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When is counterculture authentic, and how should planners engage?

Posted By Laura Tate, Thursday, June 22, 2017

For planners, celebrating counterculture may be an exciting way to bolster something that seems to express part of the city’s spirit.  For many, authenticity is linked to place-based counterculture movements and expressions –but not all of the latter are authentic.

Many counterculture movements initially protested social hierarchies, seeking more equality and freedom. To appreciate why this protest has also backfired in a big way on many occasions- check out The Rebel Sell by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter.  (The Rebel Sell was known as Nation of Rebels in the US, because relatively few people there were familiar with the Billy Idol punk rock anthem “Rebel Yell” to which the title payed a tongue in cheek tribute.)  The Rebel Sell / Nation of Rebels argues that yesterday's counterculture quickly evolved into yesterday's -and today's- conformism and, increasingly, has been appropriated as a marketing tool.  This was ironic, because many of these movements had themselves begun by protesting the ways that mass produced goods and culture was lulling people into accepting inequality.  Counterculture was the answer because it questioned mass culture.  And then counterculture itself became commodified.  This continues to happen, as many of us saw in the controversial Pepsi Commercial which tried (and failed) to enhance its product appeal by seeming to copy several real protests.  But this commercialization doesn't happen immediately.  And there remains value in countercultural expressions for communities during key periods in their evolution.

Counterculture Imaginaries and Authenticity

So when and why does counterculture bolster community authenticity (assuming we can agree on what authenticity is)? And how should planners encourage authentic aspects of counterculture?

In responding to these questions, a digression is important.  Lately, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the link between the authentic and the urban and social imaginary of a community.  Confused?  The urban imaginary refers to a type of collective understanding (by its inhabitants) of what a city is all about, and how the people in it relate to each other, at a given point in time.  The social imaginary, a related and overlapping concept, was first discussed by Castoriadis (1975).  The social imaginary embodies a similar collective understanding by members of a society—and it is also something which can never fully be made explicit, because part of it is unconscious (as illustrated shortly).  Symbolic representations of this imaginary can sometimes convey deeper truths than mere words; but even non-verbal symbols don’t fully express these truths.  For Castoriadis, the closest way we can make the social imaginary explicit is through the problems that we choose, and then act upon, to solve.   

In keeping with this more symbolic approach, the rest of this blog post explores the link between two specific sites and times of countercultural expression, authenticity, and the urban and social imaginary.  This is not exhaustive, but intended to help sow the seeds for further understanding.

Prague's John Lennon Wall

This wall evolved from a spontaneous expression of grief after former Beatle John Lennon was killed in 1980.  It was quickly whitewashed over by Communist Party authorities -and then just as quickly re-painted by the original mourners.  This cycle of suppression followed by repainting happened several more times before Communist authorities gave up and left the grassroots paintings.   In short--as the wall came to be touched by more and more people, it grew beyond an expression of grief for a lost musician, into a form of broader protest, and a call for more freedom of expression in the country as a whole.

The John Lennon Wall in Prague, 2015. Photo by Laura Tate

Using Castoriadis’s understanding of the social imaginary, the wall seemed to help members of Czech society to express seething frustration with broader aspects of political life which had been curtailing their freedom.  The various recreations of the wall were stealthy, and they were persistent.  One could see the wall as an active (and relatively less confrontational) symbol of problem-solving behind the scenes related to more fundamental questions about how that society should govern itself and engage with self-expression.  While popular with tourists, the wall remains a moving tribute to something real and important in the Czech Republic’s history.  Residents’ continued support for the wall may also be emblematic of their ongoing determination to hold onto hard won freedoms, which they still express actively.  On the same visit when I saw the wall (summer 2015), there were small demonstrations against Russian occupations of the Ukraine, and clear messages that Russian occupiers were not welcome in the Czech Republic, whose citizens remembered an earlier, repressive Soviet occupation.

