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Thread: Location, location, location (how much does it matter?)

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    Location, location, location (how much does it matter?)

    So I'm looking at different grad schools to apply to next fall (I graduate in December, but won't enroll in grad until fall 2010). And some of the programs that have interested me have been highly regarded, highly reputable programs that happen to be located in small cities and towns - for example, University of Iowa, University of Illinois, and University of Virginia. I can't help but wonder if being in a smaller city or town ultimately hurts these programs. After all, there's no substitute for hands-on experience is there?

    That's part of the reason why I've shifted my focus away from schools like that towards schools that are located in mid-sized and major metropolitan areas - namely Rutgers, University of Maryland, and University of North Carolina. And even UNC bothers me because I know that the Raleigh-Durham area, though it's a decent-sized metro area, is one big sprawl-fest, as is the rest of North Carolina (and the rest of the South for that matter). UNC seems like a VERY attractive program, but the fact that it's located in such a poorly planned area really, really irks me.

    On the flip side, Maryland seems like a decent program.......from what I can tell, not quite as highly regarded as Rutgers or UNC, but could you pick a better location to study in than Washington, D.C.? It's a major metro area with all sorts of planning issues to study (especially transportation issues, which is what I want to focus on); the state of Maryland itself is known nationwide for it's progressive, smart growth policies and initiatives, and being in the D.C. area means that when federal policies are put forth before Congress, I'd be right in the middle of the action.

    And Rutgers has me really interested as of late because it seems to be a pretty reputable program located in a major metro area, one that's not perfect by any means, but still probably light-years ahead of the Ninth Circle of Sprawl Hell that is North Carolina. And its location in the middle of the nation's busiest transportation corridor, which really excites me as an aspiring transportation planner.


    What do y'all think? It's easy for someone to say, "you're going for the SCHOOL, not the CITY", but come on. Nothing exists in a vaccum, and location and geography have got to play some role on the quality and the very fabric of a given planning program. Right?

  2. #2
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    I had meant to respond to a comment you had regarding this topic in another thread, but I got sidetracked somehow.

    At any rate, I'm going to say that geography (i.e. size of city, politics, relative power of planning, growth rate, issues of economic, environmental, educational, and equity concerns, etc) played a major factor in where I looked to apply last fall, and will play a major part in where I ultimately decide to go.

    As for your comment that people will respond "you're going for the SCHOOL, not the CITY" - well, this is urban planning we're talking about here - and presumably for most, this is a professional school Masters program where you're opportunities outside the classroom will often outweigh the strengths inside the classroom. This may not be true for Phd applicants planning on entering academia, but for those who wish to be a practicing planner, I would think the city/geography would be a large determining factor.

    I do feel however, that many schools in smaller towns such as University of Iowa offer different opportunities, not less opportunities. Rural planning and small town planning are a significant part of the profession and the programs may be stronger in these areas. It's a complicated issue but I think you are on the right track in looking first at schools that are in areas that would support your interests, such as U of Maryland for transportation.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Jazzman View post
    but could you pick a better location to study in than Washington, D.C.? It's a major metro area with all sorts of planning issues to study (especially transportation issues, which is what I want to focus on)...being in the D.C. area means that when federal policies are put forth before Congress, I'd be right in the middle of the action.

    What do y'all think? It's easy for someone to say, "you're going for the SCHOOL, not the CITY", but come on. Nothing exists in a vaccum, and location and geography have got to play some role on the quality and the very fabric of a given planning program. Right?
    I think you should focus more on how potential employers view each school and less on your own perception of each community/metro area (you might be way off). I highly encourage you to set up informational interviews with firms, public sector agencies to hear their recommendations on schools. Search previous posts. In the Midwest, Iowa State and Ball State have pretty good programs that churn out good planners and they are in the cornfields. I graduated from Urbana-Champaign (another cornfield school) and we are NOT all rural planners.

    Unless you are dead set on working in a particular metro area right after school, I think you can be a tad more flexible in which school you attend. Personally, I tend to place more weight on the quality of the courses (more hands-on versus theory), career services within the planning department , internship placement, and networking opportunities for students and less weight on geographic location, faculty credentials, new labs/studio. You can have a planning program right in the middle of a busy city, but if there are few if any internship opportunities or employers are reluctant to hire you, is it really a useful planning program?

    My personal rant about DC (a.k.a. I gave you fair warning)
    I think DC is a terribly planned city. Yes, it is visually appealing and has a first-rate transit system on par with many cities in Europe and Asia. However, it is pretty dicey in many areas except for the NW Quadrant. Congress has controlled it since its creation, and it has improved at a snail-like pace over the past 200 years. My uncle owns several properties in the NW and SE Quadrants (in addition to having an MUP under his belt) and has been rehabbing many of these units over the past 20 years. He is hedging his bets that the new Stadium in the SE Quadrant will lead to higher property values. My sister lived in DC for 3 years and complained how terribly transient the town is, with no one staying longer than 4 years (seems like a college town). For our nation's capital, I am outright disgusted with the poor planning in many, but not all areas, outside the National Mall. In some ways, it is as dumpy as many areas of East St. Louis, IL. I am applying for federal planning jobs, and there might be the possibility of having to relocate to that "town" for a few years.

