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


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This should have been posted as a reply--see below. I can't delete it.

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I’d like to hear lots more on the new alternatives, and a lot less about a new-tech dog-and-pony show that can be used to sell the proclaimed new alternatives

“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.”

3D is indeed nice, but it’s not really that hard to imagine buildings and infrastructure. Will the VR be so complete that it shows the back-room deals and insider speculation and bribes that normally accompany projects of such magnitude that this kind of visualization tool is useful? Municipal government, and local voters, however, can readily visualize those too. Is the VR more than an attempt to distract them, and sell the high-level politicians and media promoting corrupt projects a new pseudo-scientific toy to invoke in the effort to suppress local control?

I see room for doubt on this, since you start from the unqualified statement that “The 1960's suburban pattern, still in use today, is unsustainable”, which you follow with the direct implication that the New Urbanist model will work, given the “high degree of architectural and landscaping detail” your product enables.

More credible would be the uncontroversial acknowledgement that there’s room for improvement and updating in the 60’s suburban model, and some detail on how you propose to improve on it, combined with support for your implication that something currently existing, or something to be proposed that might actually happen, is more sustainable than the suburbs as they stand right now.

(I don't know why this is coming out in italics. It doesn't in the preview.)

Reply to the above

As far as alternatives, if you do a search on this website on Rick Harrison you will find dozens of posts on the methods that are taught within the documentation and training that comes within the system. This is where the system departs from all other solutions. In all others (software packages) they only automate a known method. For example if you use Microsoft Word, it will not make you a better writer or author. However, if the documentation on learning word concentrated more on how to teach better writing, then it becomes a very different product. So this is a new way to distribute technology, and why it is so important for today's students that are taught limited skills to prepare them for employment.

And about VR, you are totally wrong about that. We were the worlds first consulting firm to use VR using the Oculus Rift headset in public planning commission and council meetings for site plan approval. The first was in Springfield, Nebraska for the approval of Springfield Pines over a year ago, where planning and council members took turns to experience the site as if being there - including views from within the homes to the exterior spaces and the beautiful meandering streetscape exactly as if it was built. Cumbersome at a public meeting? You bet, but effective. Other public meetings were to follow, however, the Oculus prototype led to the production unit which was far too demanding on hardware specs, and overly priced for cities to adopt for each member, thus became for us, unmarketable. Oculus did not seem to give us any support in promotion, as we were not a gaming solution. We are now on the waiting list for the Beta $299 Microsoft VR which is far more likely to be a quickly adoptable on a massive scale. We should have it operational within 30 days of receiving the prototype, and like all aspects of the solution there are no options or add-ons (another industry departure from the norm). A complete neighborhood plan in virtual reality adds anywhere from 10 minutes to about an hour to develop and if custom homes need to be created that's about an hour each in Trimbles SketchUp.

This link will show you an example of a neighborhood we just got approved last month:

The video uses Camtasia to create the movie, as the movement is live action using an X-Box 360 controller, because it IS a Video Game, and as we all know, about 99.9% of those students using the software will already know how to 'play' a video game. Thus, the learning curve should be minutes at most.

The trick was how to create a precision surveying and civil engineering based design system that demands a high level of precision when using video gaming as the base graphics that gets it's speed by being non-precise! For that reason, the interactive 3D opens a sister program.

As far as the New Urbanism, the technology it's training itself does not care about design techniques, however, we do teach how to replicate much of the vast number of articles posted in NewGeography that are found when you do a search on my name as stated above.

The problem with most New Urbanists is there is no room for other options and that their formula for success while working in certain locations and demographics has failed miserably in many attempts. Yet, there is no press, no acknowledgement, and no checks and balances, just blind promoting of it's foundation. And students are not being taught viable solutions for that 80% of the growth that IS suburban.

What we teach is very simple: Ways to make a task that is within the land development process better. From initial surveying, to the land plan, to civil engineering, then how architecture relates to the site (where living spaces and windows expand space and views), to the presentation. The system teaches all of this including the financial modeling developed in conjunction with Skip Preble of LandAnalytics who is considered one of the best in the industry. No solution and no degree teaches the full scope of development. Now students have that opportunity to expand their future with a full knowledge of development, including the future leaders for the New Urbanism who will be more qualified to make the financial, environmental, and design decisions to make far more successful New Urban developments as well as suburban. No student debt. We donate it all!

Believe me, the financial risk and time I (and my family) took developing this system for the past 12 years made me think, am I nuts?

Well, nobody else has addressed these issues including ALL of the software leaders who have profited billions and gave nothing in return. None of the professors are teaching the market proven methods we developed even though it represents at least $60 billion in construction, on over 1,000 developments in 47 states and 18 nations. Not one.