Protest against Russian occupation of the Ukraine.  Prague, 2015. Photo by Laura Tate

The Commercial Drive Parade of Lost Souls (Vancouver) or East Side Culture Crawl

The Commercial Drive area, while increasingly gentrified, has long been one of Vancouver’s counterculture centres, favoured by Italian immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s.  Also known alternately as Grandview Woodlands, or “The Drive”, the neighbourhood today is diverse, including a mixed range of immigrant communities, artists and musicians, Indigenous people, and people who increasingly value its properties as a good real estate investment.  This parade has been happening on the closest Saturday to Hallowe’en for roughly two decades.   Having participated in the Parade, while also watching neighbourhood real estate prices skyrocket, I have mixed feelings about linking it with authentic counterculture.  But on balance, this event intuitively feels authentic (even though it is advertised on blogs and websites promoting Vancouver real estate ).  And this is partly because the event remains completely accessible to those for whom the event has meaning, by remaining free of charge, and by also keeping the event from becoming mobbed or overly commercialized by keeping the location a secret until midnight the day before the event.

Parade of Lost Souls, Vancouver, BC.  Photo by Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret, 2016

While not explicit, a part of this event’s resonance may also be its ability to symbolize a culture or social imaginary of resistance  against the growing dominance of real estate speculation on the city’s neighbourhoods ( see this thoughtful article for more detail) and even on their psyche, as zombie neighbourhoods  emerge.  Today the parade is now run by a non-profit artist collective focused on the east side of the city (the broader district in which the neighbourhood is located) called The  Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret.  This organization has also participated in past projects exploring other key social issues.  Among these was a collaboration with the Pivot Legal Society on a show called The Listening Jar, which explored themes of justice.  Pivot Legal Society is well-known in Vancouver and the broader province for having taken on important legal battles to help marginalized people.  The battle for affordable housing in Vancouver is far from over, and while the Parade of Lost Souls has been only one of many, many citizen initiatives to implicitly or explicitly protest harms to the city from real estate speculation.  Nonetheless, several recent initiatives at city and senior government levels were launched in the last year, intended as more aggressive steps to reduce pressure on local housing markets, including a speculation tax (provincial government) and an empty homes tax (City of Vancouver).

Parade of Lost Souls, Vancouver, BC.  Photo by Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret, 2016

Planning Takeaways

While many modes of counterculture expression are worthy of support, both counterculture examples discussed above have a strong focus on visual and performance art, with symbolic roles to play in their respective social imaginaries.  Understanding the social imaginary’s role in articulating and working through problems, there is a role to play for planners in creating, honouring, and protecting spaces where more intuitive, and exploratory engagements with the social imaginary can occur.   

Not all of these expressions need the support of government or other agencies informed by planning.  But they do eventually need some form of support from governments and other powerful interests to survive.  This can include grants to grassroots organizations, and it can also include micro-grants, which have become popular means of enabling much smaller scale, and less formal neighbourhood-based projects which seek to express and redesign the social imaginary (see for example the Vancouver Foundation’s neighbourhood small grants program ).  Importantly, this support must involve a broader civic sensibility of inquiry –one in which government’s first move is not to quash down new and potentially challenging forms of expression, but to at least listen and seek to understand before responding.  This means there is also a role for planners to play in leaving these spaces alone- and convincing permitting departments to do the same.

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Tactical Urbanism and the Question of Authenticity

Posted By Laura Tate, Thursday, June 1, 2017
Updated: Friday, June 2, 2017

Cutter Square in Somerville, MA. A typical pop-up urbanism example of a temporarily occupied public space  - photo by Dan Bartman.

Guest posting by David Franco, Assistant Professor at Clemson University

Since the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis began to have spatially tangible impacts on cities all over the world, we have been witnessing the resurgence of a diverse collection of urban practices characterized by the informal, low-cost, and usually temporary, occupation of public space. These include practices labeled under terms like DIY, Tactical or Pop-up Urbanism whose origins can be tentatively traced to two different strains of precedents.  The first of these consists of selected urban practices conceived by excluded social groups and minorities in order to create a space of their own without the support of the established power.  The second embodies certain counterculture proposals from groups active during the sixties and seventies, such as the International Situationists, in which transgressive politics and urban art were intimately entangled.

