Sustainable Urban Planning

BY ALEC MASELLA – JANUARY 10, 2019

Online Master of Natural Resources (Online MNR) graduate, Allison Homer, is among the first employees at the brand new DC branch of EXP, an international firm which offers environmental planning, civil engineering, transportation, architecture, infrastructure, and sustainability services. Each day, Allison uses her experiences from the GMNR program courses, international field experiences, and her previous work to plan and implement sustainable transportation, environmental, and city planning solutions for the Mid Atlantic region.

“EXP is a full-service engineering, design, and architecture company, with over 90 offices and many different areas of expertise,” Allison explains. “My division focuses on transit, environmental planning, and sustainability projects. We are consultants who provide environmental assessments and surface transportation planning services for projects such as bike and pedestrian trails, bridges, streetcars, climate and power grid resiliency initiatives, disaster recovery, and other multi-modal “complete streets” or “context sensitive solutions (CSS).”

During her time in the Online MNR program, Allison simultaneously completed a Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) degree, and worked full-time in a series of different positions, including as a Graduate Assistant for Virginia Tech and an intern for the Roanoke Valley Alleghany Regional Commission. Afterward, she worked as a full-time employee of the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development, and finally as a Planner II for the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning. Learning about the bureaucracy behind urban planning and environmental review in real time helped Allison contextualize some of the more theoretical concepts from the two programs.

“These experiences made the class material much more relevant,” she says. “I had real-world examples, which was extremely helpful when it came to often theoretical class discussions. My experience working with stakeholders, operating within the constraints of budgetary, logistical, procedural, and regulatory boundaries, and working through planning processes step-by-step enabled me to connect the text to on-the-ground realities. For example, I developed an environmental justice assessment framework for Long Range Transportation Plans for my thesis, and in that project, I had to integrate my knowledge of environmental ideals with the realities of federal, state, and local laws, specific community needs, analytical model and data availability, and budgetary constraints.”

Similar to her thesis process, Allison is now learning firsthand, how projects in sustainability are carried out in a real-world context, from conception to execution.

During the hiring process for EXP, in addition to her previous work experience, her supervisors seemed to appreciate her MNR and MURP courses on international environmental law, land use law, sustainable infrastructure, water and conflict, climate policy, landscape systems and strategies, and her three International Field Experiences (IFEs) to India, Morocco, and South Africa.

“The IFEs in India and South Africa revolved partially around water management and how the distribution of drinkable water often disproportionately burdens certain communities while benefiting certain outward-facing industries,” Allison says. “South Africa also had a wildlife conservation component for the final week, when we were based in the Shamwari nature reserve. The Morocco IFE had several different focus areas based upon the group that attended, but my group focused on sustainable waste management and green infrastructure initiatives that were being launched at the time in Morocco, to varying degrees of success. Social, political, and economic components such as the caste system in India, tensions between native and colonizer-descendent populations in Morocco, and the remaining structures of apartheid and racial oppression in South Africa were critical to a comprehensive understanding of environmental issues. When I was interviewing for my current position, these courses, work experiences, and international field experiences enabled me to present a slightly wider worldview and a more educated perspective on considerations that must be factored into customized environmental planning processes.”

Allison’s unique background in both public and private planning and environmental work, paired with her dual degree studies in Global Natural Resources and Urban and Regional Planning, allowed her to play an essential role in the MNR program. Bringing along her experiences from past jobs, international field experiences, and dual degree courses, Allison was able to connect sustainability ideals to on-the-ground realities and hurdles that come with sparking change. Now, as a planner for EXP, Allison is well equipped to do just that.

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Online MNR alumna Allison Homer also completed a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning at Virginia Tech, and holds a Bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: bankbryan,  Mathias Klang, and Andrew Griffith.