Designing the Future of Planning: Success of the 2023 Student Design Competition

The 2023 American Planning Association (APA) Student Design Competition (SDC) marked a significant milestone for the event, featuring numerous firsts and paving the way for a bright future. Focused on the Logan Triangle neighborhood in Philadelphia's Upper North District, this year's competition tackled real-world challenges and aimed to create a visioning plan promoting public health, equitable access to nature, inclusive design, and affordable housing.

As Immediate Past Chair of the Student Representatives Council (SRC) and SDC Advisory Committee Chair, I write to share reflections and explore the highlights and achievements of this year's competition and to issue a call to our planning leaders and community as we begin planning the 2024 SDC.

Student Design Competition Aids Philadelphia Community

For the 6th year, the SDC has engaged support from APA's component leaders. Together with APA's Divisions Council Executive Committee and the Urban Design and Preservation Division, the SRC framed this competition and produced a design prompt calling for student submissions to address local community needs in Philadelphia, using existing city planning documents and best practices in public health, equity, and housing planning and honoring the existing history of the neighborhood.

Notably, this year's competition was unique, as it focused on addressing a real-world issue affecting a community within the 2023 National Planning Conference (NPC23) host city, aligning with APA's commitment to developing vital communities. The student response was overwhelming; 19 student teams, including one high school team, submitted proposals. Of these 19 teams, 11 teams from across the country were eligible to submit final submissions.

After a rigorous evaluation process by an initial jury of APA design experts, three finalist teams emerged: the Memphis Design Group from the University of Memphis, the USF Bulls from the University of South Florida, and the Sun Devil Development Team from Arizona State University.

The finalist teams presented their proposals live and in person to a packed conference session during NPC23. The audience listened intently as the final jurors asked the teams follow-up questions and engaged with SRC members while the jury deliberated.

Following the presentations and jury deliberation, APA President Angela D. Brooks, FAICP, announced Arizona State's Sun Devil Development Team as the winner of the 2023 APA Student Design Competition. The room erupted in cheers!

Sun Devil Development Team members at Student Design Competition 2023

Sun Devil Development Team, from Arizona State University, members at Student Design Competition 2023

APA and Students Flourish Together

From APA leaders to students, the successes of the 2023 SDC were innumerable, and the support from various stakeholders was tremendous.

This year's SDC sparked engagement from Bonnie Johnson, FAICP, PhD, an APA member and professor at the University of Kansas. Dr. Johnson integrated SDC participation into her class curriculum, resulting in four student submissions from the University of Kansas, the largest number of submissions from a single university.

Moreover, the commitment and involvement of APA leadership, staff, and volunteers played a pivotal role in emphasizing the value placed on student contributions. The Divisions Council Executive Committee and the Urban Design and Preservation Division (UDPD) have long been supporters of the SDC; this year their contributions were integral to our SDC journey.

Divisions Council Ex-Officio member Meg Byerly Williams co-chaired this effort, and her tremendous support helped navigate this leader-led effort and rounded out local Philadelphia guidance. UDPD Chair Marcel Acosta rallied design professionals to participate in the competition's juries and evaluate the student submissions, ensuring that each student team's submission received a professional review. APA President Angela D. Brooks, FAICP, a steadfast supporter of student efforts, sat front row and listened to each presentation, inspired by the quality of student work.

The list of APA support extends well beyond this condensed list: a previous SDC Advisory Committee framed our understanding of the task at hand, an initial jury of qualified design professionals dedicated time to evaluate each submission, a final jury attended and deliberated at the NPC23 SDC session, the SRC Executive Committee engaged students, APA staff elevated the competition to its first in-person NPC session, and related APA Chapters and universities offered financial support to help the finalist teams travel to Philadelphia and showcase their dedication to urban design and the planning profession.

Recognition of teams

The APA Student Representatives Council recognizes all of the 2023 Student Design Competition Teams:

  • Ad Astra, University of Kansas
  • Far Above, University of Kansas
  • Memphis Design Group, University of Memphis
  • Planning 'Cats, Kansas State University
  • Rock Chalk, University of Kansas
  • Sun Devil Development Team, Arizona State University
  • Team DUSP, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • The Philly Cheesesteaks, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Towering Toward the Blue, University of Kansas
  • UIowa Squad, University of Iowa
  • USF Bulls, University of South Florida

View the 2023 Student Design Competition Winner

Elevating Planning Students' Remarkable Talent

The 2023 SDC highlighted planning students' remarkable talent and dedication to addressing real-world urban challenges. The competition showcased not only the high-quality work planning students are producing around the country but also planning professionals' readiness to elevate that work and empower the next generation of urban planners. The 2023 SDC catalyzes growth and sets the stage for an ever-growing, impactful, and expansive event. This call aims to continue the collaboration between professors, planning leaders, and APA to foster continued engagement in and support for this competition.

Annually, NPC serves as the largest gathering of planning professionals where networking opportunities occur, learning takes place, and inspiration sparks. There is no better place for the SDC to have a permanent home, upskill our planning students, innovate real-world solutions, and strengthen our planning network.

  • I call upon our planning leaders to become SDC sponsors and engage your student pipelines, encouraging future planners to submit proposals for the 2024 SDC.
  • I call upon our Chapter leaders to pledge support for competition finalists just as Florida, Arizona, and Tennessee helped the 2023 finalists travel to Philadelphia to present their work at NPC23.

Let us recognize the competition's value and the planning student's value to our profession and organize our continued support.

About the SRC

The Student Representatives Council (SRC) is composed of one student representative from each APA region. The SRC represents students, emerging planners, and Planning Student Organizations (PSOs). In some cases, students join the SRC and are elected or appointed to serve in other roles as emerging planners. The SRC aims to create a lasting connection between those new to the profession and APA. The committee helps shape APA's policies that affect student issues, sits on the APA Board of Directors and other leadership groups, and organizes student events at the National Planning Conference.

The SRC is actively building new partnerships with divisions, chapters, and outside of the association, and strengthening the network of universities, students, and emerging planner groups through traditional means and our Linkedin Group. Students can always learn more by reaching out to their SRC regional representative.

Top image: Sun Devil Development Team.

About the author
Veronica Escalera-Ibarra is the past chair of the Student Representatives Council.

June 26, 2023

By Veronica Escalera-Ibarra