The Equity Lynchpin: Why planners should re-think the role of schools


Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Ariel Bierbaum talks about her work in and out of the classroom, the solace of baking, and how her childhood shaped her profession.

Ariel Bierbaum joined the University of Maryland’s Urban Planning Program in January 2017 after completing her Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. While a seasoned planner with over 15 years of experience in community development and public policy, Ariel turned her attention to the U.S. public education system during her time at Berkeley, after discovering through her work in participatory planning that public schools are “the lynchpin” to creating equitable, thriving communities. It’s a complex issue Ariel knows is imperative to tackle. “Across income levels and racial and ethnic identity, people who have kids know that schools are central to community. But they’re not traditionally central to planning practice.” Now, one semester into her career at UMD, Ariel talks about her work in and out of the classroom, the solace of baking, and how her childhood upbringing in a utopian colony was the impetus that shaped her professional trajectory. “I feel like I became a planner because of how I see and experience the world and not the other way around. My work is a calling connected to my upbringing.”


Where did you grow up? That’s an interesting story. I actually grew up in north central New Jersey in an intentional, utopian community called Free Acres. It’s one of three single-tax colonies founded on the principles of Henry George left in the U.S. It was founded in 1910. It was a very interesting place to grow up, and it’s central to what I do and how I think about the world. My childhood gave me a strong sense of place and history. For me, my work and intellectual life are an outgrowth of my personal life and upbringing. Originally it was home to socialists, artists, activists who occupied tents and shacks, but over the years cottages and homes were built. Everything is decided by committee at Free Acres, and so resident voice is the only way things get done. Women were able to vote in Free Acres before they could legally in the United States. The community itself is made up of 85 households on a network of one-lane dead end streets connected by paths. Everyone knows everyone.  It’s a very special place to grow up, an idyllic place. It’s a central part of who I am and how I understand what place and stewardship means.  


You are a planner, but your primary focus is on schools and school equity. What role do you think schools play in shaping our environment? I’ve always understood schools and education as central to the vitality of a city. My work has been centered in looking at issues in high-poverty areas and trying to understand how we can make our public institutions more accessible and more responsive to the needs of marginalized people – including those living in poverty and communities of color; schools are obviously central to that. But to be honest, early in my career I did not think about education because it was too hard. I knew it was the lynchpin, but decided to leave that to my friends and colleagues who I knew wanted to work in education. I thought, “you guys go do that, I’ll be over hear working in housing and community development.” My path to schools actually came from my interest in public participation. When I was thinking about the ways that planners listen to and engage the public, I noticed that there is a large group of people who are almost completely boxed out of public processes: young people. This is arguably because they don’t vote. We have all sorts of hurdles and barriers to even get folks to trust the public system—people struggle with language barriers and managing multiple jobs or a history of marginalization and racial oppression—and then on top of that, you have young people who offer elected officials nothing in return for their participation. Who is incentivized, in the way our system is set up, to really listen to young people? My access point into schools was thinking about young people in the context of participatory planning. That led me to the UC-Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools, and my work with high school students, teachers and planners in the Bay Area to engage young people in community development processes, to connect that to core K-12 curriculum, and to transform the ways that school districts and cities think and work collaboratively.


People who have kids—across race and income—know that schools are central to community. But they’re not traditionally central to planning practice. There are multiple dimensions for how schools interact with their neighborhoods. One of them is a human capital perspective; I think of schools certainly as educational infrastructure, but we also know from research and experience that schools are really important pieces of social infrastructure. They are places that create routine, and where community events take place and people meet each other. They are also places of political infrastructure; being involved in schools as a parent is often the first step in learning to be politically engaged with a civic institution. Lastly, they are very important pieces of physical infrastructure; schools are often left out of conversations about infrastructure. School buildings are enormous pieces of infrastructure that we spend a lot of money on; they shape the dynamics of the neighborhood and city. They are central in all these dimensions, yet historically, from a government perspective, they’ve been divorced from other kinds of urban policy and planning efforts.


How are you rolling these ideas into your research and teaching?

