Sunday, May 7, 2017

What's Happening in the Field of Urban Planning?

The MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning is one of 72 university departments in North America that offers a professional (MCP) degree in urban and regional planning. MIT will graduate about 70 MCP degree candidates this year. All told, something close to 3,000 graduate degrees in planning will be offered in the United States and Canada this June.   

Graduates of planning schools, including MIT, can find work in the public sector, the private sector and as staff and leaders of civil society organizations both in the United States and elsewhere in the world. About 30% of the students currently enrolled at MIT are not US citizens.  The incoming MCP class includes citizens of Argentina, Switzerland, Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Spain, Israel, Mexico, Singapore, Pakistan, Viet Nam, Iraq and Trinidad and Tobago.  That equals the average non-US enrollment in all the urban planning schools in North America.  The percentage of non-US citizens in MCP programs has held relatively constant for the past few years.

Planning schools offer a variety of specializations.  At MIT, there are four primary areas of
specialization:  City Design and Development, Environmental Policy and Planning; Housing and
Community Economic Development and International Development.  In addition, there are three cross-cutting areas of study: transportation systems planning, urban information systems and multi-regional systems planning.  Each planning school offers a unique curriculum, but all college and university departments that are accredited have to cover certain basic skills and give students opportunities to learn by doing, either through paid internships or required field-based projects. Each school offers whatever specializations its faculty can support. Many schools also invest heavily in maintaining their alumni network and providing job placement assistance to their students.  While 5% of each year’s MCP class at MIT continues on for further graduate study, almost all the rest find rewarding planning-related jobs within three to six months after graduation.

The average planner in America earns about $80,000 a year, but most are less concerned with the salaries they make than they are with playing an active role in helping communities solve key problems like the provision of affordable housing, enhancement of meaningful job opportunities, protection of important natural resources, managing the risks associated with climate change, improving basic urban and regional infrastructure (including better transit and mobility),  and providing greater opportunities for citizens to participate in helping their communities make decisions that affect them.  The full list of problems is much longer, especially in the developing world.

In terms of the demographic mix of students entering the MIT MCP program in 2017, about 52% are female and 48% male. This is the same gender balance we have had for a number of years. MIT is not alone in this regard. In addition, MIT enrollment the past few years has been about 45% non-white (i.e. 15% Black or African-American, 30% Asian-American, and 1% Native-American).

While planners in the past were often preoccupied with the formulation of community master plans or zoning ordinances, that is no longer true. Today’s planners are committed to taking action – helping to implement improvements in the quality of life, particularly for the most vulnerable segments of society, often through public-private partnerships of various kinds. Whether employed by neighborhood, city, metropolitan, state or national agencies, private companies or NGOs, planners are busy trying to facilitate social change.  Many MIT graduates are engaged in entrepreneurial activities – often aiming to create new companies or organizations that know how to use digital technology to disrupt traditional ways of delivering public services or managing community economic development (again, both in the US and overseas).  

The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics says that there are about 35,000 practicing urban planners in the United States. Canada counts 6,500 (and currently lists urban planning as one of the top jobs in the country because of the rapid growth of cities). It’s hard to find reliable numbers for other countries.

To repeat: graduate students studying at MIT are as interested in planning in the developing world (i.e. the “global South”) as they are in working in the developed nations of the “North.” Many expect to work in both parts of the world during their professional careers.  And, if they stay mostly in the United States, they are probably going to move around quite a bit.

The DUSP faculty continues to diversify – demographically and by fields of expertise.  The most recent additions to the faculty over the past few years come from public health, law, political geography, anthropology, urban and regional economics, urban design, and infrastructure planning. The last two members of the DUSP faculty to receive tenure have been women.  We have new joint degrees with the Department of Civil Engineering and the Sloan School of Management along with continuing double degrees with Architecture, the Media Lab and Political Science. In any given semester, students can choose among field-based projects and faculty led studios and practicums in Malaysia, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Israel, Singapore, Brazil, Philippines, China, Mozambique, Haiti, Kenya and a wide range of projects in various parts of the United States.