Two key influences

To fully understand these practices and how they relate to authenticity, we must acknowledge two key recent developments. First, the early revival of tactical urbanist practices largely coincided in time with the wave of protests that in 2011 took over streets and squares across the world–the Arab Spring, the Indignados or the Occupy movement–, bringing again urban space to the center of the global political debate. Second, while culturally closer to anti-establishment activism, these alternative forms of urbanism have developed into primarily realistic strategies: praised by its cost-effectiveness, and fully incorporated to mainstream local politics. We might even conclude –as David Spataro[1] has clearly explained– that contemporary DIY urbanism has given up the struggle for public space, which was intrinsic to its cultural precedents, to become one more item within the professional toolbox of planners, urban designers and architects.

And some important contradictions...

In her book Naked City, The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places Sharon Zukin places the creative class’s yearning for authentic urban places well beyond the debate about the problems of gentrification processes. Just as the resurgence of DIY urbanism signals to an attempt to deal with the contradictions of political dissent in contemporary societies, Zukin’s notion of authenticity speaks to anxieties about how urban places inevitably change. Therefore, the relevance of authenticity may not be contingent, as it may seem, on the innate qualities of urban places –as those studied by Zukin from different New York neighbourhoods–, or on the actual social effects of temporary urban actions, which I am discussing here. On the contrary, in the words of Zukin, the notion of authenticity is relevant because “it connects our individual yearning to root ourselves in a singular time and place to a cosmic grasp of larger social forces that remake our world from many small and often invisible actions”.[2] Along those lines, we need to understand how the attempts to involve citizens in temporary urban actions cannot merely be interpreted as agile, networked, low-tech, low-budget and smart solutions, or as Andre Duany puts it in his preface to the first Streets Plans Collaborative publication on Tactical Urbanism[3], as “the urban planning equivalent of the iPhone replacing the mainframe”. They also need to be understood as intrinsically political actions that connect us to a wider context in which the general crisis of democracy and the consequential re-emergence of social participation are ubiquitous realities.

In the same way that the attraction of gentrifying neighborhoods lays paradoxically on the very authenticity threatened by their transformation, the attraction –and the mainstream success– of Tactical Urbanism rests with the civic authenticity that temporary urban actions reproduce without really carrying it through. The internal conflict originating from this paradox –similarly to that described in Zukin’s discussion of authenticity– is the source of the diversity of the practices we see labeled as DIY, pop-up or guerilla urbanism. It might be useful to briefly examine at some examples that embody such a wide range, and that go from depoliticized and commercial proposals, to radical actions of dissent.

Some brief examples

First, we can check out what Mike Lyndon and Tony García, principals of the firm Streets Plans Collaborative, defend in the same publication cited  earlier. This series of guides, whose first volume was published in 2011, was obviously intended as a foundational reference for a new movement.  Volume one also has the revealing title of ‘Tactical Urbanism. Short Term Action, Long Term Change’[4]; and it basically consists of a series of case studies organized around well-known categories such as pop-up cafés, chair bombing or guerrilla gardening. A striking argument from later volumes, such as the one from 2015,[5] is the insistence on how Tactical Urbanism offers a new way to integrate top-down and bottom-up efforts, making coherent the actions exerted by developers, authorities and administrations with citizens demands and desires. In other words, Lyndon and Garcia offer a vision that dissolves the political conflict inherent in earlier forms of urban action. A clear example is the inclusion in the guide of the transformation of a parking space into a parklet by the Democrat mayor of Ithaca Svante Myrick, who appears relaxed in the now converted parklet,in what seems to be a campaign ad photo, surrounded by happy constituents.

Svante Myrick, Mayor of Ithaca, NY (wearing tie), in his transformed town hall parking lot. -Photo supplied by Svante Myrick/Facebook

On almost the opposite side of the spectrum we find Spanish architect and urban activist Santiago Cirugeda, founder of the collective office ‘Recetas Urbanas’ and located in Seville. Cirugeda has a very long history of developing actions that always border on the illegal, challenging the professional, political and even the social conventions that govern cities.[6] The bulk of the work developed by ‘Recetas Urbanas’ embodies small actions that take advantage of unregulated public spaces, such as the bike path network they painted during the night on the asphalt of some of the main urban arteries of Madrid. But there is another even better example of the level of criticism and political radicalism that Cirugeda and his team achieve in their work. As a response and a commentary to the brutal Spanish housing crisis that came after the crash in 2008, they designed ‘Grúa’ (Crane)[7]: a technical and logistic system to build illegal housing units over urban rooftops without any auxiliary structure, only using the final structure of the house.


