UniverCity Alliance class aims to inspire future urban leaders

Cities need to change and evolve to meet the needs of future residents, and UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter hopes to motivate the next generation of urban leaders to foster equitable and sustainable communities through an Urban and Regional Planning course. 

The three-credit class, called Welcome to Your Urban Future (URPL 215), aims to teach students how cities work and “inspire them to build a better urban future.” It’s an extension of UniverCity Alliance’s mission to connect a growing community of people on campus looking to improve their communities. 

Gavin Luter photo
Gavin Luter

“We’re going to get new urban leaders who need to think differently about cities, and they’re going to be educated at our university,” Luter said. “Hopefully, these students are inspired to think of a different way to conceptualize urban areas.” 

Several members of the UniverCity Alliance Board, including co-chairs Lori DiPrete Brown, Paul Robbins and Joel Rogers formed a working group in 2020 to create the class. Additionally, Planning and Landscape Architecture Professors James LaGro and Ken Genskow participated in the working group. 

Students will hear from faculty and city leaders across a broad range of topics that include development, sustainability, community engagement in a digital age, inequity in cities, social services, housing and education.  

UW-Madison senior Juliana Bennett, who also represents the campus area for the City of Madison as District 8 alder after being elected in April 2021, took the class during her campaign for the City Council position.

“The class is helpful to anyone looking to understand local government operations better,” said Bennett, noting that she learned about sustainable development, transportation and how to create an inclusive urban environment.

Bennett also took on extra credit opportunities to learn about accessory dwelling units and pop-up shops.

“The lessons I learned in this class not only helped me in my capacity as an alder but also inspired to change my major to Real Estate and Urban Economics so that I can study these topics further,” said Bennett, who is also majoring in political science with a certificate in public policy.

Luter said he wants to expose students to the breadth of concepts that urban leaders grapple with and encourage them to find connections.   

“So often when you think of cities, you think of problems in silos,” Luther said. “It takes somebody who understands all these different aspects to run a city.” 

He also hopes to show students early on in their academic careers that there are people at UW-Madison working with cities. There is the potential for students to connect with guest speakers and pursue future internships and professional relationships with city leaders. 

“We want the new group of students to be motivated and say, ‘I really love cities, and I want to work as my professional career to help make sure that cities are the most sustainable and desirable places for people to live,’” Luter said. 

—By Abigail Becker