Equity In Practice

Empowering the Next Generation of Planners

The planning profession is expected to grow by 4 percent by 2032. An ongoing challenge faced by the planning profession is outreach to and recruiting young, diverse students into the field.

A general lack of awareness about planning as a career is the primary culprit; many students are not taught the accessibility and impact of planning in their immediate environment. Because of this, young people, especially people of color, overlook planning as a potential occupation.

Planning Challenge

In Boston, two institutions of higher learning are working to tackle this issue head-on. In 2021, the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), recognizing the lack of diversity amongst their planners and a need for more professionals in the field, decided to take action.

BPDA directed funding to the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB) to create a program intended to ignite interest in urban planning among students of color. Kenneth Reardon, professor and chair of Urban Planning and Community Development, was tasked with overseeing the program's development.

Reardon partnered with Ruben Flores, special projects manager at Roxbury Community College (RCC), and together they focused on the diverse and historically underserved community of Roxbury to recruit students. Their collaboration aimed to bridge the gap between academic institutions and local communities, offering opportunities for underrepresented individuals to explore and pursue careers in urban planning.

Through targeted outreach and tailored programs, they sought to empower young people from all backgrounds to engage with the field and contribute to the future of urban development in Boston.

Students presented their findings to family, peers, and friends. Photo by Michael Bryant Photography.

Students presented their findings to family, peers, and friends. Photo by Michael Bryant Photography.

Planning Solution

The Summer Program in Urban Planning was launched with an information session at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, just one-half mile from RCC. One hundred and fifty students attended, with 56 taking applications afterward. In the summer of 2022, 17 students, under the guidance of Reardon, Flores, and colleagues, learned how environmental factors impact a community by working in the field to assess extreme heat conditions in the Roxbury area.

The program sought to take students out of the classroom and into the built environment with a hands-on approach to help students understand the scope of planning and its influence. Students collected data, engaged with engineering, architecture, and history experts, and developed community engagement skills. This immersive experience aimed to inspire and empower the next generation of planners, providing them with real-world insights and fostering a deeper connection to their communities.

After the month-long program, students presented their findings, entitled "'Cool Roxbury': Lower Roxbury's Extreme Heat Challenges and Solutions," before an audience of family, neighbors, peers, and local politicians. The students "were allowed to work on a real problem that is of consequence to their family, friends, their churches, their schools, and that they were trusted with that…they saw that there is room in our society for them to gain a voice and to have an impact," Reardon says.

In addition to the month-long program, students enjoyed the opportunity to enroll in two UMB urban planning courses, tuition-free, as part of the university's Pre-collegiate Programs. Those who completed the courses were then invited to participate in a 12-week paid internship in planning, a chance to gain a foothold in the profession.

Students presented their findings after their immersive experience. Photo by Michael Bryant Photography.

Students presented their findings after their immersive experience. Photo by Michael Bryant Photography.


The success of the program in 2022 led to double enrollment in 2023, with students from four additional area high schools joining. Many of the inaugural students returned for a second year, a testament to the program's popularity. Again, students focused on concerns with extreme heat in the Roxbury area and presented planning solutions, such as the design for a cooling children’s playground on the campus of RCC.

The program rebranded as the High School Program in Urban Planning, will continue to evolve in 2024. As Professor Reardon prepares to retire, Flores will be joined by Professor Sowmya Balachandran of UMB; the team has planned year-round activities to keep program alumni connected, even as plans for a summer program have been paused due to unexpected financial delays. UMB has seven of the program's students enrolled in a section of Introduction to Urban Planning, at no cost, allowing them to earn three college credits.

UMB and RCC have also formalized an articulation agreement between the institutions, enabling students concentrating in urban sustainability at RCC to transfer to UMB and major in urban planning. These are valuable ways to create "a real pathway to get students of color interested in planning and thus make headway in increasing the ranks of planners of color here in greater Boston and beyond," says Flores.

The High School Program in Urban Planning is an excellent model for how academia and municipalities can work together to fortify the future of planning. Accessibility is imperative for underrepresented youth, and these institutions are combating barriers people of color often face.

Top image: Students present their findings as part of the Summer Program in Urban Planning. Photo by Michael Bryant Photography.

Dina Walters is part of APA's Prioritize Equity team.

May 10, 2024

By Dina Walters