Teaching Planning Through Great Places in America

When I transitioned from practicing planning to academia, I searched for the best way to introduce the study of planning to students already interested in the field and students simply looking for classes to meet general education credit needs.

While I always felt that general plans and zoning codes were exciting in their own right, I was skeptical that students just entering college would share the same enthusiasm for the profession I had come to love. In APA's Great Places in America, I found a hook that made the outcomes of good planning relatable and engaging.

I begin my introduction to city planning course each year with a lesson featuring Great Places designees. A ready-made tool for teaching the characteristics of well-planned spaces, Great Places brings into focus for students why we plan, for whom we plan and why what we do is about making communities of lasting value.

The Lesson Plan

Day one of my course starts with a review of local Great Places students may already be familiar with. We look at photos and video content available on planning.org to immerse ourselves in the places. In an all class exercise, I take suggestions from the group for locations in different states that they think may have been recognized.

Each time I find that without knowing what constitutes good planning, students are able to recognize a great place. It is amazing the interest and excitement that planning can engender in the students.

For their first assignment, I ask students to choose a neighborhood, street or public space they think is worthy of Great Places recognition. Using the characteristics and guidelines for which APA members select Great Places, students write and submit a mock suggestion outlining why their neighborhoods, streets, or public spaces should be named Great Places. In the end, they make their case to the class.

Even those students with little to no understanding of planning know that these are places where they want to live, work, and play. Students who choose to ultimately study planning know early on these are the existing places they want to help protect and the new places they want to help create.

Great Places provides an important window into the planning stories and people behind all of the places recognized, and an invaluable tool for those in the academic world.

Top image: Crowds fishing on the Concho River Walk in San Angelo, Texas — a 2017 Great Place in America. Photo courtesy City of San Angelo.

About the Author

M. Margo Wheeler, FAICP

Margo Wheeler is a lecturer in the Department of Geography, Planning, and Recreation at Northern Arizona University. Previously, she served as planning director in several California communities and the City of Las Vegas, and she retired as planning director of the City of Palm Springs in 2014.

October 24, 2017

By M. Margo Wheeler, FAICP