Schooling for Planning & Design

The Sad State of the University Degree for Planners & Designers

For the past four decades, technology has improved nearly all aspects of our life – except for the physical land development patterns of our cities. The 1960’s suburban pattern, still in use today, is unsustainable. However, the ‘architectural’ answer to the ‘planning’ problem of sprawling subdivisions has been to simply go backwards to the gridded past.

Without a high degree of architectural and landscaping detail, this model, known as New Urbanism, does not work. As such, there are few (if any) affordable New Urbanist non-subsidized developements. The Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) boasts of their success in gentrification, but instead of reinventing ‘design’ to address the problems, the architect’s answer is to make site plan function as if it as a simplistic rectangular floor plan.

The CNU objective is to create a pedestrian oriented society and do everything possible to do away with car ownership. To combat suburban sprawl, they attack those who invest in suburban homes even though they represent 80 percent of the housing market growth. Even with the nearly three decades New Urbanists have promoted this singular solution, there are relatively few actual CNU projects.

One of the largest groups of CNU followers are university professors who teach young, impressionable minds that suburbia is terrible and only high density is the answer. These students go deep into debt thinking that they will be part of a vast new era of change, however, when they look for employment in the real world, they are miserably unprepared. The technical skills taught in Urban Planning and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) revolve around software and training supplied by ESRI, and for architectural or civil engineering students, most likely an AutoCAD targeted module like Civil3D or Revitt, the current industry-leading software products.

To understand why this is a problem, I will share experiences with graduate students hired as interns, not mentioning the school. I am based in Minneapolis.

I interviewed a graduate from the Urban Studies program a few years ago who did not understand what an easement or a right-of-way was. He had no classes on how a plan or plat was put together, along with no design courses, no knowledge of surveying or civil engineering which is the basis of all redevelopment and growth. I decided to take on the challenge and hired the student to teach him basic things you would think would be taught to a graduate student.

A few months ago, I took an intern (same university) graduating this spring in GIS and mapping. Again, you would think the basic premise of mapping would be an intricate knowledge of surveying and subdivision planning, at least. But nay, nay – none was taught. I asked, why a career in GIS? He said that his first intention was to become a civil engineer, but they immediately placed him in the mathematically demanding structural side of civil engineering, which proved too much for him. Instead of having a dedicated civil ‘site’ engineering course with simplistic math to learn, he made the choice to become a GIS technician. Again, going massively into student debt. These interns were both taught a targeted social engineering agenda that ignored where most of the growth was, and will continue to be, the suburbs.

Four decades ago, before software and New Urbanism existed, students were taught design. Slowly, a metamorphosis occurred from a hands-on approach to one where the designer is limited by the functions of the technology being taught. I began developing software four decades ago and within a decade began to realize software was not actually about design. It is about how fast the end user can produce that architectural or civil engineering plan, which is slowly but surely destroying design.

This is why it seems like every new apartment building or commercial center looks as if the same architect was used – in a way it is, because the architect is more software, not a person. Today’s CAD and GIS software has reduced design to replicable keystrokes in predetermined software functions, which dumbs down design and promotes the cookie-cutter monotony typical of all suburban subdivisions and urban redevelopments.

For the past 26 years, in order to remedy this situation, our studio developed pioneering technology enabled methods to design over 1,000 land developments in 47 states and 18 nations to date. These methods have a demonstrated average reduction of infrastructure by 27 percent, without a density loss or reduced existing regulatory minimums, as compared to conventional design methods.

When compared to the New Urbanism taught in universities, we have seen examples where infrastructure is reduced by up to 60 percent with our methods. Reduced right-of-way can provide a density increase without sacrificing space and privacy – valued by the suburban dweller. The increased open space allows better models for vehicular and pedestrian connectivity and efficiency, as well as a coordination of architecture and site design to enhance views, curb appeal, value and livability, while reducing environmental impacts.

By curing the ills of suburbia, we deflate the CNU agenda, so it is no surprise few professors embrace the reinvention of planning, both in design and in regulation writing.

A dozen years ago we began investing heavily in creating a new form of technical solution. Software in the form that exists today simply automates past methods. We needed to develop a product that would educate the advanced design methods and not rely on the ‘paint by numbers’ solution that limits possibilities. Software is a tool. The saying – “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”, is true of the CAD and GIS products being taught. We needed to teach our market-proven design discoveries and develop a completely different kind of a tool that would not limit the art of design.

As the architect Frank Gehry stated: “Creativity is about play and a kind of willingness to go with your intuition. It’s crucial to an artist.” Art cannot happen with the current ‘paint by numbers’ approach. Nor can growth be functional when graduates today have only a singular skill – either architecture, engineering, mapping, or social engineering (i.e. what used to be known as planning). Design must function better, and without a general knowledge of all these skills there cannot be progress for the masses who cannot afford nor desire to live in overly dense gentrified neighborhoods.

To tear down this roadblock to sustainability, design education and technology needed to merge engineering, surveying, architecture, and planning to eliminate the barriers to sustainability in the current uncollaborative design industry. This is why we called our new system LandMentor.

Planning commissions routinely approve and deny submittals by developers in the exact same form as 60 years ago – a two dimensional plan projected on a screen. To solve this problem we incorporated the first application using virtual reality for public land development approval which harnesses video gaming that can be mastered in minutes, eliminating the high costs and complexity of CAD and GIS that discourage 3D use. No longer will planning commissions and council members need to imagine what the development will look like when completed – with VR they will see and feel it.

Students spend years learning complex CAD and GIS technology that have made these software giants billions of dollars. There is little time left for the students to learn how to be leaders in design and decision making. Our all-inclusive core system (no modules or options) eliminated cumbersome commands harnessing a patented user interface. Our goal was to educate the use of software, the land development process, innovative design methods, as well as the use of 3D and VR, in less than two weeks.

To enter a market saturated with CAD and GIS software is a daunting and seemingly impossible task. A few months ago I came across, a blog frequented by urban study and GIS students who were complaining that their education was not going to empower them to change the world. I contacted this group and asked them, what if we could provide the technology and training that would change the world? What if we provided this system (marketed at the time for $50,000 a seat) exclusively to students at no charge for a one year license? What if we provided a second free year to the top 33% of the students who demonstrated the most dedication to learn and experiment?

Today, through, we hope to create a grassroots movement that will empower the future leaders of growth to make sustainability something real. Students in urban studies, civil engineering, surveying, planning, architecture, landscape architecture, real estate, and construction have a single system to learn that can replace or supplement other technologies. Those who dedicate the time and effort will not need to go further into debt and will be highly desirable and functional as they enter the employment marketplace.

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of LandMentor. His websites are and