The Department of Urban Studies and Planning is in a leadership role on the MIT campus, participating in the Environmental Solutions Initiative, the MIT Energy Initiative, the reformulated interdisciplinary transportation degree program, undergraduate teacher education in STEM subjects, the Real Estate Entrepreneurship Lab and emerging cross-campus teaching and research programs focused on Negotiation and Leadership, Healthy Cities and Social Entrepreneurship. DUSP faculty have never been as fully engaged with colleagues in the Schools of Science, Engineering and Management as they are now.

I have been on the DUSP faculty for 47 years.  I’ve seen tremendous changes in what planning students want to learn, what they seek to accomplish in the world, what the faculty are able to teach, the kinds of action-research in which students and faculty are engaged, the shift from plan-making to collaborative problem-solving, and the way our field fits with the ever-shifting pattern of evolving disciplines.  The things that haven’t changed are our focus on improving the quality of life in places and spaces, our commitment to a range of progressive values, and our continued involvement in improving both our analytic capabilities and our understanding of the politics of social change.

I expect the number of students seeking to enroll in professional degree programs in urban planning will grow.  With more people living in cities around the world, and an increasing share of college graduates looking for meaningful work that allows them to contribute to real-life problem-solving, a career in urban planning looks increasingly attractive.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Socially Responsible Real Estate Development (Part II)

In my preceding blog post, I argued that socially-responsible real estate development can not be achieved merely by making philanthropic donations or branding efforts.  Direct engagement with a wide range of stakeholders, using the tools of Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, is required. And, the point of such interactions is not merely to minimize the adverse effects of what the developer wants to build; rather, the goal should be to meet as many of the interests of as many of the stakeholders (including the developer!) as possible.  In my new MIT MOOC,  the proper ways to use EIA and SIA are described. The MOOC is a five week, online course that will be offered for the first time in the summer of 2017. More information about enrollment can be found at the Samuel Tak Lee Real Estate Entrepreneurship Program at MIT (

While the United States and Europe have a long history of requiring EIA and SIA, they are mostly used to justify design and development decisions that have already been made, rather than as a means of engaging stakeholders with conflicting interests in joint problem-solving. Many developers view EIA and SIA regulations as nothing more than a nuisance.  They decide what they want to build, hire consultants to make sure all regulatory requirements are met, do their best to market a positive view of their project and (in the United States especially) go to court to fend off legal challenges from opponents. This completely misses the opportunity to discover low-cost ways in which a developer can simultaneously meet local needs and solve long-standing problems while earning public support for their project and even permission to adopt innovative practices that might otherwise be prohibited. EIA and SIA can be used to meet BOTH the interests of the developer and the people most likely to be affected by whatever new project is being planned.

In the MOOC we present a case study of one of the largest mixed use mega-projects currently being built in Asia. The goal is to construct housing for more than 700,000 people on reclaimed land just off the edge of a developed area. By some estimates, the project will cost more than $60 billion over a twenty year period. The developer sought at the outset to skirt long-standing EIA requirements. While land use decisions in this particular country are usually the exclusive domain of state and local governments, the federal government was forced to get involved in this instance because the neighboring country was worried that the project would adversely affect them. The project was put on  hold until the developer completed a detailed EIA.  The cost of halting development was substantial.  In the end, the project had to be scaled back by more than 20% and new plans had to be prepared.  Nearby fishing communities, adversely affected by the early work on the project, had to be compensated for their losses. Had the developer engaged the relevant stakeholders in an EIA and SIA before starting construction (and before locking in on a version of the project that showed little or no concern for the interests of others), they would have saved an enormous amount of time and money. Also, their reputation would not have taken the international hit that it did.

In the MOOC, in which anyone can enroll at no cost, participants will have a chance to (1) read carefully selected excerpts from relevant books and articles (with short commentaries explaining how and why EIA and SIA work); (2) view mini-lectures summarizing best practices around the world; (3) try to respond to challenging scenarios (to see whether they can apply what they have learned); (4) watch edited conversations with enrollees who have already taken the course at MIT and completed the scenario assignments;  (5) listen to short interviews with experienced real estate developers describing what they have learned about socially-responsible real estate development; and (6) test their knowledge by taking a short multiple choice quiz before and after the course.  In addition, there are short animations that summarize the most important points in each module.  All told, each of the five modules in the MOOC takes about 3 - 5 hours to complete (depending on your ability to read and write in English). Certificates of completion are provided by MIT.

