The Urban Land Institute (ULI), a world-wide real estate and land development organization, has rolled out this past year for its first time in Canada a project based learning programme for high school students called the 'Urban Plan'. Its purpose is to teach students about Planning, Development and Finance through a series of interactive lessons that culminate with student groups presenting a mock development proposal to volunteer industry professionals. A total of 222 students participated in this year’s Urban Plan programming in Toronto, with 35 volunteers clocking over 300 hours of course related programming.

“The mission of Urban Plan is to generate more positive and informed dialogue about land use at the local level through the education of students—our future voters, neighbours, public officials, and land use professionals.”

Students defend their development against a panel of volunteer industry professionals, image provided by ULI

We had a chance to chat with Richard Joy, Jen Sapowski and Alexandra Rybak from ULI Toronto, as well as Howard Cappadocia who helped champion the programme at one of the participating high schools in the City. Here’s what they had to say.

UT: So what is Urban Plan?

Alex: Urban Plan is a project based learning programme, that has students learn about the processes that go into the development of a fictional city. The programme was originally developed at UC Berkeley for university students, but then a lot of ULI district councils in the United States began introducing the programme to high schools. It focuses on the planning disciplines and business, and teaches high school students about the market and non-market forces that go into real estate development. Through a 15-hour curriculum, student groups respond to a hypothetical request for proposals (RFP) by constructing a mock development using Lego blocks, and present them to a volunteer panel of industry professionals.

UT: Have you found that students are eager to learn about and discuss urban issues and development practice?

Howard: I hosted this course with 30 female students over the course of the year. We weren't sure how it would work out at first, but I was blown away by how engaged my students were. It had great value: it’s a real world problem solving activity that is hands on and experiential for the kids. Even over the weeks, leading up to the provincial election, I had students asking me questions about candidates’ policies as they concerned urban development and commenting on different candidates approaches to affordable housing, and transit. This kind of talk wouldn’t have been triggered in a Grade 9 classroom before. It’s been amazing to see.

A development team from Loretto Abbey work together on their proposal, image provided by ULI & Loretto Abbey

UT: So how is the course programming delivered? Is it interactive?

Howard: The course is spontaneous but is ultimately taught through a series of classes where students use Lego blocks to learn about spatial planning, and to visualize their own development. This year, I hosted the programme with my Grade 9 geography class. Normally, the geography curriculum is split up into multiple units, so we fit the Urban Plan activities into the ‘People and Place’ portion of the course. Instead of spending all of the time dealing with things like settlement in Canada, we were able to dedicate the course towards urban issues. We slotted in 12 sessions into our regular course, and ended up hosting a few after school sessions.

UT: And how did it go with you and your students, Howard?

Howard: They loved it. I was blown away! They were so engaged and really taking their time to think about and understand what they were doing. In the last month, even after the programme has finished, I’d have students ask me about urban issues, or developments and updates they’d been watching on the news. They were really encouraged to start thinking about the City through the lens of a development team, focusing on efficient uses of space. The course really stuck with them.

Students create models of their mixed-use developments using lego blocks, image provided by ULI

UT: A big focus that I’ve been noticing in Toronto’s development trends recently is resilience and sustainability. This really seems to matter to community groups and voters. Are these themes approached in Urban Plan or thought about by students?

Howard: There are definitely elements of sustainability and resilient city-building built into the course. As well as teaching the students about the importance of green space in our urban environments, part of the culminating presentation includes the incorporation of green spaces into their proposals. Students have to consider the types of buildings they want to include and their orientation—are they near transit stops? Do they have green roofs? Do they adopt emission reducing elements?

Richard: It’s an interesting question and certainly something that will become more focal as the course develops in Canada. This is just the first year that Urban Plan has taken place in Toronto, so in some ways it’s still clear that there’s a kind of disconnect from Canadian-centric planning practice, as it differs from American planning where the Urban Plan programme began.

An example of the pro forma financial statements used by student developer groups, image provided by ULI

UT: What kind of skills do you think the course really gets students to hone?

Howard: The course really engages students to problem solve in a different way… and the judges on the presentation day really don’t go gentle with them! It was amazing to see the students in action, thinking and speaking like urbanists. But the interesting thing is that a lot of teachers said that some of their least motivated students were really responding well to the classes. I think the programme is really good in appealing to talents that aren’t exercised as much in regular classroom formats… but you can really see some unique skills drawn out of the students when they are presenting, being forced to think and defend their proposals on their feet, and to really dance with the questions they’re asked by the judges.