Crane by Recetas Urbanas, Madrid, 2008. Recetas Urbanas constructed two cranes for delocalized projects and another one, for an exhibition at the 11th Architecture Biennal in Venice. -Photo by Recetas Urbanas)

Concluding thoughts

These two extreme examples, the mayor’s transformed parklet and Cirugeda’s carefully planned illegality, show us the possibilities of DIY urbanism to react to different urban and political circumstances. But they also tell us about the challenges we need to face, as these practices become part of the future of planning and urban design. Apparently, as in Zukin’s urban places, we want them to be an acceptable, transformed version of themselves, but we also want them to remain authentic and politically relevant. Should they really become part of our official planning tools, or should they remain an open source for anyone to be used? Or both? Will they lose any of their strengths when, as in the example in Ithaca, they stop implementing dissent to represent the ruling power? Do they really give up their social and political authenticity when they do it?

[1] David Spataro, ‘Against a de-politicized DIY urbanism: Food Not Bombs and the struggle over public space’, Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability (Jul, 2015), pp185-201

[2] Sharon Zukin, Naked City, The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011) p220.

[3] Andres Duany, ‘Forward’, Tactical Urbanism Short Term Action Long Term Change (Washington: Island Press, 2015), pxii.

[4] Mike Lydon, Dan Bartman, Ronald Woudstra and Aurash Khawarzad, Tactical Urbanism Short Term Action Long Term Change Vol 1 (Next Generation New Urbanists, 2011)

[5] Mike Lydon and Tony Garcia, Tactical Urbanism Short Term Action Long Term Change (Washington: Island Press, 2015)

[6] See webpage:

[7] Iñaqui Carnicero and Carlos Quintáns, Bienal de Venecia 2016 Unfinished Pabellón Español / Spanish Pavilion (Madrid: Fundación Arquia, 2016)


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Yaletown- Can Gentrification and Authenticity Coincide?

Posted By Laura Tate, Wednesday, April 5, 2017
Updated: Wednesday, April 5, 2017

In my last blog, I promised to alternate theoretical discussions of authenticity with case examples.  Read on for a case study of one of Vancouver’s more gentrified neighbourhoods.

Yaletown has good bones.  It was served by freight train lines and warehouses with elevated loading docks, starting in the late 19th century, and remained a vital industrial and rail precinct through the 1950s.  As highway and truck transportation gradually made the rail uses irrelevant, some warehouses lingered, mixed with single room occupancy units (SROs) and the stroll for sex trade workers well through to the 1980s and early 1990s.  Today it boasts lawyer lofts (the local term for artists’ lofts that only lawyers can afford); elegant high rise apartments with sensitively designed grade-accessed units below; and many design elements evocative of the district's grittier past.  Is it authentic?  Compared with its past, and from a market exclusivity perspective-probably not.  On the other hand: the sensitive and thorough design; policy efforts at inclusivity; and Yaletown's ongoing role as an icon of the city's past make it hard to fully label it inauthentic.  This blog outlines features and processes which hinder and help Yaletown’s authenticity.

Features hindering authenticity

Housing affordability issues are the neighbourhood’s biggest concern.  For perspective,  realtors say the median price for a Yaletown apartment (April 2017) is $1.2 million in Canadian dollars,  ($899,000 in US dollars).  Renting isn’t cheap, either. Anecdotes place rents, for a small 1 bedroom apartment, at $2,000 Cdn ($1500 USD) per month.  As a result, people on fixed incomes, service sector workers, and young people without parental help struggle to make their homes there.  It is ironic that earlier planning efforts explicitly called for safe, high density housing with social diversity and “moderately priced housing within the means of average income” (Downtown South Goals and Policies ).  Just as Zukin (2011) found in New York City, wonderful urban design and planning inspired by Jane Jacobs’s ideas could not preserve the diversity that Vancouver planners and community groups wanted for Yaletown in a context of enormous housing cost increases.