The auto industry has also spent billion upon billions to reduce consumption, yet they and the EPA, LEED, CNU, APA, AIA, and all others ignored a simple fact: The streets could be designed in a way to plummet both time and energy! That too is taught within the system!

Pedestrian connectivity? Why not design the pedestrian system first as a independent system that encourages a stroll and not build more streets and right-of-ways to justify pedestrian convenience? Cost? Well that plummets also when dome as prescribed.

Architecture? The New Urban solution is simple - slap a full front porch on that home. We agree, homes should have a porch, and I personally promote that in my own planning business, but that's pretty much where the New Urbansim stops. In this system we teach the students to collaborate - all fields have a stake in creating better neighborhoods. We have neighborhoods being built today where 100% of the homes on a production scale coordinate the views and living spaces within every home to the adjacent vast open spaces abutting the house - that greatly increases the importance of architecture far beyond that of a porch. This increases livability and value without adding costs, thus like the other methods a financial win for the builder who expedites sales, the developer who can produce larger and more premium lots with less construction costs without sacrificing density (because they are building far less street length), the home owner at all income levels (not just gentrification), the ongoing lower maintenance costs of less public and private infrastructure, and the safer more atractive neighborhood with a stable tax base. That is what we teach through this free system available now to all students that are directly or indirectly involved in the land development industry - at our cost! No angel investors, no Congress of New Urbanism, no political ties, and no other agenda.

So yes, we decided to take matters in our own hands and take on the time, money, and risk. Can it fail? Yes, absolutely. The world has become complacent. It's very easy to boast about beliefs, but to perform, people need to make an effort to retool, learn, and be proactive.

Engineers and architects who have grown accustomed to charge a percentage of construction costs by using the same software all of their competition uses to automate as much as possible will not like to adopt a solution that requires an effort to learn how to actually think and design again while reducing construction costs that destroys their business model. The New Urbanist solution is simple - a tee-square and triangle is the required tool set, our geometric model requires a dedication. To learn how to design a subdivision plat is far easier than learning to drive, so anyone and everyone is a planner, and that my friend is the problem. To learn this new tool is extremely simplistic, a fraction of the time of CAD and GIS - however, we needed to do that so we could concentrate on teaching the full aspects of the land development process (also not taught anywhere) suburban and urban redevelopment expanding into writing better regulations that reward developers and having land use transitions that make more sense. The more dedicated the students to dive into this opportunity, the greater and more valuable their skills. This would be more equivalent to learning how to fly a plane - yes more demanding but far more rewarding.

Please search NewGeography using Rick Harrison and you will get your answers.

Thank you for your feedback.


But why preserve New Urbanism?

Looking up your past articles, I do indeed see discussions of sound and innovative planning principles, an interesting take on suburban planning, a full recognition of the importance of maintaining viable suburbs, and consistent and fundamental skepticism of “New” Urbanism. The principles discussed are such as would benefit greatly, at the *planning* stage, from the sort of mapping technology you describe.

These articles can be easily found by clicking on your name under the article title, on either on the article page or the home page.

However, I retain my suspicions of the ease with which VR can be misused as smoke-and-mirrors at the *presentation* stage.

More importantly, as I pointed out, the wording of the present article points in the opposite direction. Here, as I said, “you start from the unqualified statement that ‘The 1960's suburban pattern, still in use today, is unsustainable’, which you follow with the direct implication that the New Urbanist model will work, given the ‘high degree of architectural and landscaping detail’ your product enables.

This may well have been just an inadvertent slip, due to the necessarily brief space given to background already discussed in earlier articles about principles, in an article where the main topic was the technology used to implement those principles.

But I see no reason to believe that any technology, however useful and well-designed, and however well backed up with instruction on general principles, is going to make any real change in what the New Urbanism establishment does. As you point out, here and elsewhere, the people being trained in today’s planning programs at universities lack even basic real-world knowledge of how planning is carried out and what its goals are in serving the public, and are formed by an ideology that claims to supersede all such considerations. This will not be changed by one piece of technology, or by instruction from one source that goes against everything else they have been taught, and against everything else they hear from the media, from the politicians who have the biggest contracts to offer, and from most current employers in their field.

They may well take up the new technology. The decades-old “New” Urbanism is constantly (and lately, rather frantically) looking to repackage itself without making any real change. But no technology, and no instruction, can guarantee that they will use the new technology to produce anything but what they have produced in the past, dressed up with proclamations about the new technology used, and a few superficial travesties of the new principles. The package will be sold with whatever new smoke-and-mirrors capabilities are available.

For instance, take a novel principle, such as “ditch the grid”, that is valuable in certain circumstances and within certain limits. (It works on a small scale in suburban *residential* developments, and you make a compelling case for its potential in such situations, when scientifically applied.) In incompetent hands, any technology will take that principle and produce horrors.

