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Alumna Q&A: Vidhee Garg M.R.P. ’13

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Vidhee Garg at the 8th Global Housing Finance Conference in Washington D.C. photo / Vidhee Garg

A native of Bombay, India, Vidhee Garg (M.R.P. ’13) has always taken an interest in the development of the built environment. After working as an architect in India for a few years, Garg moved to the U.S. to pursue the M.R.P. program at Cornell, where she focused her studies on the financial and policy frameworks of affordable housing projects. Following graduation and affordable housing work experience in New York and Boston, she joined the Affordable Housing Institute (AHI) in Boston, a consulting organization that specializes in providing financial and policy advice for housing projects in the Global South.

In her most recent role as Principal at AHI, her work portfolio included advising clients in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the South Pacific, including the World Bank Group, the Asian Development Bank, and Habitat for Humanity International. She co-led AHI’s Aarohi Fund, which is a socially-motivated investor that assists early-stage affordable housing entities to achieve their objectives through offering capital resources and technical assistance. She is currently based in Amsterdam, where she is working as an independent consultant.

Q: When did you decide you wanted to pursue a career in planning?

Garg: Having grown up in Bombay, I think, at some level, I always knew that I wanted to pursue a career in planning, but the desire was cemented when I was in architecture school. With Bombay being the urban laboratory for most of my undergraduate education, it forced me to explore, question, and critically analyze development, and made me realize the importance of policy and finance in shaping urban environments. Wanting to learn more about “what happens behind the scenes before the architect comes into the picture?” nudged me toward planning school. (I now realize that it’s not quite as sequential!)

Q: When you first began the MRP program at Cornell, did you already know that you were interested in working on affordable housing development and policies?

Garg: Yes, I came into the MRP program knowing that I wanted to work in affordable housing. That said, there’s no “Master’s in Housing” program, so I knew I’d have to carve out a class schedule that would get me at least somewhat close to that. Particular classes that stand out, even seven years later, are CRP’s Affordable Housing Policy and Programs and the NYC Workshop (we didn’t have the NYC semester then), and the Baker Program’s Principles of Real Estate. Those classes helped me build a solid foundation and network when I was starting out in affordable housing.

Q: What was your first role after graduating from Cornell?

Garg: My first role was working as a Project Manager in the Real Estate Department at a community development corporation (Codman Square) in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood.

Q: How did your work routine change after moving from a local CDC setting to an international consulting organization?

Garg: That is such an interesting question. For starters, it wasn’t a 9-to-5 or a day job anymore! With clients in different parts of the world, calls at odd hours were (and still are) the norm. Another significant change was the travel – both a blessing and a challenge. Not having daily or regular access to clients/partners, it’s important to make the most of work trips and the face time I get with them, to set myself and my team up with the information we need to get the work done once we’re back at home base. But there’s one critical aspect that has been common across both roles – bridging the cultural gap. Whether working with low-income communities in Boston or in Bangalore, one has to be mindful and sensitive to the local context and I am so grateful that my job gives me the opportunity to do that every day.

Q: What are some of the key differences working on affordable housing projects in an international context, versus domestic (U.S.) projects?

Garg: The key differences are – (i) the limited time you have to go from 0 to 100 in terms of understanding the local context and (ii) the limited face time you get with local stakeholders. This is why, in almost all of our projects, we have a local counterpart who has a deep, innate understanding of the context and connections to other local stakeholders. Our world is getting smaller every day, and the combination of local and global knowledge and contacts is key to success in any international venture.

Q: When you begin a new project, what kinds of characteristics do you first research and analyze?

Garg: To familiarize myself with a new geography, the three things I first research are the government structure, administrative divisions, and the economy. I’ve found that having a basic understanding of these three characteristics forms a solid base as I then deep-dive into more technical aspects such as planning regulations, housing policies, development regulations, etc. Also, I’m convinced that the history of a place (directly) influences its housing market dynamics, so I’m constantly exploring that aspect in all my projects.

