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MURP Student Spotlight

Learn about our Master of Urban and Regional Planning students and the interesting things they are up to with these student spotlight stories.

Leah Gerber Talks About Aquaponics in the Peruvian Andes

Currently in the second year of her Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning/University of Michigan, Leah Gerber is studying the interconnection between women and environmental planning. She has a bachelor’s degree from Butler University focused on environmental psychology.  This summer, Leah traveled to Chakiqpampa, Peru with Sustainability Without Borders and assisted with efforts to collaborate with residents to implement projects focusing on aquaponics systems, water, and public health.


Sustainability Without Borders (SWB) is a student organization sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources. SWB is in the midst of a five- year contract with the village of Chakiqpampa, Peru, collaborating with residents to implement projects focusing on aquaponics systems, water, and public health. This project offered me and several other students the opportunity to travel to Chakiqpampa this summer to construct aquaponics systems and to conduct public health surveys.

Our home for 3 weeks: The SWB Team lived on the top floor, a space usually utilized for community meetings

First and foremost, I’d like to give you a quick overview of Chakiqpampa:

  • The village of Chakiqpampa lies in the Peruvian Andes at an elevation of about 11,000 feet
  • Indigenous Quechan make up the majority of the village. More than 75 percent of indigenous Quechan (who account for most of the Andean population) live in extreme poverty.
  • Chakiqpampa has been labeled as an extreme poverty district by the Peruvian government, meaning there is a lack of proper sanitation, health services, and food during the dry season.
  • The villagers are mostly farmers who have received secondary-level schooling and have either young children or adult children who have left for university/employment in nearby Ayacucho or, further away, Lima.

For about three weeks, seven of us (three other graduate students, three undergraduate students and I) were welcomed into the village of Chakiqpampa. Days were spent constructing aquaponics systems and conducting public health surveys.* Evenings were often spent holding community meetings or strategizing amongst the SWB Team. Ultimately, the trip aimed to mitigate malnutrition during the 5-6 month dry season by introducing aquaponics as a new agricultural resource. Aquaponics systems were first suggested after a discovery trip in 2014, when it became apparent that water scarcity during the dry season was reducing crop yields and leading to malnutrition amongst residents.

Overall, the trip was a success. Four aquaponics systems were constructed, almost all of the households in Chaqikpampa were surveyed individually, and connections were forged between the residents and the SWB team members. I was particularly invested in ensuring that each household was surveyed, specifically that each woman in each household was given the opportunity to voice her opinions in regard to future projects. Although the village has seen improvements in education and housing due to government-funded projects, there is much room for improvement in regard to the health of the residents, water resource management, and food systems management, all issues that the women of Chaqikpampa will play integral roles in resolving.

*Aquaponics is the union of hydroponics and aquaculture. Fish are kept in the lined pool, the water from the pool is pumped into the 4 plant beds. Nutrients from the water fertilize the plants, which then filter the water in order to keep the fish healthy.

Women often tended to their livestock during the day, so we often travelled through the fields in order to conduct the surveys

Before the trip to Chaqikpampa, I had never been involved with community engagement efforts outside of the United States and was unsure as to how the process would unfold. The community meetings were led by the president of Chaqikpampa and were quite formal in nature. Each thought began with one individual standing to speak and always leading with “President, neighbors, Michigan students…”. While these more formal meetings were key in gauging residents’ satisfaction with the aquaponics systems (and gaining insight into possibilities of future projects), informal interactions amongst locals and the SWB Team were of equal value. Sentiments kept silent during meetings were often voiced later on: woven into a survey response, put forth while taking a family portrait, or mentioned over a cup of tea after dinner.

Government-subsidized housing: there were about 35 families in the village with these one-bedroom homes

Even with both formal and informal means of information gathering, we, as visitors to Chaqikpampa, could not possibly know and understand all of the intricacies of the political structure and history of the village, of the natural environment, or of the individuals. Such is the complexity in regard to development, especially international development: How can one ensure that a project is not doing more harm than good, is culturally relevant, and avoids a whole other range of issues (that you can learn about here)?