Since we both live in the Twin Cities area, I can cite as examples 1) Central Eden Prairie, and 2) the insane Bren Road business park in northeast Eden Prairie. South Minneapolis’s “Tangletown” is also notorious, though I don’t know that area and can’t judge for myself about it. Non-grid residential development has in fact been very widely applied in the Twin Cities suburbs, and its limitations have become apparent: if the tangle isn’t broken by a more-or-less regular and predictable grid, or something approaching a grid, at roughly half-mile intervals, navigation becomes impossible except for people who live there driving to their own homes, and through traffic is excluded from too large an area, which wastes a lot of time and causes traffic problems elsewhere, especially if local through-traffic options are eliminated when one or more through roads in the area are disrupted. The Twin Cities has had a lot of experience with that over the past few years.

Your principles, and your technology, may well recognize such details, and put them in the context of other details that must be considered in forming an integrated, coherent plan for a given development on a given site. But it is not realistic to expect that this will be properly applied by members of a specialty that attracts detail-averse people and reinforces this characteristic with ideology and baseless technical doctrine. Thrown into the real world, the products of such training quickly learn that smoke-and-mirrors salesmanship is necessary for maintaining their desired socio-economic status, and soon learn to conform all their thinking and speech to this necessity.

The attempt to enable fundamentally unsuitable specialists is more likely to destroy an industry and discredit its products than it is to drive needed fundamental change.

This is, in fact, a very common pattern for what happens with new technology. It happened in my own specialty, which is graphic communications, and I have written a sketch of a case history of this, which you may find interesting. It shows what happens when a detail-averse, ideologically motivated population, enabled by new technology, takes over an established technical specialty, despite the availability of people and literature that could teach the necessary principles for the proper application of the new technology.

New Urbanists are not going to learn to do anything useful with even the best technology and instruction, unless they unlearn much or most of what they were taught in school, and discard the attitudes with which most of them entered school and which were reinforced by their training. They will not do that unless their employers make it clear to them that they will have no job unless they do. Most of them couldn’t do it even under that pressure. Most of their currently likely employers wouldn’t apply such pressure, since they are the same people with the same training, and have never been under pressure themselves to learn better.

As for employers who are not in the New Urbanism business--employers such as suburban municipalities and small developers--why should they take the trouble and risk of hiring incompetent people and trying to compel them to be otherwise? I can think of only one reason why they do so: the common belief that even a bogus credential from a discredited profession is better than no credential at all. Actually, they may not necessarily believe this, but reliance on credentials, however empty, is often a bureaucratic necessity for businesses and local government under heavy pressure from regional, state, and federal governments who have their own agendas.

Without this interference from above, developers and local government might be more open to hiring people who can demonstrate the necessary real-world skills (including learning skills), regardless of how those skills may have been acquired, and then giving those people the best available real-world instruction, and equipping them with the best available technology. It would be cheaper than awarding critical planning positions to incompetents. Such people could use the technology to great advantage, and would value it highly for what it is, rather than as a novelty useful for keeping their image up to date.

In sum, technology is wonderful but it can never substitute for skills, knowledge, or motivation. If any sort of rational planning is to become prevalent anytime soon, there will be no jobs for the current crop of planning graduates. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. New Urbanism is currently entrenched, but that may not last, now that the electorate is getting restive and skeptical (in Minnesota and in the nation as a whole). The efforts of the aging New Urbanism to repackage itself point to the same conclusion.

The time you spend trying to educate the uneducable might be better spent on educating suburban municipalities, small developers, and consultants or contractors best qualified to replace certified planners. These will be the future of serious planning *if* it has a future. There is no law of nature or social dynamics that says it must have a future, but it is probably a better gamble, even in the medium term, than expecting anything at all from New Urbanism.

Rambler88 reply

All good points, however, my experience with New Urbanist is a wee bit different as some, not all, see the methods prescribed without the religious zeal all assume they have, and when they 'see the light' they begin to realize that there are indeed other options.

You also are correct that not everyone who learns a new technology or methods will adopt it - correctly or not. However, that can be said for all industries and all occupations. We actually teach theory, not any absolute way one must design, but individual elements of design, along with the art of land surveying, and the science of civil engineering, expanding upon the market proven low impact design methods that make economic sense, and financial modeling. Every student will be different. Some will learn enough to get by in a career, and their social life and sports will take priority of success, and other will use the system as a stepping stone to a lifelong successful career - but again, that's no different than any industry.

As far as the 3D, it is that easy, and since your local, just give me a call and let's show you first hand how the virtual reality is created.

Thanks for your replies.