Q: Do you have any advice for current planning students interested in affordable housing development?

Garg: Go for it!! For those starting out, I’m going to repeat the advice that my mentor gave me when I was finishing up grad school, “Look for a position that gives you access to as many as different aspects of housing as possible.” Looking back, I feel that my first role out of Cornell gave me just that, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that advice. Because there are so many facets to the affordable housing challenge, you can then constantly evolve and choose to focus on different aspects as you progress in your career.

Q: If you were able to return to Cornell to take one more course, what kind of class would you enroll in?

Garg: A class on negotiation! I remember John Forester talking about the importance of negotiation in his Introduction to Planning class and I wish I’d paid more attention to this particular point. More than any “hard” skill set, it’s the ability to communicate effectively with people on both sides of the table that enables you to have real impact.

Community-based Learning and Engagement in Seneca Nation

storefronts in a downtown area
Downtown Salamanca. photo / George Frantz

Students enrolled in the Land Use, Environmental Planning, and Urban Design Workshop led by Associate Professor George Frantz traveled to Salamanca, New York earlier this semester to examine the town’s main street corridor and environmental conditions of the adjacent Allegheny River. There, they conducted a site and inventory analysis of both locations, followed by a community forum at the local theater on the town’s main street.

At the community forum, students presented their initial findings on the different sites in Salamanca. Students James Warren, Shanee Moodie, and Nathanael Cheng presented their research on the main street corridor, discussing current conditions and opportunities for implementing complete street policies. Students Liz Feight, Hassan Saleem, and Naomi Haber discussed their findings on the Allegheny River and its historical and environmental significance. A communal conversation with the public ensued, providing opportunities to gather more information from the residents on their perspectives of the corridor and the river.

For Frantz, engaging with the city of Salamanca, located within the Allegany Indian Reservation of the Seneca Nation, presented a unique planning initiative for students to participate in. The partnership with the municipality and the Seneca Nation provided a breadth of diverse stakeholder engagement opportunities to unify the larger community. “We’re here to get your knowledge and wisdom to help us go back to Cornell and come up with a good plan for the downtown, for Main Street, for Salamanca, and for the Allegany Territory,” said Frantz.

The community forum led by Frantz and his students was also covered in a Salamanca Press article.

Events described in this post occurred  prior to the suspension of in-class sessions due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Organization of Cornell Planners Town Hall 2020: Defining Outcomes in a New Normal

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CRP department gathered via Zoom for the Town Hall meeting. image / Kevin Kim

Two months have passed since the university made the unforeseen decision to suspend on-campus activities and classes, leaving student organizations having meetings to transition into online settings. For the Organization of Cornell Planners (OCP), the new normal meant hosting the annual Town Hall meeting virtually, a first for the department.

Town Hall serves as a forum for students, faculty, and staff of the City and Regional Planning department to discuss current issues and opportunities to improve student experiences, professional development, and core curriculum. This meeting follows OCP’s Call to Action, the student-only meeting where concerns or ideas are compiled by board members to create the itinerary for the Town Hall.

Although some perks of an in-person meeting were compromised, the OCP board found aspects of hosting the Town Hall virtually beneficial for facilitating their itinerary and collecting insight from all participants. Brian Toy (M.R.P. ’21), who serves as OCP’s vice president and moderator for the event, shared, “One benefit of the virtual Town Hall is that all breakout rooms and the main session were recorded. We will be compiling the recordings and sharing them with [the department chair].”

For Kevin Kim (M.R.P./M.L.A. ’21), his third time participating in the Town Hall left him reflecting on the department’s progress from previous years. “My first year, I think many of us had these ambitious goals that, as a two-year program, didn’t become a reality for my entering cohort, but are now beginning to be introduced for current students,” he said. “These department forums are important because they aren’t for the students addressing the challenges, but are more for our future colleagues entering the programs.”

