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BHS students design a city

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Tuesday June 11, 2002

Jesse Silverman, a junior at Berkeley High School, says he won’t be so quick to cast blame on urban designers for a misplaced parking lot anymore. 

Silverman is one of 176 students in the high school’s Advanced Placement Economics and American Government course who is finishing a model urban planning program. 

The program was designed by UC Berkeley’s Fischer Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics and the San Francisco District Council of the Urban Land Institute, a nationwide non-profit focused on land use issues.  

High school students in Alameda and San Rafael went through the “urban plan” earlier this year. 

“We have more of an idea of how difficult it is to plan a city,” said Silverman. 

Berkeley High students worked in teams of five for three weeks creating development plans for Nahas Heights, a rundown part of town in the fictional city of Yorkville. 

Playing with a Lego model of the neighborhood and crunching numbers on laptop computers, students worked to balance a host of real-life, competing goals.  

Removing blight, generating tax revenue, preserving historic buildings, providing a mix of market-rate and affordable housing, and taking into account a mish-mash of neighborhood demands all come into play.  

Monday morning, several of the teams presented final plans to mock city councils at Berkeley High and district headquarters. The remaining teams are scheduled to present today. Each of the councils will pick a winning design. 

The council at district headquarters, composed of professional architects and economists who volunteered, peppered Silverman’s team with questions about the placement of a public park, the amount of affordable housing in their plan and the location of a series of parking lots. 

The team, which calls itself the Revitilization and Beautification Commission, said the questioning was tough. But members said they learned something from the project. 

“It puts some purpose into what we’ve been learning,” said Powell DeGange, a junior, discussing the role of politics and economics in urban planning. 

“I don’t understand anything that happens in Berkeley,” he continued with a chuckle, referring to the city’s unusual political culture. But DeGange said the project gave him some sense for how a development project might unfold in a typical American town. 

Steven Teal, an A.P. Government teacher who teamed up with A.P. Economics teacher Doug Powers to lead the program at Berkeley High, said students have learned lessons about bargaining and public speaking that they do not necessarily pick up in the lecture format. 

Teal said they have also learned some of the basics terms of urban planning – such as the “footprint” of a building. 

“Three weeks ago, they though it was something that Nike made,” he said. 

Paula Blasier, director of special projects for the Fischer Center, said the program has given students a taste for the competing interests in a city and is hoping it will make them better citizens. 

“We’re not trying to turn them into little developers,” she said. “We’re trying to turn them into citizens who understand the complexities of their environments.” 

Students said some kinks are still left to be worked out. Elise McNamara, a junior on the Revitilization and Beautification team, said the group needed more time to work on its project. Silverman said the format did not allow as much creativity as he would have liked. 

UC Berkeley and the Urban Land Institute will gather the student and teacher feedback and make revisions as they seek to go national. 

Blasier said she has received interested calls from Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 


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