ULI San Francisco Blog

An Interview with UrbanPlan Co-Founder Ron Nahas

Whether it’s devoting time to work on a committee, helping to plan a program, or volunteering in the classroom through UrbanPlan, ULI’s work depends on the investment of our members.

One such member whose dedication has helped to shape ULI and the San Francisco District Council is Ron Nahas. A co-founder, longtime advocate, and volunteer for the UrbanPlan program, Ron made a $300,000 matching gift to UrbanPlan in June 2017 intended to catalyze the expansion of the program throughout ULI’s District Councils.

Ron chaired the committee that developed UrbanPlan 1.0 in the early 2000s, and, since its inception, the program has transformed young people’s understanding of the built environment as it has expanded into high schools, college, and graduate classrooms across the United States. We sat down with Ron to talk about ULI, the history of UrbanPlan, and his investment in a sustainable path for the UrbanPlan program moving forward.

 How did you get involved with ULI?

RN: “My father was the President of ULI in the 1960s. He was the founder of the Governors program. I’ve been coming to ULI meetings since I was a teenager. It has been a part of my family for a long time.”

Can you describe your experiences with the UrbanPlan program over the years?

RN: “Back in the early 90s, I was the Chairman of what was then the Education Committee. This work had three parts: professional development, university education, and efforts in public education. The public education component was focused on high school curricula. When I was the Chairman of that committee, we developed a curriculum that we thought could be used in high schools. We were a bit naïve and UrbanPlan 1.0 was not a sustainable model and failed to gain traction. With the help and funding of the Fisher Center at [U.C.] Berkeley, we felt that the UrbanPlan program, if structured properly, could be successfully implemented into high school curricula. From there, we engaged a number of education professionals to help us develop the curriculum which we call UrbanPlan 2.0.We beta tested the program in the Bay Area, modified and improved it. ULI adopted and embraced this work and began to subsequently roll it out across the country.

A number of things have happened since this expansion. [UrbanPlan] is no longer only a high school curriculum — it is now taught in universities and [in sessions] for public officials. These expansions and advancements have been successfully implemented elsewhere in the country and are now moving overseas as well. Despite UrbanPlan’s success, the growth of the program has been resource constrained. To grow and be sustainable we need to continue investing in technological resources, teacher training and support, District Council grants, and staff support at ULI’s headquarters.”

From your perspective, what are the benefits of the UrbanPlan program?

“The benefits are twofold: there are the direct benefits to both the students and to the industry members who participate. For the students, it challenges 17 year olds to assume the responsibilities of adults who participate in the land use process in the presence of industry professionals. It challenges and frustrates the students because of the competing interests in the development process.

It is fun for industry professionals and is a way to give back to the community and is also a way to participate in creating better citizens.”

What are the ideal outcomes of an effective UrbanPlan program, for the students, for the volunteers and for the community in general?

“Ideally, the program will help students understand that successful neighborhoods result from having a coherent vision and understanding how to compromise and make accommodations while keeping that vision intact. The market punishes people who ignore the demand side of the equation, and quality presentation skills are essential to positive outcomes.

Livable communities are the result of a team effort, one that involves the private sector, the design professionals, and the public sector. Everybody has to embrace a vision for a project to succeed. If done properly, though messy, this process should not be confrontational, particularly if it is organized properly and communicated well. If we can get young people to embrace these principles, we’ll have better outcomes in our communities over the long term.”

What inspired you to provide your generous support to UrbanPlan?

“To me, UrbanPlan is a very high impact program. It takes a lot of work and sustainable commitment. My hope in making this contribution is to build the sustainable infrastructure that we need to grow the program, to make it more useful, particularly at smaller District Councils, and hopefully to evolve the program in a way that it becomes easier for more and more people to take advantage of it, both ULI members and students. My hope is that over the course of these four years, not only will the program grow, but ULI will be able to create a structure that provides the capital necessary to make it sustainable over the long-term.

I’m very optimistic, particularly, because there is a willingness to embrace this program at the national level, which is critical to its long-term success.”

Where does UrbanPlan go from here?

“I hope it continues to evolve, improve and be modified in ways that make it available to a greater variety of users in different places. To do this will require both a sustainable structure on ULI’s part, but also that the program itself evolves to meet the needs of different venues, whether those be universities, public officials, or school districts. We need to keep our eye on the outcomes.

The interesting thing about UrbanPlan is how extraordinary it really is – an industry group helping to design and implement an educational curriculum in public high schools while also volunteering time to support and grow the program. This has been done successfully and now tens of thousands of students have enriched their education and their future participation as citizens in countless ways.”

We are pleased to share that Ron’s gift is just shy of being fully matched. For more information about matching Ron’s generous support, contact Corinne Abbott, senior vice president, ULI Foundation, at corinne.abbott@uli.org.

Interview by Nate Hanson

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