As a result, Yaletown has become a high-end district, with exclusive boutiques and restaurants throughout.  (Its target market: wealthy 20-somethings.  There is no way on this earth that my middle-aged body could fit into a single article of clothing sold in any of the area’s stores.)  Many businesses pay a studied, but sanitized homage to Yaletown’s gritty past, like the business in the photo below.   While pretty, I’m not entirely sure this artistically paint-dripped signage would be considered authentic:

Features that help enhance authenticity

As alluded above, starting in the 1980s, Vancouver's city planners made clear, detailed policy and design guidelines for future redevelopment, directly honouring Yaletown's past.  While ineffective at social preservation, they have reinforced the historic context without being kitschy.  This has included retaining portions of the older brick warehouses and the elevated loading docks attached to them, converting the latter into semi-covered public open space with their own unique design specs , which restaurants can encroach on for patio use.  These docks have become extremely popular and animated features, particularly from March through October, weather and heat lamps permitting.

The design guidelines  and other streetscape guidelines have not restricted developers to exclusively using  heritage materials.  But through extensive calls for grade-oriented access, and townhouses that line the street-fronts of high rise buildings, together with other features to enhance the pedestrian experience, they have increased the connection that residents have to the public sidewalks and streets.

Yaletown contains a significant amount of public amenity space with important historic links.  The Roundhouse Community Centre is located in Yaletown’s initial 1888 locomotive roundhouse.  Not only does the centre embody historic design features, and some of the workings of the original facility, it still contains the first locomotive engine that crossed Canada to reach Vancouver.  Railway construction (and use) was key to the broader nation-building project of the European settlers in Canada; and so, the retained roundhouse and engine have symbolic power for many.  Today, by offering publicly subsidized and free recreational programs, the centre makes this beautiful, multi-purpose heritage space widely accessible -much of the time.  It also hosts private arts and music events.   Finally, one of my favorite contemporary urban parks provides respite for anyone who lives in –or wanders into—the area.  Emory Barnes Park is tranquil and green, designed to maximize the safety enhancing aspect of openness to the street, while also creating lovely outdoor room spaces that allow for a range of park uses.  Fittingly, the park was named after British Columbia’s first African Canadian elected representative to the provincial legislature –a man who championed social inclusion.

Co-mingled with all the (increasingly pricey) market housing are several social housing developments in, or at the edge of, Yaletown.  I am aware of at least six of these buildings, which each accommodate anywhere from 30 to 136 residential units.  Several of these are home to low income seniors, and one (Yaletown Mews) provides family-oriented homes.  These units can take advantage of the elementary school and daycare space which were enabled directly by City planning efforts.

My final assessment of Yaletown

I believe that the planners, Council, and citizens of the day did everything in their power to promote inclusive and authentic development using the tools they had available.  And, the public uses and social housing which were implemented help ensure that many older residents and people with historic connections to this place can still feel a sense of belonging.  These same features make the neighbourhood accessible for people who don’t live there (but want to take in its ambience) to feel welcome.  In these respects, Yaletown remains authentic.  That said, going forward, the pressure is on to find a much wider and more effective range of approaches for ensuring that people are not lost in the process of market evolution and gentrification.  It’s a complex challenge that will take many minds and perspectives to address.

Tags:  authenticity  gentrification  Vancouver 

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Planning Authentic Communities

Posted By Laura Tate, Thursday, March 16, 2017

If you've ever clamoured for a home in a heritage district, or pined for a funky loft in a converted warehouse, chances are that, at least in part, your desires were sparked by a desire for the authentic. You're not alone.  The desire for authentic homes and communities is an important theme in planning.  And so, this is the first in what I hope will be (at least) a monthly posting on authenticity and planning.   It’s an important topic with significant daily quality of life implications for urban dwellers.

