The Minor Details: City planning shapes our lives

Robert Kinlaw,

Graphic by Robert Kinlaw

Choosing a major is a big part of college, and it’s certainly something to be excited about.

But minors deserve love, too. They allow you to learn a lot about something else you’re interested in and can spice up any resume.

In The Minor Details, College Town is featuring some cool, lesser-known minors at colleges in the Triangle.


When someone says “city planning,” you probably think of some guy or gal drawing up blueprints and maps.

But Dr. Meenu Tewari, director of undergraduate studies in the city and regional planning department at UNC, said there’s much more to it than that.

“Planning is a field that essentially is about the public interest,” Tewari said. “Places, cities and communities really are the fabric of our lives.”

A town with more walking trails could encourage lower obesity rates. A city with well-developed infrastructure might attract more businesses, which in turn means more young professionals and wealth in the area. And when the unthinkable happens to a community, experienced planners are often the ones who take the wheel.

“When [Hurricane] Katrina happened, for example, what was destroyed? Resources in the community, housing, schools, water lines, sources that they could get safe food from … all of that was destroyed. And how to build that back up is the purpose of planning,” she said.

Good planning is crucial for overcoming times of crisis, but Tewari said it is just as important for everyday life. For example, a year ago, Business Insider awarded Raleigh-Durham fourth place in a list of the 50 best places to live in America. Why is this the case? Planners want to know what makes some areas more desirable than others.

“Why are some places fun to be in?” Tewari said. “Why do we find that some places grow and become dynamic and become a magnet for people to come and live and work?”

A bustling road in front of a city

Photo by the UNC department of city and regional planning

Some common factors are things like the job market, average salaries and cost of living. The factors still vary on an individual basis, though. Some people want the buzzing nightlife and job market of a big city, while others might crave small-town serenity and proximity to nature.

The more philosophical questions about areas are even tougher to answer. Why, for example, are some areas more inclusive than others? And why are some areas particularly resilient in the face of economic crises or natural disasters?

Tewari encourages her city planners to consider those topics. She said the program doesn’t shy away from more complex and controversial issues, like how cities and towns play roles in gentrification or climate change.

“We have a set of ‘wicked’ problems that planning likes to talk about, that will always be there … the answers are not very obvious,” Tewari said.

Environmental sustainability is especially important. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement has left some local community leaders vowing their continued support for its policies. Planners can help local officials create cities that are more green and sustainable.

Students who are interested in the minor should take the two required introductory classes: Cities of the Future (PLAN 246) and Solving Urban Problems (PLAN 247). Then, students can choose three classes from this list to complete the minor. They could choose to specialize in environmental planning, for example, or learn more about the history of America’s cities and the ethical dilemmas of planning.

Tewari said the program gives graduates a well-rounded understanding of the biggest challenges facing America’s cities, but also the tools needed to solve them.

“It is a bridge between social science perspectives and more pragmatic design perspectives and analytics we use in order to understand how to plan, maintain, and sustain cities,” she said.


Robert Kinlaw is a contributor to, where this article originally ran. 

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