Urban Planning as a High School Theme in Brooklyn , New York

By Meredith Phillips

The Academy of Urban Planning in Brooklyn taps into the curiosity of high school students about their environment, teaches skills needed for modern careers, and puts the students on a path aimed towards higher education. As a program manager at this new school, I have seen how students are learning how to use urban planning knowledge and GIS skills to advocate for community improvements. Through unique partnerships with community organizations, planning agencies and institutions of higher learning, students are learning how to use urban planning knowledge and GIS skills to advocate for community improvements.

Partnership With Brooklyn Center for Urban Environment

The Academy of Urban Planning (AUP) in Bushwick, Brooklyn was formed as part of the New Century High School Initiatives, which aims to reform large traditional urban high schools and transform them into smaller learning environments. The concept and proposal for AUP was developed by a team of educators, parents/guardians, consultants and the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment (the Center), the school’s lead partner, in October 2002. The school opened its doors to students in September 2003. Those same students will begin their senior year in fall of 2006, when the school’s total population will reach approximately 475 students.

For over twenty-five years, the Center has engaged young minds in activities that promote curiosity and exploration of New York City ‘s urban environments. The Center delivers programs on the built and natural environment for nearly 100,000 students and adults each year in all five boroughs of New York City , celebrating and encouraging stewardship of urban waterways, landscapes, architecture and life.

The Center is the lead partner for three New Visions high schools: the Academy of Urban Planning , Academy of Environmental Leadership and the Green School : An Academy for Environmental Careers. As AUP’s lead partner, the Center provides support through staff training, workshops for students and parents, and theme-integration programming.

AUP’s Mission

The mission of the Academy of Urban Planning is to help students use their leadership abilities to achieve academic success. With support from educators, parents and guardians of diverse races, ethnicities and cultures, AUP is working to forge a lasting spirit of community. We strive to be a school where students and parents are welcome; where teachers and staff work collaboratively; and where parents are engaged as partners with the school to provide an exemplary education for students. We empower students to acquire the academic and social tools they need in order to pursue their interests by stimulating learning, discovery and self-expression.

Why Urban Planning?

The urban planning, theme-based curriculum draws students out of the classroom and into their communities to develop skills that will move them toward higher education andcareers , utilizing their natural desire to explore and create.

When students arrive at AUP, they are not necessarily interested in pursuing a career in urban planning or even a related field. We develop our programming with the following questions in mind:

  • What skills do students need to succeed in high school, college and beyond?
  • How can we create an academic experience where students are excited about learning?
  • How can we use the laboratory of our community, urban planning issues and local resources to achieve our goals?

Our answers to these questions have guided the development and implementation of a 4-year program that incorporates technology skill-building, service learning, civic engagement and community advocacy.

Theme Integration Model

Class Projects We create projects that connect regular subject area curricula with urban planning and urban studies issues, concepts and vocabulary. For example, 9th grade students participated in one of the following projects as part of the English Language Arts or English as a Second Language classes.

  • Urban Planning Project : In partnership with the Center, students studied redevelopment in Williamsburg using zoning maps and walking tours. They created new maps that illustrated development patterns that would benefit different stakeholder groups. They applied this knowledge to Bushwick, creating a walking tour that emphasized opportunities for development in our own community.
  • Urban Studies Projects : Using neighborhood explorations, interviews and photographs, students learned to communicate information about their neighborhoods by creating presentations focusing on an urban issue of their choice. This project was also led by BCUE.
  • Design Introduction : In this project led by the Center for Urban Pedagogy teaching artists, students are learning basic architecture and design principles by designing and building a nomadic classroom from unlikely materials.

Course Electives These courses meet every day, offering the opportunity for more advanced study and analysis of urban issues through experiential learning.

