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Planning California: SPUR staff alumni and the Bill Lane Center partner to offer students an inside look at the long game of city planning

As a premier center for the study of the American West, the Bill Lane Center prides itself on providing students with frameworks for understanding the rich history and culture of the region, as well as the complex policy issues facing California and the West today, on the ground. Our “past, present and future” approach to teaching sets us apart from other centers or departments, because while our students are busy learning about the American West through multiple disciplinary lenses, we simultaneously encourage them to develop real-world expertise that will allow them to make a positive impact on the region’s future.  
 
One course that teaches these skills is our winter 2021 learning experience with SPUR staff and SPUR staff alumni. SPUR is a Bay Area civic-planning organization focused on creating equitable, sustainable cities. What began as a partnership with the organization has evolved into a course taught by SPUR staff alumni Egon Terplan, senior advisor for economic development and transportation in the California Governor’s Office, and Kristy Wang, formerly SPUR’s community planning policy director. Together, Terplan, Wang and the Lane Center are offering Planning California: Exploring the Intersection of Climate, Land Use, Transportation, and the Economy, with the goal of covering key city planning topics and supporting students in becoming future leaders of the West. While providing a broad, interdisciplinary overview of contemporary planning issues in California, the course also invites exploration of specific policy challenges facing San Jose and San Francisco, as well as the Central Valley and Inland Empire in Southern California. 
 
Course instructors Wang (pictured right) and Terplan (left) both acknowledge the ambitious scope of the course and its learning goals; urban planning in California is a system with many actors and parts, including state and local governments, regional funding plans, city land use policy, climate laws, transportation systems, market dynamics impacting development, and more. Understanding the interplay of all these pieces gives students insight into the complexity of the urban planning process, and the kinds of decisions city planners are faced with each day as they strive to build livable, equitable and climate resilient places for Westerners to reside. 
 
In addition to class time spent discussing core concepts of urban planning in California and the Bay Area, the course incorporates walking tours to let students see planning policies in action. Instructors have also assigned students to attend a public hearing to better understand the public’s involvement in planning and land use decision-making. 
 
“We definitely tried to give students a perspective on how planning works in California by looking at different levels of scale and the roles of different parts of the system,” said Terplan, who was formerly SPUR’s regional planning director. “This quarter we were able to do a guided walking tour in downtown San Francisco, with some students participating masked and distanced in person, and others participating on Zoom. We see the walking tours as a way to engage students directly with seeing the impact of policy and planning on the ground,” Terplan added. 
 
Lombard Street, San Francisco. Photo by Brandon Nelson via Unsplash.
Kristy Wang concurred that the walking tour provides a tangible way for students to see how planning actually plays out in cities. Through short lectures, conversations with guest speakers and small group breakout sessions, Wang noted that the course explores “both ideas and concepts and how things play out in the world.” In an email explaining more about the course’s scope, Wang identified multiple key concepts she and Terplan hope to convey, including “the big picture policy frameworks and priorities; how the various levels of government intersect; how the public sector and private sector intersect; and the results that we get from the complex interplay between planning/policy and regulatory systems, markets and the behavior of human beings.” 
 
Armelle Coutant, a master’s student in civil and environmental engineering, is currently the teaching assistant for Planning California, and she’s also taken the class as a student. Coutant describes the course as a bridge between planning history (why urban landscapes have become what they are today), planning processes, and the ways in which students can participate in these processes. By offering students multiple ways to explore these elements – whether it’s reading about how a city was planned, hearing from a key stakeholder, taking a walking tour or attending a local decision-making meeting – “the class structure builds lasting skills for careers beyond Stanford,” Coutant said. 
 

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