I’m motivated by remedying what education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings calls the “education debt” this country has to African Americans. After years of systematic oppression in policy making, our work can’t just be about meeting some benchmark of equality, we actually have a debt that needs to be repaid. I see my work as trying to understand how non-school systems can help repay that debt by supporting in-school equity. It’s the out of school policies and plans in housing and transportation that set the conditions for inequitable schools. We systematically constructed this reality through plans and policymaking in the past, which means we can unmake them too. To do that, planners have to put schools at the center of our work.


From a research perspective, I’m starting work in Baltimore that looks at school construction and closures in relation to neighborhood revitalization. I’m also looking at issues of student transportation. For instance, in Baltimore, high school students rely on the public transit system; because kids don’t necessarily go to their neighborhood school, we have a state-level transit agency managing a transit system for a city that is also responsible for getting students all over the city. What are the implications on the transit system, but also what are the impacts on the students and families- how do they make choices about schools and do they have access to the programs they need? What are the mental and physical impacts on students and what does that mean for readiness to learn? And what is the actual experience of bus drivers? These questions are applicable in school districts that are increasingly moving to systems of choice. There are choice advocates who are pro market-based reforms and believe that creating an educational marketplace will ultimately create equity. How can that actually get operationalized and how can market systems actually deliver a socially relational-oriented public good? I would argue they can’t. I would argue that education is not actually a marketplace nor should it be. And one of the things that gets lost are issues of transportation and access. This market system that advocates say is out there doesn’t actually exist because of the access to transportation. I’m hoping my work can help inform these debates.


I’m also talking to people about the issue of transportation in the context of intentional desegregation. There are districts looking at racial or income desegregation, either through programs within the school district or through inter-district transfers with other cities. How you carry that out and the extent to which that is successful is predicated on transportation access. In addition to talking with school districts across the country who are trying to figure out how to implement these programs, I’m writing on the history of segregation in transportation and the past issues of transportation in school desegregation efforts. In the 1970s, bussing was central to the civil rights agenda – and to the opposition to school desegregation. What can we learn from that history about how desegregation and transportation need to work today?


In my teaching, I’m really excited about the new graduate seminar I’m developing for this fall called Planning, Policy and Public Education. The goal is to explore these interconnections from different angles and right now, because it’s a new class, I’m thinking of it as an introduction to the issue, a way to introduce planners to flipping that switch and thinking in a different way. I’m hoping to attract students from other departments across campus, like education and public policy, because I think there’s a value at the graduate level for interdisciplinary discussions.


You spent about 11 years at Berkeley and are now on back on the east coast. What’s your most interesting observation about teaching at UMD? The one thing that I really like about this campus is something I noticed when I came for my interview. I walked onto McKeldin mall and it happened to be a nice spring day, and students were out playing frisbee and having discussions on the lawn. My initial reaction was, “this is what college is like.” There’s something about having that main green; it’s how a campus creates a sense of place.  I have a particular image in my mind when I think of college and Maryland has it. Berkeley has a beautiful campus, but they don’t have that same kind of central gathering place. For all the time I was working there, I always sort of missed that central space. I am also really impressed by URSP’s students; they come from really diverse places and backgrounds, and many of them are working full time and pursuing graduate education, which is no easy task.


What’s something about yourself that I would not find on your CV? I like to bake. I tend to bake a lot of quick breads and cookies, things that are forgiving. My students this past semester benefited from some of that. Being a household of two, sometimes you bake and there’s a lot of excess. I also really love to go grocery shopping; there’s something wonderful in the promise of fresh food as raw material. When my husband and I travel, we often go the grocery store in whatever place we are in because we like to learn about the regional foods—it’s so much fun. I guess if I could have an alternative academic career, it would be as a food anthropologist.


What are you binging right now? I’m a big fan of The Great British Baking Show. I’ve watched every season that’s out but I recently went back and started watching it again. It’s very relaxing – British people baking. And they’re so lovely to each other. So, when I’m feeling stressed out, I know I need Mary Berry! I need more of that!

Posted on June 23, 2017 by Maggie Haslam