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Lack of graduate urban planning programs hurting state

By , Republican American | July 26, 2019

Mary Donegan, an urban planner and teacher at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, stands near Alexander Calder’s Stegosaurus sculpture in Hartford’s Burr Mall.

Waterbury— A dry talent pipeline is contributing to economic stagnation in Connecticut’s cities.

The state is one of 15 in the country with no accredited, graduate level urban planning programs, which advocates say bring in research dollars, groom qualified professionals and furnish data to inform future investments in development.

Mary Donegan, assistant professor in-residence of urban and community studies at the University of Connecticut, said universities exist primarily to train a state’s workforce and serve other purposes as well: community engagement, land development, conducting research.

“You can imagine that if Connecticut had more planning programs we’d be spitting out a trained planning workforce that could go into cities and and work with communities,” Donegan said. “But we’d also have more faculty doing research in Connecticut and asking questions like what’s working in Connecticut’s cities and what’s not working, and studying those questions in a methodical way.”

Urban planners typically work with cities in different capacities to help them develop healthy economies and livable environments for their residents. That may involve designing a cohesive transportation system, building a strong education system or examining a city’s post-disaster recovery.

Several schools in the state, including UConn, offer undergraduate level urban studies programs, but graduate courses provide the professional field training that leads to projects within the community and research grants.

Edith J. Barrett, associate dean in UConn’s department of public policy, said the state budget crisis has delayed development of an urban planning graduate degree at the school.

“We’ve been under financial constraints for a number of years now and so the notion of bringing in a new program takes more thought than just saying let’s bring in this program,” Barrett said.

The state has been without a graduate level urban planning program accredited by the national Planning Accreditation Board since 1972, when Yale University shuttered its program in alleged retribution for students and faculty in the program conspiring to admit a class consisting of 50% students of color in 1969.

Yale University did not respond to a request for comment.

The city of Waterbury is experiencing the consequences of Connecticut’s urban planning desert first hand. The city has been struggling to fill its city planner position since Feb. 1, to the point of hiring Randi Frank Consulting for $12,000 to help sell the position and evaluate candidates.

“Obviously if there were people coming out of local programs it would be a lot easier,” Human Resources Director Scott Morgan said. “Connecticut isn’t always the easiest draw.”

The lack of homegrown talent, and the relative scarcity of in-state jobs from which the city could poach a planner from a nearby municipality, means Waterbury will most likely have to recruit from out of state, thus the need for a consulting firm with a wide network.

Morgan said the city has had success hiring homegrown talent in its sewer and water departments, two other areas where a small talent pool can translate into long hiring searches.

Waterbury recently hired Dan Pesce, a UConn graduate, to work as a community development planner in the mayor’s office.

“That worked out well, a local person, went to school here, was already involved in community development planning,” Morgan said. “That’s a lower level position because the city planner position that we have, it’s a department head position and has a lot of responsibility.”

A master’s degree in planning or related field is a requirement for the city planner position, though it can be substituted for six years experience. The yearly-salary range is $85,000-$120,000.

Raleigh, N.C., is a growing city benefiting from a strong urban planning program at the University of North Carolina, from where it sources one-two graduate-level interns per year.

“We are obviously fortunate in that once many students graduate they choose to stay in the area and we all benefit from their talents,” said Julia Milstead, public information officer for the city.

Donegan, who earned her doctorate in urban planning from UNC, said the creation of an urban planning program at an in-state private university would be helpful, but would likely not leverage the same amount of community engagement as a program at UConn.

“”The historical mission of a public university was to contribute to the economic and social well being and development of states,” she said. “As the state of North Carolina was beginning to grow, the University of North Carolina put in a planning program to help the state transition and manage that growth.”

She said that at UConn, “there’s no structural reason why an urban planning program couldn’t exist”, because of the school’s strong social sciences, architecture and landscape architecture schools, three of the typical repositories for planning programs.

Barrett said she hopes to see an accredited, interdisciplinary planning program germinate in the near future.

“Some of us in UConn are very invested in having a Master’s program in planning we are moving straight ahead to make it happen,” Barrett said. “It’s a glaring absence at UConn that we really could fill and fill an important niche, not just for the state, but for the state of Rhode Island and parts of Massachusetts. We’d be educating people that could go into Southern New England and revitalize the whole region.”

The Cities Project, a collaboration between CT MirrorConnecticut Public RadioHearst Connecticut MediaHartford CourantRepublican-American of Waterbury, Hartford Business Journal, and Purple States, will publish periodic articles exploring challenges and solutions related to revitalizing Connecticut’s cities. Send comments or suggestions to ehamilton@ctmirror.org.

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