The master’s program of Jackson State University’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning is celebrating the extension of it’s accreditation — an important milestone for the state’s only accredited urban planning program.

The program recently earned a two-year extension — until Dec. 31, 2020 — from the Planning Accreditation Board.

Associate professor Dr. Mukesh Kumar said the downtown Jackson location that the department moved into last year has helped the program attract prospective students, faculty and staff.

“The local city, county and state government are all involved with planning. Being in their close proximity helps the department tremendously,” Kumar said.

Indeed, the Planning Accreditation Board site visit report notes “The faculty’s professional involvement and community outreach through numerous activities including strong connections to the local chapter of the American Planning Association and service on various committees and boards in the community.”

The primary focus of the program is to prepare students to become practitioners in the planning profession. Students concentrate on the challenges confronting planning professionals and scholars addressing the economic development of cities and urban regions across the nation.

The three areas of concentration for graduate degrees are Community Development and Housing, Environment and Land Use, and Urban Design, said Dr. Ricardo Brown, dean of the College of Public Service.

The master’s curriculum of 49 semester hours includes  community-based learning experiences and hands-on activity in planning studios. The basic core courses consist of: History of Planning, Planning Theory and Practice, Quantitative Analysis and Computers and Legal Aspects in Planning and Introduction to Urban Design.

In its response to the site visit, program officials noted that the department’s faculty and students have been actively involved presenting ideas and strategies at meetings of city councils and boards of aldermen across the state, leading discussions on neighborhood design guidelines and master plans and developing corridor revitalization plans.

Kumar noted that students aided in developing corridor revitalization plans during the closing of the Kroger once located on Terry Road in south Jackson. The plans assisted the Jackson City Council and city planners looking at ways to recuperate from the store’s closing and create alternative food and grocery options in that area.

“Cities are becoming more smart,” said Brown. “The program trains students how to best assist urban and regional city managers in designing their cities to work better for the people.”

The department came into being as a result of one of the nation’s longest civil rights cases, the Jake Ayers higher education desegregation lawsuit settlement, which challenged the implementation of funding and programs at the state’s public historically black colleges and universities: Jackson State, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University.

In response to the lawsuit, the state agreed to disperse $500 million into different areas to improve the historically black colleges by financing capital improvements and new buildings, raising regular income and endowment from donors, and substantial improvements to educational programs. The master’s and doctoral programs in Urban Planning at JSU grew out of those efforts.

Created in 1998, the master’s program received it’s first accreditation term of five years in 2008 by the Planning Accreditation Board. The program was re-accredited for a four year term in 2014.

In May, a little less than halfway between the 2014-18 accreditation term, the department submitted a progress report to the Planning Accreditation Board. That report responded with details of steps the program is taking to address concerns raised by the accreditation board in its March 2014 site visit. The accreditation board met, reviewed the program’s response and agreed to extend the accreditation term another two years.

L-R: Dr. Talya Thomas, assistant professor, Jaynae Young, M.A. alumna, Tiffany Bush, M.A. alumna, Dr. Joan Wesley, DURP associate professor, Dr. Mukesh Kumar, associate professor and Loretta Johnson, M.A. alumna at JSU spring 2016 graduation
L-R: Dr. Talya Thomas, assistant professor, Jaynae Young, M.A. alumna, Tiffany Bush, M.A. alumna, Dr. Joan Wesley, DURP associate professor, Dr. Mukesh Kumar, associate professor and Loretta Johnson, M.A. alumna, at JSU spring 2016 graduation

During the 2014 site visit there were 16 black students, two foreign students and no white students enrolled in the master’s program. The board expressed concern with the program’s lack of racial and ethnic diversity.

“The board is encouraged by the Program’s recent efforts to increase enrollment, presentations on campus and in other cities to undergraduates in affiliated disciplines, and advertising on the University radio station,” the accreditation report notes. “The board is encouraged by the program’s recent commitment to address this situation (of student size and diversity).”

Noting that the student body size was 18 students at the time of the visit, Kumar expects there will be at least 25 this fall. The program has also successfully recruited two white students who will begin this fall enrolled in the masters program.

Brandon Rankin, Masters student at JSU
Brandon Rankin, masters degree student at JSU Credit: Mississippi Today, Ashley F. G. Norwood

“People come from all over the world, they speak different languages. People come from diverse backgrounds, both teachers and students,” said Brandon Rankin, a current student in the masters program.

“Being in urban and regional planning, we can’t just focus on one single area. We focus on that single household and then apply it on an international scale,” he added.

Many alumni have become transportation planners, Habitat for Humanity planners and senior developers/planners in areas such as Memphis, Georgia, Louisiana and Florida.  Many are also planners/developers for the City of Jackson Planning Department and are working in counties across the state.

Bennie J. Hopkins, Jr., the director of Planning and Development in Desoto County, is a member of the first graduating masters class in urban and regional planing in 2001.

Recognized as the first black planning director in the county, Hopkins remembers advice from former department chair Dr. William Harris.

Bennie J. Hopkins, Jr., Director of
Bennie J. Hopkins, Jr., director of Planning and Development, Desoto County

“He challenged us to understand the role of a black planner in urban design and environmental land use issues,” Hopkins recalled. “It’s needed because we can be left out of the loop.”

“To sit at a table with people who don’t look like you but are making (economic) decisions that will affect people of my color, that is empowering to me,” Hopkins added.

The next progress report will be submitted in 2019. Until then, the faculty, staff and students plan to work to ensure that students receive the best training, said Brown.

“It’s always a faculty driven process,” said Kumar. “Faculty, staff and students in the department put in extra effort to make sure that we keep track of how planning is done across the country and make contributions to it.”

“You have to stay on point,” Kumar added.

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Ashley F. G. Norwood, a native of Jackson, earned a bachelor's degree in English from Jackson State University and a master’s degree from the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. Norwood, who specializes in multimedia journalism, has been recognized nationally for her documentary film the fly in the buttermilk, which covers the history, perceptions and principles of black Greek-lettered organizations at the University of Mississippi.