It has been over 10 years since you joined the faculty at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. What was it about the Planning at Illinois program that inspired you to pursue a teaching position here?
Most planning departments operate as federations of sorts, platforms for people to do their thing individually. It was clear from the first time I visited that Illinois is different, more focused on the collective and on creating a substantive experience for students. There’s an energy to it, and people want to be part of energizing things.
You have had the unique opportunity to watch this program change and grow over the last decade. What aspects of this change are you most proud of or feel that you played a significant role in?
Planning is in many ways a mirror to society – we focus on new, emergent challenges for which there’s no playbook because they haven’t happened before. We live in extremely interesting times, and our department has handled the change better than most. We have a bunch of creative, ambitious people who are more comfortable trying on new things and looking forward than trying to update our past ideas about how the world works. I’m especially excited about the three new faculty we’ve hired to work on sustainability and inequality. The things they do research on – Chinese eco-cities, the creation of ‘nature’ in ways that privilege developers, and community aqueducts – are important in their own right but also really creative things to study. I’m extremely optimistic about the new paths we’ll be able to open up for students.
As the new department head of a growing program and student body, what are your top priorities over the next three years?
I want the department to take care of the basics in a way that lets everybody thrive. We have so many good people who’ve tapped themselves out to keep things going at a high level through the pandemic. The recipe for success is pretty simple: Take care of the basics so people can do their thing and thrive.
Your book Justice at Work with coauthor Greg Schrock examines how the economic and social justice movements of the 2010s brought about long-overdue urban policy change across the country. You have spoken about the power of grassroots organizing and how these movements have the potential to bring about more inclusive economic development in our cities. How are you incorporating this into your teaching at Illinois and inspiring the next generation of planners to be part of this change?
Thank you so much for asking this. The book comes up in teaching all the time because it’s optimistic. When I started graduate school, faculty kind of delighted in hazing us, asking us to propose good and equitable ideas, then explaining how they all went sideways in practice. Justice at Work is a book of pragmatic, grounded hope, a vision for building an economy that meets our expectations by making sure everyday people have the stability and opportunities they need to thrive.
The Department of Urban and Regional Planning hired three new faculty members this year that will contribute research and teaching in the areas of environmental design, climate change and disaster management, and urban political ecology. Can you talk about the significance of these areas and how these new faculty members will play a part in strengthening the planning curriculum at Illinois?
Ecology and sustainability are holistic frameworks for organizing the way we think about the world. Focusing on them means we look at all kinds of hidden forms of power, opportunities, and challenges. With our new faculty, we’ll have a broad array of classes on the environment. What’s especially exciting is how nuanced and specific those classes will be. Everyone we hired has a background in design and the natural sciences, and they harness that experience to ask deeper, more sophisticated questions. I’ll add that they’re all dynamic speakers – people who are so in command of the material that they think fast on their feet without breaking a sweat. It’s great news for our students.