Learning the economics and intricacies of land development can be a dry topic for high school students, but the UrbanPlan curriculum at Tempe’s Desert Vista High School is engaging students by having them design their very own mixed-use development.

Teams of students are tasked with submitting a site plan for a request for proposal from a faux city council. These students have to consider the RFP, neighborhood demands, financial objectives, the site’s layout and economic winds of the time while they simulate a development team.

The UrbanPlan curriculum is the result of a partnership between the Urban Land Institute Arizona District Council and Desert Vista High School. For nearly 13 years, students have been working through complex problems that arise from development to create a project that meets the many, sometimes conflicting, needs of the community and project expectations.

“Once students get into UrbanPlan, it’s the coolest thing to see how much they light up,” says Shannon Corcoran, the Desert Vista teacher who has been leading this project in partnership with ULI Arizona. “Every day, they come in and they’re working — and they’re working hard.”

Each student is assigned a role on the project, such as site planner, marketing director, financial analyst, city liaison and neighborhood liaison.

The groups have to think on their feet as they must extensively review the RFP, letters from the neighborhood and finances of the project. Then, students must create a development plan based off of the needs of the site, Corcoran says.

Each student team has the chance to show their project to ULI members twice for feedback. For the final round of feedback, Corcoran and ULI members pretend to be a city council and they pick winning teams.

The winning teams then get to go on a field trip to CityScape and UL2 in Downtown Phoenix. There, leaders from both RED Development and Native American Connections explain how developing mixed use in CityScape and affordable housing at UL2 was much like the project the students just completed in their UrbanPlan case study.

“ULI has always been about nurturing tomorrow’s leaders, the emerging leaders, the future leaders of the industry, the future leaders of our communities,” says Deb Sydenham, executive director of ULI Arizona. “And starting with the high schools, with the UrbanPlan curriculum, is an amazing foundational component of that.”

UrbanPlan has inspired many of the students who have participated over the years.

Nicholas Henderson, an ASU student who is focused on sustainability studies, experienced UrbanPlan when he was a student at Desert Vista. He had never taken a course similar to UrbanPlan, one that made him realize just how the real world works and how development projects are done.

“I think UrbanPlan has led to my success with sustainability,” Henderson says.

Max Jackanow is another former Desert Vista student who participated in UrbanPlan.

Jackanow says UrbanPlan allowed him to dive into a project acting as a financial analyst, looking at data and making decisions. When it was time for him to go to ASU, Jackanow knew what type of career he wanted to pursue due to his time in UrbanPlan.

He has since graduated from ASU and now works as an accountant.

“Having done this for so long, I have so many kids who have gotten so much out of this project that it has become something they can do in their future careers,” says Corcoran.