I do not hold the answer to this question, I’m not quite sure that any one individual does. As a student I plan to continue to educate myself on the topic of participatory, community-based development, and will encourage others to do so as well, whether it be through speaking with peers and professors, reading relevant literature, or taking exploratory trips. (Let me know if you happen to stumble across the answer on your way!). As for now, I plan to return to Chakiqpampa later this year in order to work with the SWB team and to ensure that the women of Chakiqpampa are at the forefront of development.

Gabriel and his family in front of their home: One of the families to volunteer to pilot the aquaponics system

The SWB Team pictured with some of the individuals who volunteered to pilot the aquaponics systems. (from left to right, front row: Gabriel, Vicente, and Manuel, the village president. Back row: Antonio, myself, Diego, Madeline, Becky, Derek, Andrew, & Katie)

With my "Peruvian grandmother," Gabriel's mother-in-law. In the bottom left corner is Pia, who works for an NGO as a school teacher in the village; she was invaluable in community engagement efforts and assisted with Spanish to Quechua translations.



A rising second year in the Urban and Regional Planning Masters program in Taubman College at University of Michigan, Sam Leibman is focusing his studies on transportation and its effect on real estate and development. Prior to his graduate education, he received a bachelor’s degree in Urban Planning & Public Policy from the Edward J. Bloustein School at Rutgers University. Sam spent his summer in Washington, DC interning with the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), who’s internship program is run in conjunction with the Howard University Transportation Research Center.

DDOT is responsible for creating, building, and maintaining the transportation infrastructure for the District of Columbia with the mission of “developing and maintaining a cohesive sustainable transportation system that delivers safe, affordable, and convenient ways to move people and goods - while protecting and enhancing the natural, environmental and cultural resources of the District” (DDOT). Under DDOT’s purview are the streets, bridges, tunnels, sidewalks, bike lanes, and public parking infrastructure in the District, as well as Capital Bikeshare, the Circulator bus system, and the DC Streetcar.


Washington DC, like many cities in the US, is undergoing a major transformation.  The population of the District has increased by over 100,000 people since 2000.  Matched by similar growth in the region, this rapid, large-scale expansion comes with a long list of challenges, and given the DDOT’s unique situation of having to function as both a city and a state DOT at the same time, the challenges are even more complicated.

Needless to say, what an exciting time to be working for the city!

My home base at DDOT was within the Office of the Director working with the Public Information/Communications Team.  In this department I used my knowledge of the transportation field and skills acquired on the job to release information about our current projects and efforts both internally and externally, as well as garnering feedback from the public. This included a daily information report of transportation news sent around to department heads and agency directors, writing press releases and traffic advisories, and also interpreting engineering maps for messaging about our projects.  Outside the office, I spent time at press conferences with the DDOT and city officials like Mayor Bowser and Chief Lanier of the Metropolitan Police Department, went to interviews for local news media such as ABC and NBC, and attended  events like the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS-DC) Luncheon with DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo.

July 4th Safety Press Conference w/ Mayor Muriel Bowser (left of the podium), DDOT Dir. Leif Dormsjo (podium), and MPD Chief Cathy Lanier (center).

In addition to the PI/Comms team, I worked with many other groups within the organization.  I put together a report on the DDOT Call Center to evaluate performance from the past five fiscal years using data from multiple internal sources, which was presented to the Director at the end of the summer.  I worked with the community engagement and traffic engineering teams on a variety of projects such as changes to freight truck traffic patterns, community outreach about changes in on-street restrictions, and a rush hour congestion study.  I served as  a member of the agency’s SafeTrack Working Group which is an agency-wide collective that strategizes and implements  mitigation efforts and outreach plans relating to WMATA’s year-long Metrorail closure program. Finally, I assisted on the DC Streetcar Communications Team which includes members of the PI/Comms, streetcar, and traffic engineering team, as well as external consultants.