I'm an independent scholar with over two decades of urban planning and policy experience, and completed my doctorate as a mature student at the University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning.  I spent much of my professional life in Vancouver, Canada.  I now live in Victoria (also in Canada) -a smaller government, university, and tourist town located on an island which is north of Seattle and roughly the size of England, but with a tiny fraction of its population.  I also love to travel to cities (in North America and Europe so far).  You’re hearing these details because they impact my perspective.  Others with different life experiences may see things from other angles.

Since this is my first post for ACSP, let's start with the basics.

Can we define authenticity?

Not easily.  But everybody wants it.  I know authenticity can be a loaded -not to mention subjective- topic.  It has so many angles that a group of us (including me and my co-editor, Brettany Shannon) has decided to collaborate to explore this topic through an edited collection. (More on some of the group's wisdom in future posts.)    We’re not the first people to care about the topic.  For example, for scholars like Brown-Saracino, Zukin, Ellin, and others, it is a complex interaction with the authentic that drives the gentrification process. That said, our group aims to break new ground by considering (and debating) the notion of authentic communities from many different angles concurrently.  Maybe an easier question to start with is: why does everyone (or nearly everyone) claim to want authenticity?

Why Authenticity?  Blame the philosophers first

Great thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau began searching for authenticity several centuries ago.  Then in the early 20th century, Heidegger developed a truly modern interpretation of this topic.  His ideas sparked an individualistic quest for many to begin discovering their true selves.  And, according to some, this quest for the true self was intensified and spread by trained and pop psychologists drawing from the work of Sigmund Freud (Heath and Potter, 2004).  Whether you're a Baby Boomer, Generation X, Millennial, or beyond you might recognize some of this strand in pop culture, self-help literature, and especially marketing materials and approaches from the 1950s through to the present.  Of course, as later philosophers like Charles Taylor would argue, this understanding of authenticity was narrow, self-serving, and likely not what Heidegger had really been trying to say -or unleash on the world (discussed in Braman, 2008).  I'll return to Taylor in a future post.  But you get the gist -authenticity starts with the personal.

Blame Jane Jacobs (and others) second

Of course, the impact of authenticity on our society and cities hasn't stopped there.  Any planner or architect knows that the ideas of Jane Jacobs have had a huge impact on what we expect authentic communities to look and feel like (explicitly and implicitly).  Jacobs’s work has cultivated in many of us a longing to live, or spend time, in pedestrian-friendly, grade-oriented ethnic villages within larger urban centres.  As Zukin argues, however, these villages are impossible to preserve in a context of skyrocketing rents and real estate prices (2011).  And, even worse according to Zukin, the planning response has emphasized the built form aspect of what Jacobs idealized in these urban villages, rather than looking at the social relationships and processes underpinning their vitality.  This response speaks to critiques by Ellis (2015:436) and Fainstein (2005:12) that our profession in the last two decades may have emphasized urban design at the expense of the social.  This is not to say that there is no place for good urban design.  I want to make that very clear.  Rather, it suggests that there is a need for balance, and to return to the planning profession’s holistic interest in communities and community quality of life.


Other factors, and what to expect in future blogs

 Personal and design factors are just a few of the things fuelling our hunger for authenticity and authentic communities.  Other factors have included an increasingly complex (and often distorting) relationship people and communities have with media and branded representations of cities and city life (discussed by Jean Beaudrillard, Edward Soja, and Nan Ellin among others).  They also include the re-emergence of non-dominant perspectives from people whose voices were suppressed for decades (even centuries): Indigenous people, visible and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, low income people, and women--- all people wanting greater control over their own lives and of the representations of those lives in our communities and larger society. 

Lots to consider, right?  Even overwhelming?  Not to worry.  Planners are inherently practical and applied people, and don’t like living in the abstract forever.  And so, each blog post from me on this topic will alternate: between exploring some broader questions and debates surrounding what authentic communities mean (like today’s topic), and showcasing some interesting, tangible work furthering authentic community development along one or more dimensions.   I would love to hear from readers as well- if you have any ideas on this topic, please send them to me and I will strive to work them into a future posting.  Finally, I will also be drawing from some of the wisdom of the others who are collaborating with me and my co-editor on our forthcoming work.  Thanks for reading, and watch for my next posting!


Laura E. Tate, PhD.

Feel free to also check out my authentic travel blog:

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