Last week I graduated from the University of Maryland with a Masters in Community Planning. I was one of the graduating students invited to speak at the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation Commencement Ceremony. Here is the text of my speech. Thanks to my parents and Libby and her parents who were able to attend.
Urban planners often have the opportunity to reflect on our profession. This is because we are constantly asked to explain precisely what it is that we do. Upon hearing I studied urban planning, someone I met recently exclaimed, “oh good, maybe you can explain to me what it is.” She was the roommate of one of my program classmates. I sometimes only half seriously explain urban planning is the “they” so often invoked in casual conversation. You know, they should really do something about those vacant buildings. They should make housing more affordable. They need to improve public transportation.
In professional circles it sometimes seems we’re a profession under attack. Architects are superior at making persuasive drawings. Scientists speak with authority on natural systems. Engineers lay out our roads and transit systems. Politicians make decisions about baseball stadiums, convention centers, and other big projects.
However, I think urban planning’s sometimes ambiguous professional role is a source of ongoing renewal for the profession. Good urban planning serves as the connection between where we are and where we want to be. It’s dedicated to finding both the goals and the resources to achieve them. It’s also an endlessly ambitious profession, because by definition we set out to impact something we have only limited power to control: the form and function of the city. Planners fill the unique need for a holistic view of the city. After all, cities themselves ignore clean separations between disciplines.
The ambitious, solution-oriented spirit of planning has guided the studio projects the graduating planning students here today have worked on, which includes studying community in a mixed-income housing project in Baltimore, the needs of the elderly in Prince George’s County, or housing and economic development in a South African village. This spirit has guided work I have been involved in here in College Park, where we used new technology to create a website to engage the community about development issues, from new housing to environmental issues, and cultivate a shared vision for the future.
As we embark on professional careers, we face unprecedented challenges. The earth’s climate is changing, our urban infrastructure is based on polluting and increasingly scarce fossil fuel, and billions of the world’s poor need improved living conditions. I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I’m confident urban planners — including some in this room — will play an important role. That’s something you can talk about the next time you meet an urban planner.