Public Affairs

Sustainability with Substance

April 5, 2012
By Elizabeth Chapin

City and regional planning students from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo discuss proposals at a community meeting. Thanks to dedicated urban planners, California’s communities are becoming more sustainable. Planners are the masterminds behind the facets of daily life: our parks, gardens, bike lanes, water regulations, building codes, and even daily commutes. A CSU education ignited this dedication for many of the state's urban planners. For them, sustainability is not just a state of mind—it’s the planning, process and practice that’s positioning the Golden state as a “green” state.

Every city has a “plan”—from commercial and residential districting to recreation, building regulations and transportation. Since planners research, design, and develop this infrastructure, they essentially create the communities where we live. Today, they’re helping civic leaders, businesses, and citizens visualize and create a sustainable state, energizing both the ecosystem and the economy.

The U.S. Census reports that more than 80% of Americans and 95% of Californians live in urban areas. The state has experienced an urban population growth of more than 12% from 2000 to 2010 and has seven of the 10 most densely-populated urbanized areas in the country.

With increased urbanization comes the demand for the services of city planners. The growth brings an increased need for regulation of commercial development, the environment, transportation and housing. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the need for urban planners is expected to grow by 19% from 2008 to 2018, noting that the private sector will see the fastest growth. Planners in the private sector often counsel developers and builders on how to adhere to environmental regulations.

They also empower them to make better-informed decisions by providing visualizations. For example, students in the City and Regional Planning Department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo recently developed a detailed digital three-Students in the City and Regional Planning Department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo recently developed a detailed digital three-dimensional model of San Luis Obispodimensional model of San Luis Obispo. The model enables users to view and analyze the existing state of the city as well as proposals—giving city staff and community members a virtual view so they can better assess things like architectural compatibility and other codes/regulation.

But students aren't just helping others adhere to policy, they are creating it too. The students at Cal Poly also made a sustainability plan for the nearby city of Guadalupe. Their plan has been adopted by the city and covers wetland preservation, water conservation, renewable energy and green building techniques.

CSU Northridge School of Urban Planning Department Chair Robert B. Kent says planning is sustainable by nature because its ultimate goal is to create something that will last.

“Our vision is guided by principles of sustainability—it’s melded into the training and education," Kent said. "Also, it’s important that today’s planner gets a wide-ranging education that includes the societal aspects of planning, which look at things like inequality and balancing economic opportunity.”

Kent added that CSUN is part of a U.S. Department of Education urban sustainability project that explores the human side of planning on a global level. Every year, CSUN and the University of Massachusetts exchange students with two major Brazilian universities where they engage in a network of public and private agencies. The students get first-hand experience in urban planning and sustainability practice, and come back from Brazil with valuable global perspectives.

In the world of urban planning, Brazil is a familiar case study. San Francisco State’s professor and chair of urban studies and planning, Raquel Pinderhughes, says the South American country’s unique structural approach has led to some amazing results.

“A lot can be learned from the way Brazil, and other countries, have managed resources in urban areas,” Pinderhughes said. “Exploring these practices can make a difference here because thinking globally leads to changes locally.”

Pinderhughes says SF State’s pre-professional program in studies, planning and policy includes faculty and students from all over the world. In this international environment, students benefit from comparative understanding.

“Because the world’s planning problems and solutions are vast, deep, and global," Pinderhughes said, "When faculty and students have an opportunity to learn about the regions they come from, they are better-positioned to understand what it will take to address challenges in the places they come from and in California.”

In order to graduate, students in the SFSU program are required to complete professional projects and community service in the local area. Despite their international backgrounds, Pinderhughes says 95% of the program’s graduates stay and practice in the Bay Area.

“The students are not only dedicated to sustainability," Pinderhughes said. "They are devoted to California’s communities and setting them up for smart growth and regional equity.”