A few months after Jason Sartori (MCP ’05) led the update of Montgomery County’s adequate public facilities ordinance for 2020, which ensures that key resources like schools and transportation infrastructure are in place to support development and growth, he received an unexpected call from Uri Avin, his former professor and colleague from the University of Maryland.
“Uri had gotten wind of what we were doing, which was this data-driven approach and right up his alley,” recalls Sartori, who is a division chief for the Montgomery County Planning Department. “He was like, ‘I love it, this is great stuff.’ The next thing I know he’s got me in front of planners from Anne Arundel, Howard and other Maryland counties sharing what we did and now they are shifting their thinking. And that’s Uri. He’s always looking to build those connections, to improve the planning practice everywhere.”
Ask anyone who knows Avin—and in Maryland urban planning circles, that’s most everyone—and they likely have a story just like Sartori’s. As a veteran practitioner, consultant, researcher and teacher, Avin has amassed an extensive network of human capital—from state agency directors and small-town mayors to university professors and former students practicing on the front lines of community issues—tapping into them to noodle problems, test unconventional ideas, and at the University of Maryland, share a collective wisdom with students.
“He’s just magnanimous. I feel like I learn 15 things every time I meet with Uri,” says Sartori. “As a practitioner, he’s progressive, he’s bold and he’s organized. He understands the theory and he understand the practical side, but he also knows how to bring people together. The fact that he’s been able to share that with his students has made them better planners.”
This month, Avin retires his post after 30 years at the University of Maryland. As one of UMD’s few practicing urban planning faculty, his knowledge and experience offered a primer for students on the realities of practice not available in a textbook. A journeyman in Maryland planning circles with nearly 50 years of public and private practice, Avin helped elevate the reputation of the university’s National Center for Smart Growth through cutting-edge research and as the architect of the largest action-learning program in the country, UMD’s Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS).
Born and raised in South Africa, Avin cut his teeth first as an architect, where he witnessed firsthand the disastrous social repercussions of ideologically-driven, top-down planning regimes under the dark shadow of Apartheid. After earning his Masters of Community Planning and Urban Design degrees at the University of Pennsylvania, he landed his first job conducting pedestrian planning and modeling for the now-defunct RTKL in Baltimore, a springboard for positions in both private and public practice. He has consulted for the likes of Parsons Brinckerhoff and served as the planning director or deputy director for Howard, Harford and Baltimore Counties. An expert in scenario modeling and a national voice in regional growth management, his scope of work has helped create 97 plans in 25 states, 26 of these in Maryland.
“The amount of people that Uri has taught or worked with… he’s just a connection point for so many people I meet,” says former student Sarah Latimer. “Everyone has an experience of working with Uri Avin.”
In the 1980s, Avin began sharing some of his experiences in the classroom as an adjunct for UMD’s urban and community planning program, teaching occasional classes for the next 25 years while juggling professional work in government and as a consultant. When Parsons Brinkerhoff pulled the plug on its planning outfit in 2012, he decided he was ready for a change. By then, Avin had collaborated on a few projects with Gerrit Knaap of UMD’s National Center for Smart Growth (NCSG), including the Maryland statewide travel model, and they both saw an opportunity for a larger modeling effort by the center. By the end of the year, he had fully transitioned to UMD.
“We were very lucky to get Uri,” says Knaap. “Not only has he been with UMD’s planning program for longer than any of the rest of us, he’s been a prominent figure in Maryland planning for all this time. He’s been around the block and knows the issues and nuances that are really only known to people actively practicing.”
At NCSG, Uri dove into modeling and scenario work, co-authoring a number of studies with colleagues at the center and at other universities, including PRESTO, which outlines a number of possible futures for the greater Washington region by 2040. Aside from bringing pedigree and rigor, Uri’s contributions to the business end of center activities were critical in boosting NCSG’s level of work and reputation, says Knaap.
“I learned a lot from him about the nonacademic research enterprise,” he said. “He brought to the center all his skills and ideas for how you pursue grants and contracts, how to form teams, who to talk to—and he knows so many people. That was critical for a research center like ours.”
