

In a study after the pilot run of UrbanPlan in the UK, 88 percent of students reported a better understanding of the property or real-estate development process, while 83 percent said they came away with a greater understanding of careers in the property industry.

In the classroom, students will form development teams and respond to an RFP to redevelop a 5½ block blighted site in a fictional city. Each team member assumes one of five roles: financial analyst, marketing director, city liaison, neighborhood liaison and site planner. Through the process, students discover the dynamic fundamental challenges of development: how market forces (supply and demand, availability of capital, risk/reward expectations, etc.) clash and collaborate with nonmarket forces (regulation, politics, advocacy groups, etc.) to create the built environment.

These roles will allow the students to develop a deeper understanding of the various stakeholders in the development process and the challenge of reconciling their often-competing agendas to create a well-designed, market-responsive, financeable and buildable project.

Volunteers are an essential component of UrbanPlan. They make a significant impact in the classroom with minimal demands on their schedule. Through the support of volunteers who are professionals in all disciplines of land use and development, selected for their depth of experience and knowledge, the program has become successful throughout different countries in the world.

“UrbanPlan helped my students internalize the complex, interrelated, economic, and political aspects of public/private development. The UrbanPlan roles forced students to experience the impact of each development decision and trade-off through the lens of a particular stakeholder: developer, politician, neighborhood group. That will have a positive impact on the communities where they will work,” said Hilary Nixon, an assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning from San Jose State University.

Trained volunteers serve in the classroom as facilitators, who challenge the students to think more critically about the UrbanPlan issues and the specific responsibilities of their respective roles, and as members of a mock City Council for final student presentations.

Facilitators draw deeply on professional experience and are rewarded by creating excitement and inspiration in students for the urban development process. Effective facilitators are real-estate professionals who have development project experience, patience to question rather than coach, and have the time and willingness to learn the details of the UrbanPlan project case. Facilitators meet twice with the student teams during the semester.

Mock City Councils composed of four or five volunteers, on the other hand, will challenge the students’ work as if in an actual City Council meeting. The Council assess whether the proposals are responsive to the RFP, grounded in the facts of the UrbanPlan case, and consistent with reality. This is a fun volunteer opportunity, particularly for those who have sat on the other side of the table. At the closing of the semester, the mock City Council will then award the contract to the winning team.

UrbanPlan is the best way for local real-estate professionals to give back to the community, as it is a proven way to educate high-school and college students in the intricacies of real-estate ownership, development and planning. Volunteers should have at least five years of work experience, have worked in the real-estate and land-use industries, and are ready to commit to a one-day training session and a minimum one hour of classroom time per semester. Being an UrbanPlan volunteer allows the individual to make an impact on the next generation of citizens through professional development and knowledge sharing. This also allows volunteers to network with like-minded professionals and to experience a rewarding engagement with students. Volunteers who will be accepted into the program are invited to a one-day training session for hands-on experience with the program and tools.

UrbanPlan will have its pilot run in Manila this third trimester in partnership with the De La Salle University. Interested volunteers can take part in the program during the volunteer training happening on March 1 and 2.

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