In making the MOOC, we talked with a number of very experienced real estate developers who have undertaken projects all over the world.  We also made our way through most of the published work on EIA, SIA and what is called Collaborative Adaptive Management. I tried to incorporate some of the ideas contained in my earlier book (with Patrick Field) called Dealing with an Angry Public (Free Press, 2010). What struck me most is the maxim that developers "need to go slow to go fast." That is, many developers believe that speed is of the essence. They rush to get things built,  sell their product as quickly as possible and generate a positive cash flow to satisfy their investors.  Short-cuts at the beginning, however, including efforts to sidestep direct involvement of stakeholders in meaningful EIAs and SIAs, actually add to the time and cost involved in completing a project. Even more important, efforts to push through a pre-conceived version of a project miss the chance to "create more value" for both the developer and the community.  It turns out, socially-responsible real estate development is the most profitable kind of real estate development -- in both the short-term and the long-term.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Socially-Responsible Real Estate Development (part I)

I am trying to build a MOOC (an open course on line) that will help anyone engaged in real estate development, or any aspect of city redevelopment, think hard about their social responsibilities.  To date, most discussion of social responsibility focuses on what is called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  That is, what do  corporations need to do to meet their social responsibilities?  CSR is basically a form of “corporate self-regulation” or “active compliance” with the “spirit of the law,” “ethical standards” and “national or international norms”.  By now, after several decades of discussion (and some serious scholarship), CSR advocates are prepared to make the case that corporate actors will have an easier time attracting the workers they want, enhancing their reputations and differentiating their brand, reducing regulatory scrutiny and improving relationships with their suppliers if they take environmental sustainability seriously, get involved in the communities where they operate (often through charitable giving) and avoid false advertising (and engage is what is known as ethical marketing).  So, if corporations do “the right thing,” engage in corporate philanthropy and behave ethically they can count themselves as socially-responsible.

I have a different view.  Imagine a large real estate investor who is thinking of building a mega-project outside his own country; say, in a developing country. With the help of local partners, he finds a site for a large, gated, mixed-use development that will take a decade or more to complete and cost billions of dollars.  If he succeeds, he will make a lot of money.  He hires consultants (some local, some from his home country) and prepares a marketing brochure that includes images of the amazing project he has in mind. He initiates preliminary conversations (behind closed doors) with key political figures in the region to win their support.  And, based on these conversations, he takes on local equity partners.  He is assured by these partners that they will have smooth sailing when it comes to getting the regulatory approvals they need. He begins to make highly visible donations to local business organizations and seeks as much media attention as he can get.  In the formal submissions he makes to whatever agency has final review power, he highlights his commitment to “green” building and promises to set aside a share of construction jobs for local workers.   Most CSR-types would say that he is acting in a socially-responsible way.

As he begins to market his project, it is clear to everyone (from the images on the giant posters on the site and the materials handed out in the showroom) that the project is aiming to attract a class of international investors and residents who look nothing like the vast majority of people in the region or in the communities near the site.  His media consultants succeed in planting newspaper stories highlighting the tax revenues his project will generate for the local and state government.  These stories also refer to the substantial grants that the national government has offered the developer and the local community to underwrite the infrastructure required within the gated community.  The developer argues that his mega-project will be almost self-sufficient in terms of its energy production, waste disposal, and provision of social services. In the process of filling wetlands and assembling the land for the proposed project, however, environmental interest groups begin to complain that the project will be diverting too much water away from existing settlements.  And, they are concerned that the gated community will not be full integrated into (or managed by) the local and metropolitan agencies and service systems that already exist. Some international environmental organizations express worries as well.   They are concerned that internationally protected environmental areas will be sacrificed. Some local political groups ask why there has not been a more careful study of the potential environmental and social impacts the proposed project might have.  The developer points to (1) the extensive studies he has done that led to the “green” design he is pursuing; (2) the “approvals” he has already gotten from local and state officials; (3) the charitable contributions he has made and will make to local organizations because he intends to be a good neighbor; and (4) his record (in his own country) as someone who takes his corporate social responsibilities seriously. He claims to have met all prevailing regulatory requirements.

