Innovations in Planning education

Posted: August 19, 2020

Instructors in CRPLAN 2110 are using a novel and intensive approach to teach undergraduate students how to design innovative cities and regions. Using the computer simulation technology Cities: Skylines, students create a city from scratch—building from the ground up an urban environment that harnesses planning-focused sectors such as economic development, housing, community development and transportation.  

Kareem Usher with student
Asst. Prof. Usher helps a student with computer simulation technology

"At the time I was a planning student there were limited options for technology in planning instruction. ArcGIS was basically the only option," said City and Regional Planning Assistant Professor Kareem Usher on the popular platform for working with maps and geographic information.

City and Regional Planning Assistant Professor of Practice Don Leonard, who co-teaches the course with Usher, indicates that Cities: Skylines is a new technology that allows students to understand the complex interdependencies that govern planning sectors by involving them as the chief decision-maker. "Municipal government is comprised of different actors, such as city planners, area commissions, city councils, and the mayor's office," said Leonard. "In Cities: Skylines, all these bodies that participate in the decision-making process are collapsed into the simulation's tool kit, mouse, and dashboard. Each student has exceptional agency to develop the vision of his or her own city."

Before students can begin creating cities, they must learn the elements that shape the urban environment. Offered as an introductory-level course, CRPLAN 2110 provides a strong foundation through an overview of planning history, tools and both evolving and competing theories. "We offer a mixed-method approach in the course around three interdependent pedagogies—the lecture, fieldwork and the computer simulation," commented Leonard.

The course opens with lectures that cover the big sectors of planning, such as housing, social justice, environmental sustainability, urban design, economic development and transportation. Students then study and query these components through fieldwork and team blogging. "Walking tours are a valuable way to make sense of cities and towns," commented Usher. "During these excursions, I highlight the following elements: landmarks, pathways, edges—or where buildings and streets align, and nodes, which examine intersections of major areas. Students then take what they see and incorporate these elements in their city-building simulations."

Don Leonard

Once operating within the computer simulation, students see first-hand how their decisions are subject to forces and interdependencies across myriad systems that include water, housing, energy, and transportation. "We challenge the students in the simulation to identify those strategies that allow a city to create a unique sense of place," said Leonard.

As city populations grow, an increasing tax base provides more resources for a student to develop the urban experience. But residents can also express satisfaction and dissatisfaction with their quality of life. "If a residential zone is created too near a landfill and citizens leave the city as a result of this development, the tax base is reduced and a student has fewer resources to grow her city," commented Usher. 

"There is a bit of a delicate balance between developing a city and keeping residents happy," commented Leonard, who indicated that the simulation allows students to fine-tune their cities as its size and services expand. "You can see the issue of environmental sustainability come into play if a city is reliant on coal plants as a cheap method of providing power. This may result in increased pollution and unhappy residents, but the simulation allows you to evolve your industries and in doing so clean up a city's environmental impact."

CRPLAN 2110: Creating Innovative Cities and Regions is a core course in the planning section's bachelor degree program. Usher indicated that he is aware of many students who have decided to major or minor in planning as a result of taking the course.

Leonard offered that the course also sees students who are outside the discipline but are curious about city and regional planning: "It allows non-planning majors to experience the built environment with a new lens."

by Knowlton School of Architecture communications staff

Categories: FacultyCollege