The New New Urbanists

Kids can be planners too. That’s the philosophy of a group of Los Angeles teachers who just started their own pilot school organized around the unlikely theme of urban planning. The East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy of Urban Planning and Design held its first classes in September on the crisp new campus of Esteban Torres High School, in the heavily Latino East L.A. It’s a neighborhood where, the teachers think, students can particularly benefit from the skills and values of the planning profession.

For this wonky-sounding school is not only about zoning and parking minimums. Teachers say they’re easing into the broad and complex world of urban planning from a more abstract starting point. “For our students, at this stage, ‘urban planning’ is not even a term that they use. We’re mainly talking about community,” says Martin Buchman, an English teacher who led the effort behind the school and the curriculum. Buchman and his colleagues felt that urban planners’ emphasis on community development and public participation was especially relevant to local students and their families. East L.A. has a history of activism (in 1968, it was the site of student walkouts and rallies for civil rights and better school conditions) coupled with a largely immigrant population that’s typically alienated from the political process.

None of the teachers, however, have any formal training in urban planning. To help with the more specific aspects of the discipline,
they have James Rojas, a 20-year veteran of L.A. planning who has been advising them on the curriculum and lecturing. He’s also looking
to host workshops where students build and discuss models of cities and urban environments. “The problem is that a lot of planning is theoretical and kind of boring, and geared toward higher education,” Rojas says. “I think a hands-on approach will be an easy way to engage [the students] in this topic that they otherwise wouldn’t really be interested in.”

Meanwhile, the 16 teachers at the academy still have to figure out how they’ll integrate planning themes and concepts into the state-required course work for this roughly 375-student school. But since the field is so multi-disciplinary, they aren’t too worried about finding ways to get those concepts into the classroom. “What’s really nice about urban planning is that there are so many different aspects that the students can focus on,” says the principal, Maricela Ramirez. (In addition to regular high school courses on history and science, the academy also offers electives in geography, film, and architecture, which has students creating 3-D models with Google SketchUp.)

The Renaissance Academy joins two other urban planning–focused high schools in the United States: the New York City Academy of Urban Planning, which opened in 2003, and Milwaukee’s School for Urban Planning and Architecture, founded in 2007 by the University of Wisconsin. Teachers in East L.A. aren’t assuming that their kids will all go on to become professional planners, but they do look at the field’s multidisciplinary nature as good preparation for a variety of careers.
As Michael Leavy, an English teacher, says, “For people who want to collaborate across the disciplines, it’s a natural choice.”

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