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As a real estate industry insider, I’ve felt compelled and delighted to follow the Urban Land Institute and its endeavors closely. An independent, global nonprofit, ULI dedicates time and resources to supporting the entire spectrum of real estate development and land use disciplines in order to strengthen communities across America.

The real estate industry as of late has been striving for sustainability and local empowerment; ULI is representative of the space where the real estate business meets private and public community betterment. One ULI initiative I feel has a unique potential is UrbanPlan, which brings hands-on curriculum into high school and college classrooms to help students learn about — and participate in — the forces that shape community development.

UrbanPlan has been servicing youth for over a decade in schools across the country, and recently even further. Since its founding in partnership with the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley in 2003, it’s reached over 27,000 high school and university students in about 140 classrooms every academic year. This latest year, UrbanPlan operated in 36 high schools, ten universities, and even a pilot program for 90 pupils in the United Kingdom.

UrbanPlan is run by 13 ULI District Councils, which deliver the ULI mission at a local level to provide industry expertise to community leaders.

In 2010, UrbanPlan was selected by the George Lucas Educational Foundation (yes, that George Lucas) as one of 20 programs running in the US to spread awareness on innovative and effective educational programs, emphasis mine. Since kids are the future of our cities and communities, this is exactly the type of program that influences future leaders to care about intelligent land use.

How it works

What I find most interesting about UrbanPlan is that it’s not your everyday lecture; there are no textbooks, powerpoints or pop quizzes. Instead, the curriculum is immersive, allowing students to fill various roles and negotiate to solve problems — and turn profit — in fictional communities.

I think most of us can agree that the most fun and interesting classes back in the day were the ones that let us learn in the act of doing, rather than simple note-taking. What better way to get students interested in real estate development than to let them experience it for themselves?

Here’s a description of the program, from ULI’s website:

Student development teams respond to a “request for proposals” for the redevelopment of a blighted site in a hypothetical community. Each team member assumes one of five roles: finance director, marketing director, city liaison, neighborhood liaison, or site planner. Through these roles, students develop a visceral understanding of the various market and nonmarket forces and stakeholders in the development process. They must reconcile the often-competing agendas to create a well-designed, market-responsive, and sustainable project.

Once again, the emphasis is mine. With students taking on different roles, conflict, collaboration, and creativity can organically unfold. All the while, team members work together to design a project that fits the needs of the community and the market.

Teams present their final projects to “city council” of ULI members, who question teammates, deliberate, and award a “contract” to the winning proposal as a council would in reality.

The course is typically six weeks and a total of 15 hours long. And while it’s not designed to create a future generation of real estate developers — the skills go far beyond that, into general teamwork, marketing and economics — for those that may choose professions in this area, a robust understanding of the industry will be instilled.

Real results

While this sounds pretty interesting in theory, you may be wondering how it comes together in reality. The press has covered several cases, which report on how the UrbanPlan curriculum operated in real classrooms.

According to Paula Blasier director of San Francisco-based UrbanPlan, the program allows students that may not be top performers under traditional education models to excel. “All of a sudden, a kid discovers a whole new world, maybe even a possible profession, that requires a skill set they thought had no value,” Blasier said. This is because the activities require human skills that aren’t always used in classrooms.

Berkeley High School student Sofia Haas noted that the program helped her understand the complexity of development and the political trade-offs involved. “It was definitely challenging to have to make a profit on our product and try to keep true to our beliefs,” she said. “But those are the problems that face people who do this in the real world.”

Now, Haas is careful to take note of the little things in neighborhoods that were likely implemented carefully behind the scenes.

In Colorado, high school students found UrbanPlan was helpful for team building. It was also a great fit for Littleton High School’s curriculum, because it fit into the economic portion of students’ social studies requirements.

“When we first started, none of us really liked each other, but as time went on, we all stepped up and took on our roles,” student Ashley Winters said of the experience. “Everyone helped everyone else know what they were doing and what they were supposed to be talking about.”

Why it’s important

Since the US population is forecasted to grow by 60 million people in the next two decades, programs like UrbanPlan are critical in educating the next generation to be informed citizens able to handle population and community demands.

Blasier admits that one of the key benefits of UrbanPlan is preparing young people to be called upon for active roles in their communities — and that the forces that come into play in these decisions aren’t often taught in schools. “We wanted to provide the most realistic experience possible, but we also wanted a model that could be embraced by public schools nationwide,” she said. “We knew we had to make it not only engaging for the kids but teacher friendly as well.”

Ultimately, I believe that UrbanPlan is an innovative and highly useful educational approach that helps students understand the reality of the public, private, and political aspects of real estate and land development. The town in question may indeed by hypothetical, but the lessons are not. At the end of the day, immersive projects like this are the ones that stick and teach kids some of the most important responsibilities of adulthood.

Featured image: Sony Abesamis via Flickr