Equity In Practice

Student-Led University Course Challenges Conventional Planning Processes

Young planners, either students in planning programs or new professionals getting established in the field, are bringing a more intentional approach to advancing equity in practice. Taking tangible steps to repair, reinvest in, and improve communities impacted by systemic inequities has become a focus for young planners, but what methods and experiences can new planners use to guide them? At the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, a group of students developed a course that explores progressive tactics and ways to implement radical change for the better.

Equity-focused Planning Course Success

Radical Planning was a course conceived in the spirit of approaching planning from a community-based, equity-first perspective that strategically challenges the traditional, often top-down system for creating the built environment. Learning from planning practitioners, particularly those engaged in community engagement, social justice, and coalition building, is integral for new planners looking to prioritize equity in their planning practice.

We met with Professor Larissa Larsen, recent University of Michigan graduates Katie Economou and Kira Barsten, and current students Vaidehi Shah and Griffin Sproul about how the Radical Planning course was conceived and the outcome of the inaugural offering. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DINA WALTERS: Before [the 2022-2023] academic year, Radical Planning as a course was not offered at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. How did the idea to establish the course come about?

KATIE ECONOMOU: In short, a couple of students were feeling a bit frustrated with some curriculum content. We wanted to expand the conversation around alternative planning approaches that emphasize community-led initiatives and diverge from hierarchical, top-down models. We also wanted a stronger understanding of how deep-rooted issues — like the legacy of chattel slavery and the systematic erasure of indigenous communities and culture — have profoundly shaped the construction and functioning of cities across the U.S. This was brought to our attention because we had a Sojourner Truth Fellow (Britt Redd) come in to teach a one-credit class.

That class was called Advancing Racial Equity. [Redd is] the principal planner for Indianapolis and they're also one of our guest speakers, but they did this amazing lecture on the unseen roots of American history and how that influenced urban planning and the design and build of cities up until the present. That was kind of a big wake-up call for a couple of us. We thought, oh, I wish this was in our course curriculum. What can we do to push for this and have it be more involved because [Advancing Racial Equity] was a small class and it wasn't mandated? I believe there were only about 20 students enrolled. We wanted to get this out to other folks in the program. So we did some polling and surveys to see if this would be of interest.

KIRA BARSTEN: Essentially, we offered initial polling to see if other students in the program felt similarly that there were these gaps and if they'd be interested in taking a course. At the time, we called it Radical Planning without really any further attention to what the name should be.

Folks were interested in it so we created a draft course proposal. We spent a lot of time thinking about what the structure could look like in terms of the logistics and what the credit structure would look like. I tried to make it as easy to say yes as possible. Then myself, Katie, and two other students set up a meeting with Larissa Larson, our department chair, who pitched this and Larissa said that sounds great, go for it.

Then Katie and another student, who has since graduated, were hired by Larissa to be summer research assistants and essentially worked on getting this course off the ground. They did a lot of participatory workshops over the summer with students to get ideas for speakers and topics and had a lot of coffee chats with students, faculty, and practitioners in the area to talk about the course. They spent a lot of the summer kind of laying the groundwork for the course.

LARISSA LARSEN: At that time, I was the chair of our program and the students made a compelling case for a new class. The more I explained to faculty and administration what we were doing, the more they were enthusiastic about it. They recognized that students needed more direct conversations about hard issues, and we all needed more practitioners to give us examples of how to do these things. The students were the leaders and I helped with the process and funding.

The course had 11 guest speakers from different parts of the country. It was an amazing feat of coordination. We had over 60 students and they came from at least four different colleges across [University of Michigan].

WALTERS: Can you speak to the outcome in terms of what kind of feedback you've gotten from the student community? Or even from the faculty community on campus?

The team at the University of Michigan that spearheaded the creation of the Radical Planning course. Photo provided.

The team at the University of Michigan that spearheaded the creation of the Radical Planning course. Photo provided.

