Students study Baldwin Park. Photo by Judy Watson Tracy.

Director of the Masters of Planning in Civic Urbanism Program Bruce Stephenson gives students a tour of the New Urbanist community of Baldwin Park in Orlando, Florida. Photo by Judy Watson Tracy.

Rethinking the Town

Master of Planning in Civic Urbanism

By Leigh Brown Perkins

The timing is ideal, the location is all but perfect, and the subject is as current as it can possibly get. It’s hard to imagine a better time in history to add a Master of Planning in Civic Urbanism degree program to Rollins’ graduate curriculum.

“We’ve had 60 years of development predicated on the idea of cheap oil, cheap land, and cheap mortgages,” said Bruce Stephenson, director of the program and professor of environmental studies. “Programs that still teach from that model aren’t in touch with reality. Students want livable cities, not more subdivisions and highways.”

• Anticipated enrollment for Fall 2011: 50 students

• Percentage who already work in planning: 33

• Number of New Urbanist developments planned or under construction in the U.S.: 4,000

• Growth of Orange County’s population, 2000-09: 21.2 percent

Among the first to enroll in the program last fall was Tim Maslow, director of Keep Winter Park Beautiful and the City’s green certification process. “In the very first class, we went from planning in the Renaissance all the way to the New Urbanism communities of today, so unlike other planning programs, it’s more design driven than policy driven. It has extremely innovative courses.”

Like Maslow, a third of the students are already employed in the planning profession. One is Matt Boerger, who works for the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council. He was drawn to the program’s more modern take on long-range planning. “As a practicing planner, I have become used to measuring things, but you need to be able to gauge quality as well as quantity. I didn’t want more technical information. I wanted the art of planning, not the science.”

So it appealed to Boerger that students are required to complete a drawing course, a first for many of them, so that they are able to present their vision of a project. “Being able to draw brings so much credibility to you when you’re sitting at a table with a group of developers,” Boerger said. “It’s one of the main reasons I wanted to do this program.”

Stephenson said city planning was originally an art form (the archived plans are truly works of art, on par with museum masterpieces) and its future must honor its artistic heritage. “There is a quality of design that has been lost,” he said. “Our students need to understand that planning has an artistic form.”

But there are practical matters, too, such as pesky zoning boards and city commissions. That’s where George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Professor of Politics Rick Foglesong steps in. Foglesong is known for the seminal book Planning the Capitalist City, which is required reading in most urban planning courses. “It’s so easy to get all revved up about sustainable communities, but then you have to keep the regulators in mind and remember that local governments don’t necessarily see things in the same way you do,” Maslow said. “That’s the pragmatic angle.”

Boerger said any planning degree that overlooks politics is shortsighted. “You can believe you can create a utopian society, but it’s not realistic if you can’t get the mayor to sign off on it,” he said. “Adding the political element to the program makes it so much more realistic.”

This is why Winter Park makes the ideal location for such a program. The city has a historical downtown, designed with pre-automobile lifestyles in mind, and a number of newer developments that fit the Urbanism model, as well as a reputation for having a politically active (and vocal) citizenry. “We’ve got this amazing connection to Winter Park, which is the perfect laboratory, and we’re on a campus that’s the product of a quality of design that no longer exists,” Stephenson said. “It’s literally all right here for us to study. Students can clearly see what works. And what doesn’t work.”

Prior to pitching the program to the College, Foglesong and Stephenson worked with three focus groups of private market developers, public planners, and consultants to pinpoint the ideal elements of a master’s degree in civic urbanism.

Foglesong said their findings were clear: “We learned that Rollins is, indeed, the right place, it’s the right time, and we have the right approach.”

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