Please reflect on the founding of Agora. What were the goals of the organization as it started? What catalyzed it’s creation?
James McMurray (JM): I felt that Agora could serve a valuable opportunity for UM planning students to distinguish themselves and have something...Writing, production, and publishing are all critical parts of a planner's skill set, whether they intend to pursue professional or academic work, and I think an Agora credit (as an author or staff member) is a great way to build and demonstrate these skills. It's something I still keep on my resume! I think there was also a hope that Agora could serve as a way to help enhance the UM planning program as a whole in the eyes of prospective students, academic peers, and job recruiters - with any luck, that has been the case.
Deirdra Stockman (DS): There were very few opportunities for students to publish their work, including essays and analyses as well as design work. At the time, students were not usually involved with faculty research and writing. (I hope that's changed.) We wanted to create a new opportunity that would provide a venue for students to share work in a small-scale peer reviewed and edited journal.
Jonathan Levine (JL): Urban planning students were regularly developing high-quality research and professional products that were worthy of publication. Agora was a needed venue and offered additional advantages including visibility for the Urban and Regional Planning Program at Michigan, valuable experience for the Agora staff, and community building among the planning students. Supporting its founding with some program funds was an easy decision.
As Agora was first beginning, how did the founders envision the organization evolving?
JM: Ironically, I don't think the Agora team - full of aspiring planners - had the luxury to do any long-term planning or spend time envisioning what Agora would become eventually. It was just a lot of long hours figuring it out as we went along while juggling everything else. If anything, I think there was a hope that the institutional knowledge we built in the first two years would roll into future efforts and make life easier in the following years. Then again, crashing through those walls feeling scared and clueless is part of the whole experience!
DS: Honestly, I don't remember thinking too much about the longer term when in the throes of trying to get the first issue done by the deadline! I do know we hoped it would far outlast us and I'm really glad it has.
How did creating, writing for, editing, and publishing Agora help you in your career endeavors?
JM: I think any successful master's or PhD planning students in any program have to learn how to write. However, producing and publishing content is a totally different animal. Going through that process with Agora takes a huge amount of effort, but coming out of school I had a much better understanding of what it took to produce and publish content. I have drawn on a lot of the skills I gained directly through my two years with Agora - including editing, using Adobe software, and printing production - regularly in my own career.
DS: I'm sure I can't show any causation, but any practice creating, writing and editing helps exercise those "muscles" and improve those skills. And when you're committing to put something out, in a final, paper (and electronic) version for public consumption, you work those muscles hard.
What’s the importance of academic research in the urban planning field?
JM: I can't speak for other planning practitioners, but I have rarely had the luxury to go back into the academic planning world in the course of my professional career. However, I value and still draw on many of the ideas and principles from academic research that I encountered during my time at UM. I think it plays a hugely important role in shaping the planning profession!
DS: Good question! The planning field, like all applied policy fields, needs research to better understand itself - what works and what doesn't work, why we do what we do, why and how trends come and go. I probably had a better answer for that 10 years ago. But I'll admit that I'm personally critical of academic work that isn't connected to practice and policy...
JL: Michigan Planning has a reformist agenda: we see problems in practice of planning and want to improve it in the United States and globally. Shifting from established ways of doing things is challenging. Three principal routes for furthering this goal are activism, reflective practice, and research. Research ideally can help practice and policymaking reevaluate both the desirability of competing goals and the effectiveness of means for achieving them.