The DC Streetcar: opened in 2016 by DDOT, the first branch of the soon-to-be-expanded new system brings streetcars back after a 50 year hiatus to the rapidly revitalizing H Street-Benning Road NE Corridor.

Overall, I learned a great deal at DDOT and met many smart, hardworking people both within and outside the agency.  I’m very grateful to have had this opportunity and look forward to what the future has to bring!

The HUTRC Summer Interns and the program advisors on final presentations day

Me with Michelle Simms, head of the DDOT Customer Service Department


Alana Tucker - Kisses Beyond the Gate: Putting Up Walls in a Country that Values Intimacy

Alana Tucker is a 2nd-year Master of Urban and Regional Planning student at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College. Her studies focus on urban stormwater and tactical urbanism as a means to promote equity, environmental sustainability, and placemaking in urban space. She holds a bachelor’s degree in International Business from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and owns her own small business making maps of cities around the world. This summer, she worked for the first part at a small tactical urbanism NGO, Ciudad Emergente, in Santiago, Chile. For the latter part of the summer, she interned at Downtown Detroit Partnership with the Business Improvement Zone.


Davor was the first one who kissed me. Let me explain. I recently spent the first month of my summer in Santiago, Chile, where I worked for an NGO called Ciudad Emergente. The organization does interventions and research surrounding public spaces in Latin America, promoting the notion that short-term action can lead to long-term change. Some examples of their work are experimental bike paths demarcated with cones and a pop-up concert/artisan market hybrid in derelict space — both of which are examples of an approach known as tactical urbanism. Implementation and evaluation of tactical urbanism interventions are growing in popularity as effective means of testing scenarios to ultimately influence policy.

In my first moments as a Ciudad Emergente intern, Davor opened the door, and then another door, and finally a wrought-iron gate that separated the facade of the building from the happenings within. And then, immediately after clarifying that I was, indeed, Alana, he kissed me on my right cheek. It caught me off guard. I might as well have been a stone wall. For the remainder of the month, after having been kissed by every single person I met, residual shock remained.

But why was I so shocked? This wasn’t my first time traveling to a country that subscribes to such intimate greeting traditions. Over the course of my internship, I made observations that shed light on my qualms. A great deal of our work simply involved conversation with and facilitation of it amongst neighbors. In fact, over the month, we coordinated three “malónes urbanos.” Literally, it means “urban surprise attacks,” but we called them urban potlucks. They brought residents to share in community and ownership over a public space in their neighborhood (plazas, abandoned markets, or the middle of the street). A primary feature of the potlucks was an invitation for residents to discuss the qualities they like and dislike about their neighborhood. On not just one occasion, residents would say, “I had never spoken to my neighbors before today,” or “No one trusts one another. That is why we go into our homes and shut the doors.”

Without appropriate context, these words would be descriptive of your average American subdivision. However, to a Chilean, the words’ weight is palpable. In the 1970s and '80s, Chile was ruled by a dictator named Augusto Pinochet, after a coup d’etat that overthrew socialist President Salvador Allende. Pinochet opened the borders to free-market trade, positioning Chile as the most powerful economy in Latin America.

A wall of victims of the Pinochet dictatorship, resurrected at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, in Santiago, Chile. This is one of many memorials that can be found all over the city.

Yet, to steal a common adage, all that glittered was not gold. During Pinochet’s dictatorship, public space was the stage for promoting his neoliberal agenda, instilling fear as a tactic to suppress his opposition. Heavy censorship, sanitation of public space, and physical retention of artists and cultural icons was commonplace. Estadio Nacional, the country’s national soccer stadium, was turned into a concentration camp at one point during the regime. Over 40,000 Chilenos were taken captive and brutally beaten or tortured. Nearly 4,000 people simply disappeared, executed and never to be seen again.