    I'm not sure what you mean about being right in the middle of the action with federal policies put forth in congress. Do you want to be a city planner, federal planner, or a congressional aide? Even though the City of Washington DC and the District of Columbia are now one and the same (with the City still run by Congress), what goes on Capital Hill has little/nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the City. On a positive note, DC would be a plus for networking opportunities if you want to work as a planner in the federal government after graduation. I am sure plenty of planning schools in DC are respected in other communities as well.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

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    nrschmid,

    You offer many good points - but as you know, a large percentage of planning grad students end up in the same immediate or surrounding geographic region as where they studied, often due to the networking advantages you mentioned. I think it would be wise to look closely at the internship possibliities through a school, but also outside what the school offers. If the OP is interested in getting an internship in mass transit, then going to a program in Iowa City or Ames will likely not fit the bill as well compared to nearby UIC.

    As for DC, I'll offer a clarifying point. D.C. is not a poorly planned city. It is one of the best planned cities in the U.S. (does not hold true for MD/VA suburbs). It is, and has been, poorly managed - an effect of the governance since rather than its original design.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian rcgplanner's avatar
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    I disagree with you on some of your points. I went to grad school in a small metro area in Minnesota of about 50,000. The city had an active downtown and had some well planned areas. The alums from my program ended up in good jobs all over the country, for example I am a planner in Indiana now. The other major graduate planning program in Minnesota is at the U of M. Many of the alums from that program ended up in academia or think tanks. You should look at what a program can offer. Is it more policy and theory based or more technical and hands-on? My program was more hands-on and I believe this helps job-prospects. When I graduated I knew how to develop and plat a subdivision. In my historic preservation class I learned how to do HABS/HAER drawings. All of my classes had similar hands-on components.

    I think going to school in a "badly planned" location can be very educational in terms of what not to do. I would agree with Nick, future employers perception of your program matter a lot more than your perception if a community is not well planned. Most major college towns have a good bit of culture, even if they are in the middle of a corn field. Even well planned areas have a lot of sprawl, it's just how this country is.

    You should look at each program and their strengths. If your interest is in transportation, look for programs that are strong in transportation. If the program is strong in your interest AND in a great location, even better! But don't count out a strong program because it may be in a smaller town.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by DCycle View post
    As for DC, I'll offer a clarifying point. D.C. is not a poorly planned city. It is one of the best planned cities in the U.S. (does not hold true for MD/VA suburbs). It is, and has been, poorly managed - an effect of the governance since rather than its original design.
    I think we are on the same page.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

  7. #7
    Quote Originally posted by nrschmid View post
    I think you should focus more on how potential employers view each school and less on your own perception of each community/metro area (you might be way off). I highly encourage you to set up informational interviews with firms, public sector agencies to hear their recommendations on schools. Search previous posts. In the Midwest, Iowa State and Ball State have pretty good programs that churn out good planners and they are in the cornfields. I graduated from Urbana-Champaign (another cornfield school) and we are NOT all rural planners.

    Unless you are dead set on working in a particular metro area right after school, I think you can be a tad more flexible in which school you attend. Personally, I tend to place more weight on the quality of the courses (more hands-on versus theory), career services within the planning department , internship placement, and networking opportunities for students and less weight on geographic location, faculty credentials, new labs/studio. You can have a planning program right in the middle of a busy city, but if there are few if any internship opportunities or employers are reluctant to hire you, is it really a useful planning program?

    My personal rant about DC (a.k.a. I gave you fair warning)
    I think DC is a terribly planned city. Yes, it is visually appealing and has a first-rate transit system on par with many cities in Europe and Asia. However, it is pretty dicey in many areas except for the NW Quadrant. Congress has controlled it since its creation, and it has improved at a snail-like pace over the past 200 years. My uncle owns several properties in the NW and SE Quadrants (in addition to having an MUP under his belt) and has been rehabbing many of these units over the past 20 years. He is hedging his bets that the new Stadium in the SE Quadrant will lead to higher property values. My sister lived in DC for 3 years and complained how terribly transient the town is, with no one staying longer than 4 years (seems like a college town). For our nation's capital, I am outright disgusted with the poor planning in many, but not all areas, outside the National Mall. In some ways, it is as dumpy as many areas of East St. Louis, IL. I am applying for federal planning jobs, and there might be the possibility of having to relocate to that "town" for a few years.