  • Advanced Art Seminar: Art, Architecture and Urban Design in New York City (10 th grade). In this course, students use architecture and urban design in New York City to inspire multi-media art projects. Students visit relevant locations, listen to presentations from professionals and participate in hands-on design workshops. Students learn architectural history and experience New York while gaining skills in observation and architectural drafting, design and construction and multimedia presentation. Throughout the semester, students build a portfolio of their work. Course topics include: bridge design and construction; public space and public art; architectural design for housing; and architectural interventions (a project with the Center for Urban Pedagogy).
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS) (11 th Grade). We use GIS to view and analyze data such as race, education and economics from a geographic perspective. In this course, students learn how to use software to create maps that describe neighborhoods, depict change and predict future conditions. Students also learn how mapping influences urban policies and how those policies affect their daily lives.
  • The Social Pulse of a New York City Neighborhood (10 th Grade). Using a multimedia approach that includes novels, short stories, poetry, film, photography and site visits, this unit acquaints students with the “social” anatomy of a New York City neighborhood in 10 th grade English classes. Our neighborhoods are not only rich in history and culture, they pulse with the energies created by the ebb and flow of immigration, the collision of disparate cultures, complicated intergenerational and racial relationships and the pressures of an ever-shifting economy. These tensions continue to inspire artists and writers to tell the stories of the complex characters that bring life to these places, creating meaning for the word “neighborhood” that runs deeper than geography.
  • Public Health and the Urban Environment (9 th and 10 th Grade). In this course, students learn about the role of urban planning and urban design in decisions and how they affect health, nutrition, obesity and physical activity—as well as bigger issues like environmental justice and economic development. The course focuses on issues like the incidence of asthma in city neighborhoods, the connections between street trees and air quality, the proliferation of fast food restaurants and other factors that impact adolescent health.

Extracurricular activities We are lucky to have access to many fantastic programs offered by non-profit and educational organizations throughout New York City . These programs often incorporate neighborhood exploration, design, leadership development and community activism, as well as complement our own theme-related programs.

  • A Day at the Municipal Arts Society. Urban planning students were hosted by this organization’s Planning Center for a day of presentations and tours with real life urban planners.
  • Barcelona to Brooklyn Studio at the Center for Architecture . Using Barcelona ‘s exemplary and progressive urban planning projects as a starting point, students were challenged to rethink how small design and planning changes implemented along the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront could lead to major community enhancement.

Jobs and Internships. The most authentic experiential learning opportunities occur when students can apply the skills and knowledge they learn in courses and projects in the field or workplace. Below are a few examples of student internships.

  • Growing Up in New York City (GUiNYC) GUiNYC is part of a larger series of projects called Growing Up in Cities, supported by UNESCO and Cornell University . The purpose of GUiNYC is to engage young participants (9-14 years old) in exploring and researching their neighborhoods using photography, mapping and other information-gathering activities. Two AUP students work in collaboration with other staff members to plan and implement the program, leading activities and accompanying groups of young people as they go out into the neighborhood, helping them develop an action plan and project.
  • My CITI Interns. After an application process that includes mapmaking and an interview, AUP students are selected as mapping technician interns for Community Boards 3 and 4 in Brooklyn . The CITI program, which teaches high school students to use mapping technology to investigate their neighborhoods, provides community boards with direct access to mapping technology during meetings and engages students in local decision-making while gaining technical skills and earning income.

How Does it Work?

We owe all of our successes to the willingness of our students to look at change in their communities with fresh eyes, and the willingness of our teachers to learn about urban planning issues and trends and to open their classrooms to partners and supporters. We provide training and orientation to our faculty and staff, since most of them arrive with little experience or exposure to urban planning (but with a desire to learn!), but the most important piece of our theme integration model is partnership. Our collaborationswith community organizations, planning agencies and institutions of higher learning provide authentic hands-on experiences for our students as well meaningful professional development for our staff.

Adapted from a presentation entitled “Urban Planning Curriculum for High School Students” in the “Training Young Planners” conference session. Meredith Phillips is a program manager at the Academy of Urban Planning . To find out more about the Academy, please visit http://www.aupnyc.org , or contact Meredith atmeredith@aupnyc.org . For more information about the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment, please visit www.bcue.org.

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