Shaping Spaces

New city and regional planning program grooms students to shape the region

By Lucero Benitez

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Seventeen miles north of campus in Madera County, atop a hill overlooking nothing but green grass and future possibilities, class is in session.

A group of city and regional planning students are on site learning from industry leaders while studying the Tesoro Viejo development, a 1,600-acre site at the foot of Little Table Mountain that will soon be transformed into a scenic master-planned community.

It’s an opportunity Fresno State students didn’t have until fall 2017, when the city and regional planning degree option was reinstated for the first time in about 25 years. The program partnered with McCaffrey Homes to provide students with hands-on experience in design and infrastructure through the Tesoro Viejo case study.


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City and regional planners work in public agencies and private consulting firms, preparing comprehensive plans for projects, neighborhoods, cities and entire regions. They address land use, housing, transportation, public facilities, infrastructure and open space. And they have the potential to impact the future of the Central Valley.

“The Valley is different from other California cities. It has more of a sense of rural areas,” says Dr. Chih-Hao Wang, who teaches environmental planning and economics at Fresno State.

“The way to solve urban problems should be different than in big cities. Having our own planners will help better address our own issues and provide solutions that are more suitable for the Valley.”

The curriculum includes budgeting for public projects by reviewing and regulating private development.

Dan Zack, a Fresno State alumnus and assistant planning director for the City of Fresno, says the new degree program is a blessing for the community.

“We’re a growing city with a lot of challenges. We’re growing outward, and that presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities. We’re also growing inward now in a way that we never have before with infill development that is revitalizing downtown, which has a whole different set of unique challenges and opportunities,” Zack says.

Up until this academic year, Valley students had to travel out of the region to obtain a degree in planning. In doing so, they were more likely to leave the area permanently.

“Regional governments, developers and nonprofits alike have been expressing the need for such a program for quite some time,” says Dr. Michelle Calvarese, chair of the Department of Geography and City and Regional Planning at Fresno State. “We are thrilled to be able to finally fill that need. People care about their homes and having locally trained planners makes decision-making not just an academic exercise, but a personal decision regarding their homes.”

Calvarese says the programs pays close attention to issues that affect the Valley and its residents such as water, transportation and environmental protection.

“A successful project in one city may fail miserably in another,” Calvarese says. “Planners need to be aware of contextual challenges and understand the underpinnings of local problems. When planning is place-oriented, it is more likely to succeed for all actors involved.”

From the focus on downtown Fresno revitalization to new communities in rural surrounding areas, a growing region means there will be increasing opportunity for students like Eileen Mitchell.

“Having a degree in the Valley, where you actually go through the experiences with the developers, you get to see what’s going on in the community,” Mitchell says. “In this field, you can actually see the fruit of your labor. At a localized level, you can see your efforts being manifested.”

— Lucero Benitez is a communications specialist for the College of Social Sciences at Fresno State.