    I'm not sure what you mean about being right in the middle of the action with federal policies put forth in congress. Do you want to be a city planner, federal planner, or a congressional aide? Even though the City of Washington DC and the District of Columbia are now one and the same (with the City still run by Congress), what goes on Capital Hill has little/nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the City. On a positive note, DC would be a plus for networking opportunities if you want to work as a planner in the federal government after graduation. I am sure plenty of planning schools in DC are respected in other communities as well.


    Actually my dream job would be to work for the U.S. DOT. Well........I don't know. The private sector definitely entices me. But in any case, no I don't plan on working for local gov't forever, not unless I can move through the ranks and become a regional planning director. The point is, I don't want to get my degree and be a Planner I, II, or III for the rest of my life (no disrespect to people in any of those positions, after all right now I'm just a lowly student). The only point I'm making is, I want a degree that allows me to go ANYWHERE in planning. I want a degree that knows no bounds. Sometimes I read on here that certain schools and certain programs are good "if you want to work in the local area/city/metro area." I don't want that kind of degree. I want one that's highly respected nationwide, one that I can take with me anywhere across the country.


    Other than that.....thanks everyone for their insights. Keep 'em coming.....after all, I've got a good 17-18 months before I actually start grad school, and about 6 months or so before I even BEGIN applying.


    P.S. Though I'm not a professional planner or anything, I'd also have to disagree with you that D.C. is poorly planned. By contrast, I think it's the best planned city in the country (or at least best planned that I've been to......perhaps smaller "new towns" like Columbia, MD are better planned). But in any case, whenever I go to D.C. (I was last there in January for the inauguration) I am ALWAYS impressed by how well designed the city is. It's absolutely a work of art. I think the other poster who noted that D.C. is poorly managed hit it right on the money. Hardly anyone can argue against that. I've been to Southeast D.C., Anacostia, etc. I have relatives who once lived in the area. It's rough, I know. But I do think it's important to distinguish a poor plan from poor management. D.C. is a wonderfully designed city IMHO, and I only wish other major cities here in the U.S. were as well designed.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    Considering planning program rankings don't matter all too much, it is the PAB accreditation that matters, I don't see location being that important. The most important factor I see with location is you will likely start working around the area you went to school, so pick an area you like. The area around the school will undoubtedly be used as a living lab of sorts where you can see planning in action, but just because the school isn't in a major urban area, doesn't mean you won't get experience with it. A lot of those schools go on field trips, like Iowa to Chicago etc.

    For myself, I'm kind of weighing the perceived job opportunities I see of an area after I graduate when deciding on a school. For example, I perceive California (despite its budget issues) to have more a diverse selection of planning opportunities that interest me compared to some place like Texas. Also the idea of California trying to implement a high speed rail line in the next decade or so does interest me as a planner, especially in regards to transit oriented development.

    Basically what I'm trying to get at is pick a school in an area that interests you. As long as the school is PAB accredited and offers the emphasis you want, I wouldn't worry too much how people perceive the school. The school only really matters in landing your first job and if it is in an area you like, all the better.

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    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Jazzman View post
    And even UNC bothers me because I know that the Raleigh-Durham area, though it's a decent-sized metro area, is one big sprawl-fest, as is the rest of North Carolina (and the rest of the South for that matter). UNC seems like a VERY attractive program, but the fact that it's located in such a poorly planned area really, really irks me.
    I have to call you on this. The Raleigh-Durham area may be low-density, but poorly-planned is is not. Cary is one of the most meticulously planned cities in the nation. It is a city where plans have become reality over and over again. Raleigh is also a very well planned city, with sufficient infrastructure and an intact revitalizing downtown. The Raleigh greenway network is second to none on the East Coast, save for DC. The Research Triangle Park, the growth engine for the region, was also a result of successful planning. There is planning in the works for a regional rail system and Chapel Hill has one of the most amazing transit systems for a city its size anywhere. All in all, the region is very progressive and willing to experiment and try new and exciting things.

    In short, what better place to be a planner than one of the fastest growning regions in the nation? Take it from me: planning is not very fun is nothing you plan is ever built.

  10. #10
    Thanks for your input, Blide.


    Quote Originally posted by jmello View post
    I have to call you on this. The Raleigh-Durham area may be low-density, but poorly-planned is is not. Cary is one of the most meticulously planned cities in the nation. It is a city where plans have become reality over and over again. Raleigh is also a very well planned city, with sufficient infrastructure and an intact revitalizing downtown. The Raleigh greenway network is second to none on the East Coast, save for DC. The Research Triangle Park, the growth engine for the region, was also a result of successful planning. There is planning in the works for a regional rail system and Chapel Hill has one of the most amazing transit systems for a city its size anywhere. All in all, the region is very progressive and willing to experiment and try new and exciting things.

    In short, what better place to be a planner than one of the fastest growning regions in the nation? Take it from me: planning is not very fun is nothing you plan is ever built.