But it was an experiment in 2012, where Avin ultimately made his most lasting contribution at Maryland. After it became apparent that a plan to leverage the center’s assets to consult for regional jurisdictions couldn’t garner sufficient administrative support from the university, Knaap floated the idea of replicating a program created by the University of Portland, where faculty and students are partnered with area jurisdictions to tackle real-world problems—from invasive species and development projects to food deserts and heritage documentation. Within a year, the university’s Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS) program was born, with Avin as the front man.
“At the time I wasn’t seeing myself as really being drawn in by this role,” says Avin. “But the truth is, it combined a lot of the things I was good at—I was well-networked in Maryland and had sat on both sides of the municipal table. I relished the idea of running around campus and pulling people into a real-world service-learning deal and connecting them to government entities. In the end it was an excellent fit.”
“Uri has always been an ideas man,” says Professor of Landscape Architecture Christopher Ellis. “When we started talking about a PALS project with a community, within minutes we'd have a grand plan to meet the community goals, the class objectives and a long list of other cool initiatives that got everyone excited.”
Since its first partnership with The City of Frederick in 2014, PALS has collaborated with 23 counties, cities and community partnerships throughout Maryland, inspired 180 courses—as well as an undergraduate option for agriculture students to participate with Maryland’s farming community–engaged over 2,400 students and has brought in over $1.2 million in contract revenue to the university.
“Prior to PALS there were opportunities on campus to engage on a community level, but it was more catch-as-catch-can,” says Avin. “PALS gives the support and funding to faculty, the connections with municipalities, editorial help on reports to create a more structured, rigorous effort. It gave students and faculty the experience of working on projects together that made it all seem realistic and possible. It’s an interdisciplinary initiative, and that’s really the promise of PALS.”
“I got involved with the PALS program as a new faculty member and Uri was one of the first people I met on campus outside my home college,” said Bethany Swain, a lecturer with the Phillip Merrill School of Journalism, whose class, Viewfinder, has been a PALS staple. “He was so welcoming and excited about the collaboration. Many of our PALS projects went on to win nationally-recognized awards and that success wouldn’t have happened without his leadership and energy.”
While PALS kept Avin busy, he continued to seize opportunities to teach. Any given semester, he could be found guiding students through a project or planning studio, sharing his knowledge to help them formulate their own ideas.
“The studio I took with Uri was the hardest class I took in grad school and also the best one, because it was the real deal,” said Latimer, who was part of Avin’s 2019 project to create a sustainable growth framework for the Maryland community of Creswell. “There’s a lot of classes you take where you can vision as much as you want but with Creswell, we had to figure out how to actually get there.”
Over the years Avin has recruited more than 20 adjunct faculty to the program—mostly practitioners with varied experience in different aspects of planning—to teach and share their own experiences and skill. And, while he leverages his track record of practice to help prepare his students for their own, he has also worked to impart the characteristics they will need to find success: good listening skills; a humility and respect for the realities of a community and the workings of a free market; and the foresight to understand the unintended consequences of any proposed plan.
“I’ve been in practice long enough to see the outcomes of my work and to reflect on them, and find it really rewarding to be able to communicate to students lessons from this laboratory,” says Avin. “It’s been my most satisfying professional experience.”
“As a professor, Uri really challenged me and my peers to be unafraid to ask questions, to make decisions and to defend our work,” said former student Kari Nye. “I still haven’t fully recovered from my workload as his student but, as a new planner, I feel very fortunate to have experienced Uri’s teaching, especially as I work to bridge scholarship and planning practice in my job.”
Avin’s retirement plans do not include pursuing emeritus status; but colleagues who have seen him in action know slowing down won’t come easy. In Avin’s case, you can take the practitioner out of planning, but you can’t take the planning out of the practitioner.
“I honestly don’t see how he could ever really retire,” said Latimer, who now works for the Howard County Planning Department. “He’ll still call us up and says, ‘I’ve got an idea for you.’ And we’ll be ready to hear it.”
“Is it even possible for Uri to retire?” says Nye. “I’m certain that he’ll still seek meaningful ways to educate students and new planners, especially those of us who end up working in Maryland. He’s been a great mentor to me. I hope he knows that just because he’s retiring, it doesn’t mean that I will stop emailing him for advice.”