At the close of business each day in Santiago, as I walked home from work, the cacophony of screeching graffitied garage doors and gate locks turning was my playlist. For some properties, the gate was a decorative feature with finely detailed metal work. On others, a gate was simply the outermost crust of a wary domicile or bodega. But a single property without a gate or garage was not to be found. Viewing the private spaces where Chileans converse, embrace, and love was impossible. At first, as a passerby of these designs of high security, I felt alone and rejected by Chile, as if an entire country could exile a tourist.

At some point during my tenure in Chile, the words of the neighbors assumed meaning. I saw that public space was never public for Chile’s last few generations. To feel safe and secure, to share one’s true thoughts and ideas, one must stay indoors behind the behemoth of wood, iron, and steel doors and gates. To be in public meant to risk one’s own dignity and life, lest they be stripped of their most basic human rights. On the other hand, to allow one to pass beneath the doorpost of a Chilean home and to bestow a kiss to a newcomer is the physical embodiment of the transfer of trust.

Tactical urbanism defies traditional planning practice that pontificates that a good plan makes a good city. Rather, it is seeded in the belief that planners know nothing until they know what people think and feel about their city. Bearing witness to the words of the Chileans at our potlucks, the complex relationship between the physical form of private property, social elements of public space, and the history of Santiago, Chile makes sense. By using often cheap, but wildly innovative methods of city shaping, we can measure the successes and failures of our interventions. As tactical urbanists, the profession will be all the wiser, as we navigate red tape and change policy for better cities and a better world.

Women dance the cueca, a traditional Chilean folk dance, at a pop-up market in the San Bernardo neighborhood of Santiago.


Allison Kappeyne van de Coppello discusses a summer internship in Atlanta

Allison Kappeyne van de Coppello spent her summer in Atlanta, GA interning with the Advance Planning Group (APG) for Jacobs Engineering Group. A second year Urban and Regional Planning Masters student at Taubman College at the University of Michigan, she is focusing on social equity through the lens of land-use, environmental planning, and community development. Allison received her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies-Sustainable Design from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.


Advanced Planning Group (APG) is a consultancy that provides creative and innovative design thinking for strategic planning and visualization for projects across all scales. The APG team is comprised of an interdisciplinary group of thought leaders from landscape architecture, urban planning, engineering, architecture, facility design, real estate, and business analysis. Projects include facility planning, urban design, site planning, master planning, business and workplace strategies, environmental graphics and visual media. APG offices are located nationally and internationally with the main office hub in midtown Atlanta, therefore, team members working on local, regional, and international projects might be located in a different time zone or office.

First Day at Work

The Atlanta region is rapidly growing, seeing 1.7 percent growth between 2014 and 2015. Metro Atlanta now has a population of 5.7 million residents and surrounding Atlanta communities like Brookhaven and Forsyth are also experiencing rapid development, which APG attributes to comprehensive planning. Atlanta is transforming itself with new investment in the Downtown and Midtown neighborhoods and the construction of the Atlanta BeltLine transportation and economic development project.

During my summer in Atlanta I worked a variety of projects types. I was able to do analysis for two different communities in the Atlanta region synthesizing resident concerns and survey responses, and helped assemble transportable community participation meeting boxes. I attended a community meeting and an Atlanta City RFP meeting. Additionally, I assisted in graphic design, layout, and ArcMaps for City of Atlanta and other client proposals. My summer-long project included marketing material regarding Jacobs’s EcoPlan project approach and Platform Partner status with Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Challenge.

Sample of map created for a project

As one of three APG interns, I was able to collaborate with my fellow interns on tasks throughout the summer, applying my knowledge from grad coursework in environmental planning and GIS to my internship projects. The APG Jacob’s Atlanta group allowed me to be a contributing member to the Jacobs team and entrusted me with independent projects. I was invited to formal meetings with clients and associated companies. Overall, I had a great experience learning more about consulting and being mentored by excellent planners. This summer allowed me to challenge myself in new ways, explore a new city by bike, and consider another city to move to after graduation.

Jacobs 2016 summer interns


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