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Laura Switzer
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When the Question is More Important Than the Answer

Design. Plan. Create. That is what we do at Lawrence Group. What is not mentioned but intrinsic to the design process is curiosity. In all that we do, we always start with the why. We question the users, question the manufacturers and question the other parties involved in the design and execution.

Recently, I volunteered as a facilitator in the Urban Plan program thru Urban Land Institute. The program is targeted for high school students, and the group participating in the exercise this summer was students from the Dream Builders 4 Equity organization. Click here to read more about the organization which is getting youth involved in real estate early in their education. With this group of students, the Urban Plan exercise puts them on teams with the task of responding to an RFP for the redevelopment of a blighted site in a fictional community. Each team member has a specific role to play such as city liaison, finance director, marketing director, neighborhood liaison or site planner.

The students develop the site plan through the lenses of each of these roles and come to understand the variables that play into developing a high-profile site with competing agendas. The students must prioritize and agree to come to a solution for the development together. There are two visits from volunteer facilitators throughout the planning process which ends with each team presenting to a “city council” made up of volunteers that evaluate and award the development contract.

I participated in the second round of facilitation with one of the teams and learned that they were below the development return target and were not meeting the city’s required monetary return either. This was their third scheme they had created in the course of the week.

Drawing from my architecture education, the first thing I wanted to do when I saw the site plan was rearrange some of the building blocks and see if a tiny shift here and a reconfiguration there would raise either of those numbers. I wanted to utilize my critical thinking and problem solving skills to participate at the students’ level since I am trained at doing so every day for my job. I had to pause and remind myself that I was the one supposed to be asking the questions to encourage the students to use their critical thinking skills. I was the one who needed to ask questions like “what makes your development proposal stronger than the other teams?” and “how does your rate of return match your development team’s vision for the project?” I needed to encourage those team members who weren’t yet chiming in, to give their opinion of the development and what improvements could be made.

I have to say it was difficult to play devil’s advocate and not provide any answers to this team. I’m sure they found it difficult to consider all the questions when they thought they had it all figured out. Half of the discussion was helping them see a solution from a different perspective and how it can be a positive change for the town even with some negative drawbacks. Hopefully, the questions I posed helped them build stronger arguments for them to present to the city council at the end. In this scenario, the questions were just as important, if not more so than the answers.

To read more about Urban Plan, see these links:

Urban Planning projects can foster team building, new worldviews.
https://www.educationdive.com/news/urban-planning-projects-can-foster-team-building-new-worldviews/549634/

Urban Plan for High Schools

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