Thinking Like an Urban Planner at a Jesuit University

By Jamie Kralovec

As an urban planner and a committed practitioner of Jesuit spirituality, I have found working for Georgetown University’s master’s program in Urban and Regional Planning to be an enriching opportunity to join my passions. I am a newcomer to higher education, having worked previously in government and nonprofit roles, and my time at Georgetown has invited me to reflect on how Jesuit colleges and universities incorporate urban planning into their work. Jesuit embrace of the city is nothing new, trickling down from the founding vision of St. Ignatius, whose commitment to the city remains at the heart of Jesuit higher education. Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., affirmed the contrasting appeals of the university-city relationship when he wrote in this magazine in 2000: “The contemporary Jesuit university finds in the classroom of its urban community both resources that feed the mind and stretch the imagination, and human needs that summon us to service.”

In this article I will outline some of the ways that Jesuit universities can deepen their special relationship with local place by thinking like urban planners, a discipline devoted to the study and practice of the built environment. How do we put the discipline of urban planning into practice in our academic programs, community based learning and research, and external engagement? What resources does urban planning offer Jesuit universities that are striving to take advantage of the incredible opportunities of city life while addressing the challenges of justice ever present in the contemporary city?

Background on Urban Planning

 Saint Peter's University 

Saint Peter's University 

What is urban planning and what does it seek to influence? Broadly speaking, urban planning provides communities of varying sizes with the tools to guide and manage the orderly development of the built environment while ensuring human health and well-being. It is an interdisciplinary set of practices that rely on planning processes to address various elements affecting communities, including environmental sustainability, affordable housing, public health and safety, and transportation. Planners serve society in many roles, ranging from more traditional responsibilities in local government to innovative positions in research institutions, universities, private sector firms, and community organizations. A discipline with an ancient legacy, urban planning in the United States did not become an academic institution until the late 1920s and 1930s following the professionalization of planning at the national level.

At its core, urban planning is a structured way of assisting communities as they solve their challenges and shape their futures. To do this at various scales of community, planners use different methods and tools. The “rational model” is one of the most common approaches followed in a traditional planning process: 1) undertake a detailed survey of existing conditions; 2) articulate goals; 3) identify problems; 4) evaluate and select alternatives to address the problems; and 5) implement the resulting plan.

Skilled planners, regardless of where they work, tend to rely upon technologically-enabled data collection, stakeholder input, spatial visualization of data and findings, and recommendations for policy and development. Planning is an indispensable tool for collaborative decision-making and visioning of a community’s aspirations. Motivated by social justice, contemporary planning practice in the United States strives to be attentive to issues of social and economic equity.

What Is the Value of Urban Planning in Our Jesuit Universities?

The toolkit of urban planning methods can be deployed in many ways at the university. I will briefly share some of the ways that Jesuit universities are already using urban planning to advance mission, providing a broad framework for how university administrators might leverage planning’s value in their internal and external engagement.

Research, Data Support Communities

While few Jesuit universities offer dedicated degrees in urban planning, many employ trained urban planners on faculty and in research capacities to improve understanding of the social and economic changes occurring in local places surrounding the university. The university can be a critical local partner by leveraging the intellectual capital of its faculty to illuminate changing economic, social, and cultural dynamics. Informing community leaders and policy makers about deeper trends and social realities not immediately evident on the surface, the “gritty reality of this world” described by former Superior General Kolvenbach is a powerful use of research capacity for the common good. Several Jesuit universities host research centers dedicated to the study of their cities. These include the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola University Chicago, the Center for Urban and Applied Research at Le Moyne College, and the Center for Sustainability at St. Louis University. Accessible and usable practical research provided by these centers supports Jesuit mission priorities around local efforts to advance economic, social, and environmental justice.

Planners in Service of Local Aspirations

As an inherently applied practice, urban planning lends itself easily to community-engaged forms of collaborative service and capacity building. Urban planners at the university can add needed capacity for community-based organizations and other local groups that cannot afford high-cost consultants and expensive technology. The university can serve as a partner in the development of community-driven plans as well as a platform of ongoing technical assistance as plans are implemented and adapted to changing conditions.

At Xavier University, the Community Building Institute(CBI), which houses a staff of planners and researchers, assists area nonprofit development organizations with technical resources, capacity-building, and data-based planning to realize comprehensive place-based redevelopment. CBI has provided technical assistance to organizations in several historically disinvested Cincinnati neighborhoods that have realized their aspirations, leading to the creation of work-training programs and community theater projects among other  accomplishments.

At Georgetown University, a cross-listed graduate urban planning studio between the planning program and the law center is dedicated to studying the impacts of remapping a flood-plain zone along the Anacostia River in the heart of a historic African-American neighborhood on the east side of the city. Students produce technical reports, analysis, and recommendations for future public investment and new land use development controls that are informing the work of local residents, community organizations, public officials, and other stakeholders.

Physical Development and Sustainability

One of the most evident uses of urban planning is the facilitation of the university’s physical presence that shapes and forms surrounding neighborhoods, including construction of campus facilities and the location of community-serving amenities owned by the university. Fordham University’s development of its Lincoln Center campus in the 1960s as an urban renewal project at the invitation of master citybuilder Robert Moses is one prominent example of a large-scale campus expansion in the modern era with significant impact on its receiving neighborhood. In other cases, Jesuit universities intentionally locate community engagement offices, service-learning centers, and other university amenities in higher need urban neighborhoods to serve community-identified needs more directly. Seattle University, for example, through its Youth Initiative has chosen to direct resources from the university’s educational programs in one particular neighborhood to improve the academic outcomes for low-income youth living in the attendance zone around Bailey Gatzert Elementary School.

In the wake of Laudato Si’ and a growing awareness of the role played by cities in environmental stewardship, universities are using their community engagement and development activities to address climate change. Campus master plans dedicated to sustainability goals and the creation of sustainability offices celebrate the commitment of Jesuit universities to the energy efficiency of the campus’s physical infrastructure. Green efforts abound at Jesuit universities. In a particularly innovative example, the University of San Francisco created a community garden, with a greenhouse built by architecture students, which serves as a “living laboratory” for its urban agriculture students as well as source of sustainable urban food production for community dinners.

An Invitation

In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius invites the retreatant to a composition of place, utilizing one’s senses to imagine material settings in time and space as the basis for interior contemplation. I see a thread between Ignatius’ invitation to think deeply and concretely about place as the background for spiritual growth and the Jesuit mission to fully and justly engage both the opportunities and challenges of the city by using the resources of urban planning. How do we imagine the Jesuit mission commitment of our universities to the cities that surround the university? While urban planning and its many applications are already operating in many Jesuit colleges and universities, I think there is more room for us to individually and collectively marshal planning methods in our work as faculty, administrators, and community partners.

Jamie Kralovec is an administrator and lecturer at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, where he teaches “Jesuit Values in Professional Practice,” a community-based learning elective introducing professional and liberal studies students to the applicability of Jesuit values to personal and professional life. Prior to Georgetown, Jamie served on President Obama’s White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities.

The cover photo is a cover of Fordham University's Lincoln Center Campus.