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Urban planners draw upon School of Public Affairs expertise

March 07, 2008

It may not seem like the Valley has much in common with cities in the Middle East or Australia. But large urban areas springing up in desert locales share many common issues – water supply, pollution problems and affordable housing – among them.

That’s where the School of Public Affairs in the College of Public Programs can make a difference, through partnerships and by recognizing those who serve the public good. The school was instrumental in recently nominating David Smith, Maricopa County manager, for a National Public Service award that he ultimately won.

Smith spearheaded a major turnaround in Maricopa County from a place that was described as a “poster child for bad government” in Governing Magazine about 10 years ago into a county described by the same magazine as one of the two best-run county governments in the United States.

“The award is a premier award for a public service practitioner,” says Robert Denhardt, director of the School of Public Affairs. “It’s considered a lifetime achievement award. It really is wonderful recognition.”

The award is indicative of the School of Public Affairs' involvement in local, regional and international governments throughout the world, partnerships that benefit students, faculty and cities.

“We’re known for our work in urban management,” Denhardt says. “We’ve extended our focus in the last five years.”

Some of those areas include:  

• Schools from across the nation competed for the Alliance for Innovation two years ago. The alliance brings together professionals, local governments, academics and private-sector partners to address challenges confronting local governments and communities.

“Ultimately, they decided to bring the alliance to our campus,” Denhardt says. “It’s a great opportunity to have a larger impact on local government in the country and around the world.”

He adds that part of the reason why the alliance moved to ASU is because Phoenix is known for its excellent local government.

• The school has formed a partnership with the Arizona City Management Association to create the Marvin Andrews Graduate Program in Urban Management, which is designed to identify the country’s most talented students who want to work at executive levels in local government.

The program blends theory and practice while focusing on management innovation. About $300,000 in scholarship dollars has been raised for students enrolled in the degree program.

• Faculty interactions with local governments are extensive in the School of Public Affairs. James Svara leads the Center for Urban Innovation that aims to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods, cities and urban regions. Many professors teaching at the school also possess invaluable real-world experience that they pass on to students. Marty Vanacour is a former Glendale city manager who is a professor of practice and associate director of the school.

“Students are learning from the very best faculty and practitioners,” Denhardt says.

• Professors also interact with governments to improve operations. Faculty members are working with the Gila River Reservation on the structure of their government while others are working on tribal finance. The school is also involved in tribal economic development in partnerships with the ASU American Indian Policy Institute.  

• The school’s partnerships extend throughout ASU. The Center for Policy Informatics uses the Decision Theater to use technology to enhance the public policy decision-making process.

• Urban and metropolitan studies is a new program in the school that examines the quality of urban life through a broad approach including arts, culture, environmental issues, and parks and recreation.

• The school’s motto – “advancing urban governments in a global context” – is lived by students and faculty who take advantage of internships, class projects and research that connect to urban issues such as housing, governmental structures and finance management. Universal urban issues such as affordable housing, and clean air and water, are approached through a global context with applications extending as far away as China and eastern Europe.

“So many of the issues that are faced by a city such as Phoenix are faced by other rapidly growing areas around the world,” Denhardt says.