Attendees of 2018 ULI Fall Meeting participate in a modified version of the UrbanPlan program in Boston.

Consider this scenario: The city of Elmwood has a problem. Five-and-a-half city blocks are blighted. Elmwood has issued a request for proposals (RFP) to redevelop the area because the city cannot do it alone. Elmwood owns the land, valued at $10 million, and is willing to sell it to a successful development team for only $7.5 million. The city also is willing to subsidize parks and green spaces for half their construction costs, along with community uses such as libraries and daycare centers. However, the city wants all the money back through 10 years of increased property value and sales taxes, with $1.5 million extra and a 13.5 percent internal rate of return. Will a developer take on this challenge? Can the developer meet the requirements of the RFP?

While the scenario is fictitious, cities all over the world deal with these sorts of problems on a daily basis. Such scenarios form the basis of UrbanPlan, a high-priority ULI initiative that seeks to broaden the discourse and encourage creative thinking among high school and university students and public officials in tackling some of the most intransigent problems facing urban planners. The fundamentals of UrbanPlan, one of the programs ULI offers members as a volunteer opportunity, were presented to members during a Fall Meeting session.

During an UrbanPlan exercise, each person on a five-member team takes the role of a constituency involved in transforming blighted spaces: the financial analyst keeps track of the numbers; the site planner is responsible for creating a vision statement and an appealing environment; the neighborhood liaison receives letters from neighborhood groups, such as property owners, churches, or even skateboarders and is responsible for telling the team who members should listen to; the city liaison is responsible for making sure the project adheres to the requirements of the RFP; and the marketing director is responsible for figuring out how to sell all the properties.

The teams compete against each other, at the end of the session presenting their designs to a hypothetical city council composed of trained ULI members who decide which bid would work best for the city. Depending on the level of experience among the students, winners could receive gift cards, memberships, or free admission to ULI events. Last year, 3,700 students participated in UrbanPlan, and globally more than 58,000 people participated.

For volunteers, the time commitment is limited, but the impact is large. UrbanPlan offers a six- to seven-hour training session, and volunteers work two hours per semester.

“In Dallas, we do not require people to be ULI members to participate, and we have gained membership because of the exposure that they have to UrbanPlan,” said Betsy del Monte, an UrbanPlan trainer who participated in the Fall Meeting session. “Another outcome we’ve had is that people who have been in graduate school that have done this exercise have joined ULI upon graduation.”

Aubrey Albrecht, director of ULI Minnesota, agreed. “If you’re looking for more people to be engaged at a staff or district council level, [UrbanPlan] is a really light lift,” she said. “They’re able to really give back and feel good when they walk out of there, which is really helpful to gain membership base.”

Members interested in volunteering for UrbanPlan can find more information in ULI’s Navigator member tool,