Planning Makes Perfect
Budget deficits have many Texas cities clamoring for assistance. UT Arlington’s Institute of Urban Studies is the go-to university program for smart solutions.
Summer 2011 · Comment ··
Vidor needed help. Population in the small Southeast Texas town near Beaumont had dwindled after a one-two punch from Hurricanes Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008 caused extensive damage, with Ike forcing a two-week evacuation. Upon closer inspection, the storms revealed critical flaws in Vidor’s urban layout.
City officials turned to UT Arlington’s Institute of Urban Studies for solutions. The applied research arm of the School of Urban and Public Affairs is the state’s principal university-based program for mobilizing intellectual resources to meet the challenges facing Texas communities.
In Vidor’s case, these resources included urban studies graduate student Moses Pologne and Professor Ard Anjomani. Under Dr. Anjomani’s direction, Pologne and fellow students solicited input from government officials and the public, gathered and analyzed information, and visited the city for a firsthand understanding.
“The floodplains and lack of zoning ordinances were among the main things that presented a need for a comprehensive land-use plan,” Pologne says. “The plan will help the city develop those ordinances.”
Vidor’s reception was enthusiastic. And quick. “It didn’t take long for the City Council to discuss and fully approve the plan,” Anjomani says.
DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS
Wander far and wide in Texas and you’ll find hundreds of cities benefiting from the Institute of Urban Studies’ expertise. With more and more municipalities struggling, expect that number to rise.
“This kind of service has been going on for 40 years, although it has recently picked up new energy and vigor with so many more communities looking for a way to plan and spend smart in a down economy,” SUPA Dean Barbara Becker says. “This works for us because we like for as many of our classes as possible to have a connection with communities. The word seems to have gotten out.”
Take a trip to the rural 130-year-old Bruceville-Eddy near Waco and hear the buzz about the institute’s assistance with planning new water and sewage systems and a strategy to maximize an impending expansion of Interstate 35.
“Public service enriches the academic experience many times over.”
Closer to home, consider the Arlington Urban Design Center, a collaboration among SUPA, the School of Architecture, and the city offering a litany of conceptual design services for neighborhood groups, nonprofits, and local businesses. In its first year, the center completed more than 40 projects that saved the city and private developers more than $600,000 in design costs. It also received a 2011 Innovation Award from the international Alliance for Innovation organization.
Communities with a well-designed public realm perform better economically over time, says Gincy Thoppil, a planning manager with Arlington’s Community Development and Planning Department.
“Arlington businesses and neighborhoods that were hesitant to initiate physical improvements due to the cost are now taking the center’s help in realizing their dreams,” she says. “The Arlington Urban Design Center has proved to be a time-saving and cost-effective solution to various design obstacles.”
Last year the Institute of Urban Studies completed more than 45 projects throughout Texas, from the Panhandle northlands, south to the Gulf Coast, east to the Piney Woods, and west to Big Bend. Many were in urban and rural North Texas.
“These communities have gained direct benefits as a result of working with the school,” Dr. Becker says. “More projects are already under way for this year.”
AT YOUR SERVICE
The Legislature established the Institute of Urban Studies in 1967. After significant program and staff expansion, it grew into the School of Urban and Public Affairs in 1990. The institute, however, continues to operate as an integral part of the school.
The institute’s legislatively mandated mission is to conduct research and provide technical assistance to Texas city and county governments and public agencies, and to offer education and teaching opportunities for individuals either already in or contemplating public-service careers.
The philosophy—as an institute and a school—has always blended theory and practice.
“What makes the program unique is its combination of research and practical application,” Becker says. “My degree at UT Austin was very theoretical. So I always promised myself that our students at UT Arlington would get a chance to also participate in applied work. As the University evolves, we’re evolving with it.”
The evolution includes strengthening local economies through feasibility and corridor studies, economic development ideas, updates of parks and land-use plans, and citizen/business surveys. Costs for the work often are modest payments to participating students, sometimes with a travel stipend.
Local, state, and federal entities ask SUPA professors and students to perform multi-year studies. A five-year impact study for Fort Worth addressed the forced relocation of Ripley Arnold residents from public housing into mixed-income housing. The Texas Department of Transportation sought help for the growing disconnect between demand for transportation services and the state’s ability to respond. A recent analysis reviewed the impact of public transportation provided by Dallas Area Rapid Transit on future state highway construction.
Other projects include a downtown study for Cedar Hill to reflect the city’s historic background, and identification of property to be acquired for low– to moderate-income housing in Grand Prairie. In Fort Worth, students provided revitalization plans for the Greater Northside area and worked with the city on a commercial rebirth of Belknap Street.
A feasibility study focused on building a performing arts complex in downtown Dallas, as well as on land-use planning for the Trinity River Project. In Houston, an analysis examined the viability of creating a work center near the ship channel. For the U.S. Department of Justice, a project helped coordinate multiple Dallas agencies to reduce neighborhood gun violence.
The breadth of services creates well-prepared graduates.
“Working at the Institute of Urban Studies provided me with a variety of work experiences and contacts with communities across Texas,” says Stephen Pope, who graduated in 2010 with a master’s degree in city and regional planning. “This range of diversity wouldn’t have been available in a traditional internship.”
Student participation is a thread running through all Institute of Urban Studies work.
“Student involvement brings an enrichment to every process and its own kind of strength,” Becker says. “The bottom line is what kind of experience we’re providing to students. Public service enriches the academic experience many times over. Students can go to the workplace when they graduate with a sense of both accomplishment and experience.”
The Vidor project, which won a Student Planning Award from the American Planning Association, brought that sense of achievement.
“We at the Institute of Urban Studies take pride in knowing that we produce quality work,” Pologne says. “Having the comprehensive land-use plan adopted the same day it was presented to city officials brings satisfaction knowing that it was a job well done.”
Vidor City Manager Ricky Jorgensen praised the team’s work. “We’re now able to start our zoning plan commitment to our citizens. All involved were professional, readily available, and knowledgeable. Most importantly, this was not just an assignment to those involved. This project had meaning and a defined purpose. For that, the city of Vidor is very appreciative.”
The success of projects like Vidor and the Arlington Urban Design Center (itself a recent planning association award winner) has fostered a spate of requests for similar services, like the Oak Cliff Urban Design Storefront. The idea originated with the Oak Cliff Transit Authority and has been endorsed by the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce and Dallas city planners.
One of the storefront’s first projects targets Jefferson Boulevard, the area’s main corridor, which has boomed with popular restaurants. Though a welcome development, the growth also has created challenges.
“The project involves an in-depth parking analysis of the historic downtown section of Jefferson,” Oak Cliff chamber President Bob Stimson says. “Students are not only documenting the need for additional parking but working on solutions that we hope to implement in the near future.”
The beat goes on, with SUPA students and faculty continuing to provide critical consulting on projects large and small: a community attitudes survey in Haltom City; a town center development strategy for Kennedale; a first-ever comprehensive land development plan for Shenandoah on Interstate 45 north of Houston.
“When students go into a community, they have a different perspective,” Becker says. “The residents of those communities see them as having no agenda, no profit motive. They’re welcomed, and their presence actually excites and energizes residents.”
That excitement was evident when students visited Bruceville-Eddy recently to begin work on development planning. They were met with a giant “Welcome UTA” banner at the city limits.
“That kind of experience and appreciation is very enriching for students,” Becker says. “But it’s also about doing something for Texas and its communities.”
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