ECONOMOU: We held a participatory end-of-semester workshop to reflect and review what we accomplished. We had a pre-course survey and a post-course survey, and we compared some of the results. In that workshop, we asked students to draw on a couple of buckets for the course, particularly with content, speakers, events; what they loved, what they didn't love so much, and what they'd like to see next year.

A lot of students valued having practitioners in the class, and especially practitioners coming from really different backgrounds and being interdisciplinary. We had guest speakers who worked in social work and planning, design and planning, and environment and planning. Students appreciated having those topics represented, as well as having a visual representation of folks doing radical work in the field and sharing their experiences and lessons on how to get there. Students found that to be a tangible way of understanding what radical planning looks like in the world of urban planning.

Normally we're learning about reviewing RFPs and all the process-driven elements instead of how to implement an environmental review or create a community engagement plan. How can we go above and beyond and center the community? Students appreciated that.

Another chunk of feedback we got is that students liked the flexibility of the course. We had an in-person and asynchronous option for students who might not be able to come at that specific time or need to attend virtually sometimes. This is particularly helpful for non-traditional students or folks who had a course conflict because they could go back and watch all the lecture recordings and review the materials. They found that to be super helpful, especially with COVID-19 and changing learning formats.

BARSTEN: We tried to make the course have as few barriers as possible. There were very few assignments. We had started with making attendance mandatory, but then it seemed like the attendance piece was getting in the way. Eventually, we did away with the attendance piece, we wanted people to come and feel like they could just show up and sit and listen for an hour and a half once a week and learn because that was the main focus. We wanted people to show up and have it be a positive experience. People appreciated that, a lot of students told us that they appreciated the opportunity to just show up and not have to think about taking notes and studying and writing papers and just being able to experience and learn. I think the discussion piece that we're planning for next year will tie in nicely with that.

Another thing that was interesting about this being a student-led course in terms of feedback is we had our formal feedback channels, such as the surveys, but we are also friends with a lot of the people in our cohort and that was helpful to get more of an informal understanding of how other people are feeling about the class. It led to tangible changes, like no longer mandating attendance. We had originally been requiring people to make discussion posts if they missed a class, and we heard that that was a bit onerous. Having [the course] be a more informal student-led thing also helped us to shift the course and remind ourselves that although this is something we're passionate about, and we're very proud of, at the end of the day, we want people to come and learn and have a good time. We don't need to make it more serious than it needs to be.

WALTERS: If there are other students in planning elsewhere, or faculty even in planning, who are interested in establishing a similar course to Radical Planning, what recommendations would you have in terms of what you've learned from your experience?

VAIDEHI SHAH: I think a very important part of seeing this course now almost being institutionalized as a part of the curriculum here at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning was that the structure for the student leads was conceptualized that there is an equal representation of students from both first and second years. This helped create an institutional memory and also fostered a spirit of continuing this important course and approach to learning at Taubman, even though we (first-year students) were not in college when Britt Redd's Advancing Racial Equity class was offered.

Another important contributor to creating this institutional memory was also that we always involved students in almost every step of the course. So the entire student body could participate in suggestions for topics offered through the course, and guest speaker recommendations, which made everyone I guess feel that they were all a part of making this course happen and could get something from this course that aligns with what they see themselves doing after they graduate.

LARSEN: The students put together a very condensed overview of the class so each speaker has a page and what we learned from them so we could help communicate who came, what did we, and what we got out of it.

About the Course

Radical Planning will be offered again this winter at Taubman College for Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. The course for this year will require enrollment in two sections. The first section will focus on six speakers, discussions, and reading; the second section will focus on developing case studies of equity in practice, which will be assembled into a publication at the end of the academic year.

Anyone interested in developing a similar offering and looking for more information can contact the Taubman Radical Planning team.

Top image: E+ Drazen_

About the author
Dina Walters is part of APA's prioritize equity team.

November 15, 2023

By Dina Walters