A student participant presenting his group's proposal to the panel, image provided by ULI

UT: Is the programme limited to the presentation of a hypothetical mixed use development? What kind of a focus is given to the role of public space, to parks and green space, to infrastructure or waterfront development?

Richard: The course culminates in a fairly self-contained end point, but seeing the presentations made me realize that there’s a lot of opportunity for the programme to lift off and go beyond the boundaries. As I mentioned before, the plan is to Canadianize the programme. The programme really reflects its American roots right now; things like parking requirements and the idea that you might do a first floor of parking in a proposed mixed-use development… that just isn’t very Canadian, but fairly typical of American planning.

Howard: Nevertheless, I think that almost served a purpose in itself. It made the students question the instructions and really push boundaries. They’d ask, why can’t we just get rid of the parking? Why do we have to these types of roles? The programme created a kind of reflective experience for me and the students, where they were really probing questions about what is and isn’t possible.

Students draw out their mixed use developments before building the models, image provided by ULI

UT: How many schools participated in the programme? Is it Canada Wide or will it be?

Richard: This past year we had 10 schools participate across Toronto area. The focus at least for this first year has been rolling out Urban Plan in Toronto. Just in first year has grown a lot quicker than expected. We want to make sure that the programme is successful before expanding beyond Toronto.

UT: How does the Urban Plan program break down the dense nature of development and planning so that students can begin to understand and reflect on the intricacies of Official Plans, Bylaws, Amendments, and so on?

Richard: The programme structure divides students into different developer groups, and then further subdivides those groups into different roles. Each development team will have a Financial Analyst, a Marketing Director, a City Liaison, a Neighbourhood Liaison, and a Site Planner, who work together to respond to a proposal request to redevelop a five and a half block site in a hypothetical city. So each group is learning about what goes into a redevelopment as it would relate to each of these separate roles. The programme includes a strong Pro Forma or financial model so everyone learns about the finances that go into the development of a community, and because all the students take on different roles, they are able to collaborate and learn from one another.

Howard: It all comes together. Each day focuses on each of these roles, so students get the opportunity to learn about each aspect, while one student will sort of take the lead in the culminating proposal.

Loretto Abbey students work together to develop their mock community, image via ULI & Loretto Abbey

UT: What is one of the most memorable projects produced by one of your student groups? How did their work on city development and planning in the GTA show that their thinking had been applied to the city as it related to them?

Howard: Each of the projects my students put together really took on a life of their own, so it’s hard to call any one project the most memorable. Each group would make different decisions based on their understanding of their respective roles, their interpretation of the scenario and own their beliefs. Each group’s pro forma financial statements guided them in certain ways. They couldn’t just create ten condos, because it wouldn’t be in their budget, so they had to collaborate as a group to create different things, and allocate certain types of community buildings.

Students from Loretto Abbey pause for a photo between planning discussions, image provided by ULI & Loretto Abbey

UT: As programme organizers—professionals in your respective fields, teachers and so forth—what have you learnt from the experience of teaching young students about city building?

Howard: I’ve learnt that the students really get a lot more than what we assume they know. They really are in touch with these issues and they matter to them. You know, these themes—it’s about their future and they’re concerned about it. After 20 years of teaching you get into a routine and you plow ahead. But to see it happening in real life and in real time: it’s a powerful thing. I found that this programme really made me come back to this idea of relearning that kids really do care. They’re thinking about these issues, and they’re thinking about them in meaningful and impactful ways.

Jen: It’s been really interesting to see how they go through the programme. When they go through the 12 classes, you can see how much they grasp, and a lot of it is even intuitive. When they’re talking about absorption rates and rates of return, it’s amazing to see them answer the questions and be so thoughtful despite dealing with complex subject matter. They understand why they’re doing certain things. Being in a city like Toronto, a city that’s going through so much change and development—they’re surrounded by this all the time. They understand this, and there’s so many other factors that come to the plate when a building is being developed. To Howard’s point, you really do see how in touch they are with everything, and it truly validates the motivation behind Urban Plan.

Richard: One of the things that’s part of the evolution of Urban Plan in the US and in Canada is moving urban plan into the realm of public sector: getting professional civil servants to go through a version of this course. What’s become very obvious to me, as we get into our adult professional lives, is that too often we get silo'ed in our industry. We need to get professionals to understand the complexity of these things. Not understanding this and not understanding the Pro forma is a very significant barrier. There’s two different kinds of languages being spoken, and this leads to disconnect and misunderstanding. In this post-OMB world, having a better and broader and more complex understanding of city building equations at that professional level is taking on new importance. This exercise, amazing as it is, also has great value at a much more senior career level.

UT: Thanks so much for your time, all the best in year two of Urban Plan in Toronto!