It is easy to see why corporate philanthropic contributions do not necessarily equal socially-responsible development.  Merely generating some “social good” beyond the interests of the developer is not enough. Reaching informal agreements (or winning political support from a few key officials in the region or the country) is not the same as ensuring that the concerns of local stakeholders (i.e. the people most likely to be adversely affected by a mega-project now and in the future) are met.  Obeying the law, to the extent that regulatory requirements are spelled out and enforced, is not enough.  Claiming that you “always” take account of your “triple bottom line” (i.e. seeking to have a net neutral environmental impact, a positive social impact and, of course, achieve financial profitability), and that you adhere to ISO 26000 norms (the best practices prescribed by the International Standards Organization) do not guarantee socially-responsible real estate development.

You could imagine how a massive real estate project could displace long-time poor residents of an area, claim a disproportionate share of scarce natural resources, radically alter culturally significant patterns of everyday life and leave a number of groups worse off, even as the developer demonstrates that his project will have a positive impact, he will behave ethically, and he will make philanthropic contributions to the area.  The balancing of competing stakeholder interests, now and over time, is the issue. Values and conflicting interests need to be reconciled in a transparent way, and not all can be easily factored into a comprehensive benefit-cost analysis.  The problem for all the parties is how to meet their conflicting interests in an effective and efficient fashion. I don’t think we can rely on standard government agency reviews to achieve such balance.

Well then, how can such balance be achieved?

My new MOOC (Socially-Responsible Real Estate Development: Using Environmental and Social Impact Assessment to Reconcile Conflicting Interests) -- that will be offered in 2017 by the Sam Tak Lee Laboratory for Real Estate Entrepreneurship at MIT  -- will teach how conflicting interests can be balanced. My focus is on the process of social and environmental impact assessment. This is the only way to guarantee the direct engagement of all relevant stakeholders; and, the ONLY way to achieve socially-responsible real estate development on a case-by-case basis.  The good intentions of the developer are not enough.  The physical design of the project is not in-and-of-itself a measure of socially-responsible real estate development.  It is only by engaging representatives of ad hoc stakeholder groups, with the assistance of a professional (neutral) facilitator, in a joint problem-solving process, that socially-responsible real estate development can be achieved.  The problem-solving I am talking about needs to focus on how the developer, in conjunction with local stakeholders, regulators, independent technical advisors, and non-governmental advocacy groups can ensure that conflicting interests are resolved fairly,  in ways that take account of the culture and values of the existing area.  The tools for doing this are well developed:  environmental impact assessment (EIA), social impact assessment (SIA), and collaborative adaptive management (CAM).  I also argue that these tools should be used regardless of the extent to which they are legally required.  My measure of whether socially-responsible real estate development has been achieved is the extent to which good-faith efforts have been made to meet the conflicting interests of the relevant stakeholders, taking account of technically-sophisticated forecasts and assessments produced by analysts working for all the stakeholders.

In the MOOC  I  review exactly what ought to be done at each step in such a collaborative review process. And, I think I can make this case (although slightly differently) even in countries that have less of a democratic tradition of public engagement. I review and illustrate the practical aspects of getting this work done in a reasonable amount of time at the lowest possible cost.   And, I emphasize the important role that only a neutral facilitator can play once a large number of stakeholders agree to participate in face-to-face problem-solving.  Of course, the interactions I am describing do not substitute for or pre-empt government decision-making.  They precede it.

In my next blog post, I will review in more detail the ways in which EIA, SIA and CAM have been used (and abused) over the past several decades in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.  In this first post, my goal was to reframe the definition of social-responsibility – moving away from the focus on corporate philanthropy. I want to make the case that creating “shared value” from the standpoint of all the parties involved is a more appropriate way to define social responsibility.  Most of all, I want to challenge the assumption that traditional entrepreneurial models (i.e. doing well by doing good) can achieve socially-responsible real estate development.  More is required, particularly a commitment to direct stakeholder engagement.