    I'm not in disagreement with you.........but I'd love to see this well-planned development you're talking about. I'm not asking you to pull up pictures or anything, I'll probably just look it up myself, but you've got my curiousity piqued now. Because the very first thing I thought to myself the first time I went to North Carolina was "wow, this is one huge SPRAWL-FEST." Traveling from Charlotte to Greensboro to Durham along I-85 is one long line of low-density, auto-centric, un-sustainable development, that's for sure. It was very typical of what you see here in the South. And it didn't seem to get much better in the greater RDU area. If there are pockets of high-density, TOD, new urbanist style developments in the metro area, I'd love to see it.

    Also, I think a regional rail system would be just what the area needs.........I know Charlotte has just opened a new LRT within the past couple of years.

    This really could be a topic for another thread, but I really believe that southern cities have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to planning. And this is not really the fault of southern planners - at least not current ones. The South has not urbanized until very recently, so there hasn't exactly been a long legacy of city planning here. The South has a much more liberatarian, get-out-of-my-face-big-government mentality than the Midwestern and Northeastern states - many, if not most people here don't understand why you can't have a pig-sty next to a 4,000 square foot home. This is not just something I've observed, but something practicing planners here have also noted as well.

    And it's hard to deny that the vast majority of southern cities are, in fact, sprawl-zillas as I like to call them. What is the South's flagship city? Atlanta? Houston? Dallas? All are known for their horribly unsustainable development over the last 50-60 years, the worst victims of this endemic post-war American style of development that's afflicted every part of the country in some way shape or form.

    ANYWAY.......if there are other bright spots across the RDU area, I certainly didn't see them, but hey I've never lived there. I've only been there. I reserve the right to be wrong

  11. #11
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Jazzman View post
    ...and University of North Carolina. And even UNC bothers me because I know that the Raleigh-Durham area, though it's a decent-sized metro area, is one big sprawl-fest, as is the rest of North Carolina (and the rest of the South for that matter). UNC seems like a VERY attractive program, but the fact that it's located in such a poorly planned area really, really irks me....but still probably light-years ahead of the Ninth Circle of Sprawl Hell that is North Carolina
    ouch Jazzman...as a triangle area planner, I could give you ten reasons why you are wrong, but that isn't the question, is it?

    UNC is a very good program, I work with several UNC planners, some the few that actually stay in NC, and they are very good and the program has an excellent reputation. Where you go to school does matter, but really, planning is all about making things better, the challenge. I can tell you working the 'ninth circle of sprawl hell' as you call it, is alot more interesting than being in some large over crowded city because I get to apply all the good stuff I learned in school for the betterment of a place that is growing. Raleigh-Durham, is a fascinating and interesting place to work and we have alot of good planning here, but your aren't going to see good planning driving by on the highway.

    But seriously, you can go to most any school and intern at a city, a town, a county, a regional agency, a federal agency, a private firm, etc...its all about how you apply your studies.

    PS: Thanks JMello, I wholeheartedly agree, obviously, I like your area of NC too!
    Last edited by beach_bum; 10 Mar 2009 at 11:29 AM.
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  12. #12
    Quote Originally posted by beach_bum View post
    ouch Jazzman...as a triangle area planner, I could give you ten reasons why you are wrong, but that isn't the question, is it?


    Please do! I'm not saying that to be sarcastic or a smart-ass or anything like that......but if I have a negative perception of an area, I'm always open to someone saying or showing me something that changes that for me. If I'm wrong, I don't mind being called out on it at all.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian
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    I am finding this conversation fascinating and I can relate to both sides. I grew up in Charlotte, but went to school in NYC and have lived mostly in brooklyn for the past 8 years. I just got into UNC and think it might be my top choice. I have always been more interested in medium sized cities, I think, because I grew up in one. I rode the light rail in Charlotte last time I was home and was amazed by how many people were using it. It was packed! At that point, I had to check some of the negative feelings I had about the development (ie. Charlotte residents are wed to their cars, it will never work). The more I think about it, the more opportunity I see in these fast growing areas.

    Also, I think there a lot of smaller cities that are very interesting in the south. Ashville, Richmond, Charleston, etc. But you are right that most of the large cities are sprawl crazy. But, even in Atlanta they are working on greenways, etc.

    Seems to me like a big challenge with a lot of opportunity for change.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Jazzman View post
    Please do! I'm not saying that to be sarcastic or a smart-ass or anything like that......but if I have a negative perception of an area, I'm always open to someone saying or showing me something that changes that for me. If I'm wrong, I don't mind being called out on it at all.
    Thanks Jazzman, this is not the thread for it, but one project I could point you to that is interesting is the re-development of the American Tobacco Campus in Durham.

    FWIW, I went to school in a college town, like Chapel Hill and I feel I got a great planning education that is highly valued and valuable.
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

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