Frugal urbanism: Considering urban planning studies? Get started with these low- to no-cost resources

What a weird time to be contemplating starting or finishing an urban planning or urban studies degree in the US, especially if:

A) it requires on-campus interaction;
B) tuition has gone up or is not affordable.

I’m all for formal higher education, but it seems that we have an obligation to physically distance this year when possible. Whatever you decide to do in September, consider these resouces for learning about (and being a part of) urban planning:

One: Above all, make sure that you have an active library card or cards (in some cases available to non-residents and non-students) and get in the habit of READING and taking notes daily — books, plans, reports, dissertations and articles that interest you.  Read about the (cultural, environmental, built form etc.) history and conditions of your hometown, favorite cities and/or place(s) where you plan to study or work. Ask colleagues for reading recommendations about specific places or topics. While not a typical urban planning book list, here are some of my suggestions.

Two: Learn about your local government’s current and past annual budgeting, and get involved (remotely) in 2021 budgeting — what have been the priorities? Think about what infrastructure or other projects have been delayed or lost funding over the years? What hasn’t been prioritized with budgeting? What do your friends and neighbors think should be priorities? For future generations (thinking of the likely time frame of many urban planning projects)?

Three: Study your city’s and county’s FEMA Hazard Mitigation Action Plan or similar (any “environmental constraints” planning). If your area lacks or has an expired Hazard Mitigation Plan, find out what is being done to address this. Does your local budget reflect concerns or commitments made to address certain hazards? Bonus: Maybe join or form a local FEMA Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) or similar — to learn more about some of the public health hazards that urban planning aims to avoid or mitigate (a core of the work).

Four: Take a look at Planetizen — a source for news, jobs, publishing and many free resources (including a list of top urban planning twitter accounts).

Five: Check out The Overhead Wire — another compendium of urban planning news, jobs and resources, plus a smashing podcast hosted by Jeff Wood.

Six: Keep an eye on Bloomberg CityLab for featured writing about urban design, culture, transportation, environmental issues, economic development, housing, equity and governance.

Seven: Review the work and aims of UN-Habitat — including their Urban Lectures YouTube series. Be aware of all the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but be especially attentive to Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Eight: If you use Facebook, interact with academic urban planning by joining the group Planners 2040.

Nine: Register for free webinars offered by Smart Growth Online (a project of the Maryland Department of Planning, funded by the U.S. EPA Office of Sustainable Communities). Some of the presentations are recorded and can be watched online.

In a better year, I would also suggest traveling lightly, frugally and widely by mass transit — as nothing beats exploring cities and different (particularly the lowest cost modes) of transportation, housing and even work directly; too many planners don’t do enough of this. Students can experience much of Canada, the US and Mexico by bus (Greyhound, Megabus, BoltBus, Flixbus, Omnibus etc.), planning ahead and researching for the best prices and schedules (don’t rely just on platforms like Rome2rio).

Bus travel can also mean time for reading and writing, and saving on accommodation costs. It can also be a fantastic way to visit colleges and universities. Regardless, the suggestions here offer a frugal supplement and approach to urban planning studies.

(What resources am I missing? Please contact me with your suggestions!)

— Last updated July 18, 2020

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