This year’s Town Hall also served as a forum to discuss the challenges COVID-19 will have on professional development and job prospects for students. Scott Scheible, who serves as associate director of AAP Connect, shared his office’s resources to ensure students are aware of the programming and networking opportunities they may leverage during this critical time. “A student’s ability to proactively communicate with alums in both the CRP and broader Cornell networks is very important,” he said.

Department Chair Jeffrey Chusid found the online format of the event to be surprisingly effective. “The combination of the intimacy of Zoom and the seriousness of our current situation with COVID-19 seemed to sharpen the focus of the various discussions, and also helped to prioritize the issues. But the fundamental value of the Town Hall to the ongoing growth and development of the department remained intact.”

HPP Alum Selected as Chief of the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program

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Sherry Frear, ASLA, RLA. Image / Sherry Frear

Sherry Frear (M.A. ’01/M.L.A. ’02) has been selected to serve as the new chief of the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks (NHL) Program at the National Park Service (NPS). She will serve as the agency’s first landscape architect to lead these national historic-designation programs.

Acquiring both a master’s in historic preservation planning (HPP), and a master’s in landscape architecture (LA) at Cornell, Frear’s unique academic training leveraged her professional career in the public sector, serving as a landscape architect and preservationist in positions at the local, county, and federal levels in the Washington, D.C. metro area. As a student, her theses for the HPP and LA programs both explored the historic and natural landscapes of the nation’s capital.

“Since completing my education in 2002, I’ve split my career between landscape design and construction, and preservation program management, and I’m thrilled to now be in a role that will draw on all of my education and experience,” Frear said. “As both a historic preservationist and landscape architect, I hope to bring a holistic, integrated approach to the ongoing preservation and continuation of the built and natural environments.”

The National Register of Historic Places was formed in 1966 following the National Historic Preservation Act, legislation focused on recognizing and preserving historic and archaeological sites in the United States. The National Register and Landmarks Program, in addition to historic buildings and structures, profiles prominent historic landscapes nationally. Through a recent effort called the “National Register Landscape Initiative” the National Park Service designated several stakeholders in the program to identify cultural landscapes across the country. Sites under these programs have included historic districts, farmsteads, cemeteries, and trails.

CRP PhD Student Discusses the Cherokee Nation’s Experience with COVID-19

video conference call still of two people smiling
Dylan Stevenson (Ph.D. ’21) on a video interview with Nicole Nomura (M.R.P./M.L.A. ’22). image / Nicole Nomura

By Nicole Nomura M.R.P./M.L.A. ’22

We connected with Dylan Stevenson (Ph.D. ’21) from San Jose, CA to get his take on COVID-19:

“My research focuses on the intersection of environmental, tribal, & rural planning. My work looks at industrial poultry farming in Northeastern Oklahoma where formal planning practices (i.e., planning conducted by government) aren’t common in this region.

I’m interested in what the Cherokee considerations are: Where is the Cherokee voice in this kind of ‘planning process’ that’s done inter-governmentally? And what are the worldviews that are missing from the discussions regarding regulations and how to protect the water quality and quantity in the watershed there?

During this pandemic, three things are apparent to me. In these rural towns, there are few public health policies in place. It’s really localized efforts trying to flatten the curve.

The second is the rurality of it. A lot of these populations have very limited access to healthcare, especially to quality healthcare. People might have to drive up to two hours to go to a facility. Then, the ability to use other technology to utilize the healthcare system – that’s also limited, which is dependent upon people’s access to the internet, where not everybody has access.

The third would be the native healthcare system here. Since I live in what was previously Indian Territory, there’s a substantial native population here. The Indian Health Service facilities have really ramped up their policies to protect people, but the social aspect of the virus is opposite of cultural norms because people really take care of one another at the community level.

Make sure that you’re taking care of yourself, make sure that you’re taking care of other people in a way that won’t hurt you or them. Just take everything a day at a time.”

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