A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of emceeing the final round of ULI Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition, held this year in Seattle. I had participated in this competition—which is as thought provoking as it is fun—as a juror six years ago. However, watching the competition in my role as ULI’s staff executive gave me a different perspective. First, it heightened my appreciation for the tremendous behind-the-scenes effort that goes into making this program successful year after year. Second, it provided a chance to reflect in a broader sense on how the next generation of land use professionals will be planning, designing, and developing our cities.

Without question, this competition has put ULI on the map at universities across America. And, the results have convinced me that the future of our built environment is in very capable hands.

Gerry Hines proposed the graduate student competition in 2003 as a way for ULI to encourage cooperation and teamwork—­necessary talents in sustainable community building—among future land use professionals and allied professions, such as architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, historic preservation, engineering, real estate development, finance, psychology, and law. Its purpose, he said, would be to “to raise awareness, particularly among the next generation, of the important role high-quality urban design plays in creating not just beautiful buildings, but living environments.”

Now firmly established, the competition is well on its way to fulfilling that purpose. It has caught on quickly: participation has steadily increased from 49 teams in 2003 to 153 teams this year; to date, 805 teams, 4,025 students, and 90 universities have participated. In fact, some institutions have started modifying their curriculum around the timing of the competition. All of this is a testament to Gerry’s ideas on implementation—that the competition be more than just a design contest, that it be a multidisciplinary team effort, that it include a development and financial component, and that it have a large cash prize—$50,000 for the winning team and $30,000 to be split among the remaining three finalist teams. (The students made it clear to me that the prize is a motivating factor.)

As in previous years, the 2011 assignment focused on correcting development mistakes of the past with an innovative 21st-century approach. Students were challenged to redesign a Seattle inner-ring suburb, long characterized by a sprawling network of automobile-dependent neighborhoods and isolated land uses, but which is now set for redevelopment anchored by a light-rail station. A team from the University of Michigan took the top prize, besting three other finalists from the University of Oklahoma, the University of Maryland, and a second team from the University of Michigan.

The winners took a very Hines-like approach, combining beauty with functionality, innovation with practicality. Its plan, Health Oriented Urbanism in South-East Seattle (HOUSES), embodied several aspects of sustainability, including land use and transit components to ensure neighborhood diversity, economic stability, environmental preservation, individual well-being, and, in general, a sense of community belonging.

None of the students on the winning team had ever been to Seattle except for a competition site visit by all the finalist teams just two weeks before their final presentations. However, they quickly grasped the feel, character, and potential of the neighborhood and put forth a bold yet workable plan (which was later presented with the other finalists’ plans to city officials).

The schemes from all the finalists represented a definite departure from the way we designed and built our cities as young land use professionals. What I saw in this competition suggests a paradigm shift in what will be built and how it will be built in the decades ahead. Too often, real estate development is driven toward conventional solutions. But these students explored creative solutions that move beyond the clichés while staying within the realm of possibility. Just as important, they demonstrated a clear understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of today’s land use industry.

Year after year, the students who advance in this competition become part of an exclusive group. And, thanks to Gerry’s $3 million endowment, the competition can continue in perpetuity, cultivating the best and brightest for ULI and the industry.

I recently saw Gerry at the groundbreaking for CityCenter DC, a major development to be built on ten acres (4 ha) formerly occupied by the old convention center in the heart of Washington, D.C. The Hines organization, with Archstone and local partners, is developing the $700 million mixed-use project, which is pursuing certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. With its combination of housing, retail space, offices, and public space, CityCenter DC is exactly the type of development the ULI Hines competition seeks to encourage. Through Gerry’s generosity to ULI—and his own firm’s exemplary work—he is raising the bar for the next generation of land use leaders.