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The Executive Master of Urban Planning Online Degree, Explained

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If you spend time talking to faculty or staff about USC’s Executive Master of Urban Planning (EMUP) online degree, you’ll notice two ideas that express why the program is so distinctive.

“It’s a degree for working professionals located at the intersection of urban planning and real estate development,” Liz Falletta, professor and faculty director for the program, as well as vice chair for the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis, said.

No other degree can claim to have a similar purpose and audience, and Falletta described why that’s so important. A degree tailored for seasoned professionals with a flexible and collaborative approach to planning and development makes EMUP an unparalleled learning experience. Just what you would expect from a program from the school ranked No. 3 in the nation for urban policy (U.S. News & World Report).

The Intersection of Urban Planning & Real Estate Development

Planning is far from an isolated field. Improving cities and communities requires an awareness of different perspectives, which is why the Executive Master of Urban Planning online degree takes such an interdisciplinary approach.

“I am an architect with a real estate development degree who teaches urban planners,” Falletta said. “It really bothers me when these adjacent professions, which must collaborate to build cities, don’t understand one another. The EMUP is designed to teach students how to code switch more effectively between these points of view and break down professional silos. Bottom line, it’s training people to become leaders of interdisciplinary teams on impactful projects.”

Indeed, if you look at other programs in the market, no one else is combining the closely aligned fields of urban planning and real estate development. Why is this interdisciplinary approach so important?

Liz Falletta
Liz Falletta

“Why? We all need one another, that’s why,” Falletta said. “Urban planners and real estate developers have to partner with one another to build the communities that residents want, need and deserve. Unfortunately, as people with any experience in this arena know, outcomes can too often be zero sum game, with real estate developers lamenting, for example, that their project would be cheaper and easier to build with a less time-consuming planning approvals process or urban planners bemoaning that there could be more affordable housing production with more inclusionary housing requirements for market rate development. The solution is not necessarily more or less regulation, but better trade-offs. The EMUP program trains students to identify and maximize opportunities for mutually beneficial decision-making.”

“I went to architecture school twice [BA in Architecture/Master of Architecture], and I don’t remember ever talking about zoning code, or planners and what planners do. Likewise, developers who might eventually be our clients and what their priorities are. This really troubled me once I started practicing because I didn’t have the tools to understand the rationale behind our developer client’s decision-making process. Yet these decisions profoundly shaped architectural outcomes.”

“This experience propelled me back to school to study real estate [Master of Real Estate Development] and it was a real culture shock actually. At first I could barely understand the language my fellow students were using and I was taken aback by their singular focus on financial feasibility. But by the end of the program, I understood my colleagues approach to risk and return enough so I could translate architectural ideas into terms real estate professionals valued. My biggest take away? Being in the room with professionals whose perspectives differ from yours is invaluable, both in terms of learning and leading.”

A Degree for Working Professionals

The other primary identifying mark for the Executive Master of Urban Development online program is captured by the term “Executive.” This program is for seasoned professionals whose experience spans a broad range of fields engaged in urban development, who want to leverage this experience to do even more for their communities.

Student background can be in fields as diverse as affordable housing development, architectural and engineering consulting, elected office and planning commissions, design professions, environmental sustainability, transportation, and technology and media jobs. Past students include the director of the Houston Housing Authority, the planning commissioner of Kansas City, mayors and city council members in Florida, California and Ohio, as well as executives in development companies, multinational consulting firms and state and local agencies.

“I think this is where the EMUP program really shines,” Falletta said. “The depth and breadth of experience that our students bring into the classroom is unparalleled. As a faculty member, this is wonderful since students are able to learn from one another, and class discussions go in directions that you just didn’t necessarily anticipate but are really rich and often enlightening. Light bulbs go on at these moments!”

You can certainly say the same for the faculty. The program is primarily taught by urban planning and development professionals who have deep and diverse experience. They really enjoy “engaging with students and using their experience as a mode of learning for others,” Falletta said.

“We are lucky to have faculty who worked for the community redevelopment agency for 40 years, for example, or were long time planning directors or affordable housing developers,” she added. “This is an opportunity for those professionals to give back. And it really has benefited our students.”

Falletta herself is a great example of the quality teaching that takes place in the program. She has more than 20 years of experience teaching across disciplines. She is principal of Falletta Development, which developed one of the first small lot subdivisions in Los Angeles, located on Huntington Drive in El Sereno. In 2013, in recognition of the breadth of her expertise, Falletta was appointed to the City of Los Angeles’ Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC), where she led the Housing Working Groups subcommittee. Falletta also recently published a book of interdisciplinary housing case studies, By-Right, By-Design: Housing Development versus Housing Design in Los Angeles. She was appointed faculty director of the EMUP in 2021.

All EMUP faculty find meaning and purpose in a classroom full of fully employed professionals who can bring their current work projects and problems to the topic at hand. And, as an online degree for working professionals, the work is tailored to the schedules of students with full-time jobs. Most courses involve a significant amount of asynchronous preparation, meaning students engage with learning materials at their own pace. Additionally, each course includes an hour or an hour and a half live discussion each week. That’s where in-depth conversations happen and the wealth of diversity and experience — from students and faculty members alike — comes into play. The program uses a cohort model, so students stay together throughout the four semesters and have the opportunity to get to know and support each other.

“I Just Hadn’t Thought That That Kind of Connection Could Be Built Virtually”

When Falletta was initially asked to be part of the Executive Master of Urban Planning online program, she was skeptical. “I didn’t think design could be taught effectively in that type of setting despite the program’s innovative and technologically rich approach,” she said. “Therefore, I insisted that my courses must be part of the two in-person intensives, which take place in Los Angeles.”

“I was in the room when everybody met each other in person for the first time,” Falletta said, “and it was beautiful to watch. These students had been online together for just one semester and there was already a tight bond. One student brought gifts of food from his home state for everyone to enjoy, another made sure we all paused for a moment to recognize a milestone achieved by a fellow classmate, and, of course, everyone already had a cohort-specific nickname that brought laughter into the classroom. I hadn’t thought that that kind of connection could be built virtually, and I was wrong. The collaborative nature of the curriculum really amplifies and strengthens those connections, which will hopefully be lifelong for our EMUP graduates.”

The term “collaborative” is the perfect descriptor for the EMUP program. It’s collaborative in that it brings together typically isolated fields of urban planning and real estate development. And it’s collaborative in the sense that it brings together such a diverse — in professional background, location and demographics — set of students and faculty to learn from each other, to network and truly connect in so many ways.

“It’s a group of people who really want to do something out there in the world to make it a more vibrant, sustainable and just place. And it’s just so fun to be around people like that.”

Want to know more? Feel free to look at the Executive Master of Urban Development online program page. Or you can talk with us to learn more about the program and ask any questions that you have.

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