HCD Member Spotlight: Martin H. Shukert, FAICP

Martin H. Shukert, FAICP

HCD Member Spotlight: Martin H. Shukert, FAICP

The Importance of Being Able to Read a Place

Martin H. Shukert, FAICP is principal with RDG Planning & Design, based in Omaha, Nebraska.  Creative approaches to problem-solving have shaped Marty's 45-year career as a city planner and urban designer.  As principal with RDG Planning & Design since 1989, he has led projects in a variety of areas ranging from transportation to redevelopment to housing.  Marty also served as Omaha’s Planning and Community Development Director in the 1980s.

He earned a Bachelor degree in City Planning from Yale University, and a Master of Architecture from University of California-Berkeley.  Marty has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners since 1984, and was elected as a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners in 2004. He has been a member of the APA Housing and Community Development Division since its founding.

Martin H. Shukert, FAICP Interview, as told to Deborah Myerson, AICP.

Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Neighborhood Planning – Coast to Coast, and In-Between

In my junior year in college, I enrolled in Alex Garvin’s planning and development seminar at Yale. For a seminar assignment, I did a neighborhood plan for Jamaica, New York. I immersed myself in that project, looking at the mix of incomes, business districts, transit, creating maps. By the end of the semester, I had a 200-page term paper.

For the second semester, I did a paper on the history of housing and redevelopment in New York City—which was 350 pages. At that point, I was hooked. I was clearly moving towards an interest in neighborhoods and housing policy.

Later, I started in a graduate planning program at Berkeley, but transferred to architecture. I wanted to learn more about urban design.

I returned in the summers to intern in the planning department in Omaha, and eventually moved back there. I am originally from Omaha—and thought I could have the biggest impact on my own city. My family was here.

I wanted to work in Omaha and apply different things from the coasts. Neighborhood dynamics differ – but principles of community engagement are not all that different. Neighborhoods are essentially small towns--with some of the same problems. A distressed neighborhood has the same problems with talent retention and encouraging reinvestment that small towns do. Common problems have shared solutions.

A Day in the Life: Planning & Design Consultant

It’s been so long since there’s been a typical day. On Monday, I was working in Salina, Kansas–a city of 50,000 people in the middle of the country. It’s a 3-hour and 40-minute drive from Omaha. RDG did Salina’s housing plan and community development strategy in 2016. Now, they are updating it.

Salina has had a lot of community reinvestment downtown. They are looking at growth of 1,000 new jobs over the next five years. Yet, there’s almost no available multifamily housing and very little rental.

I arrived in Salina on Monday for a 10:30 a.m. meeting with Community Housing and Development Organization (CHDO) working with on developing a pilot project to show the marketability of different housing types, such as missing middle housing for owner occupancy.

After lunch with the planning director, I led a two-hour workshop with the city council examining a framework for the future based on immediate need for rental housing. Finally, we did a tour of candidate sites to test design.  I was back on the on the road at 6:30 pm.

Salina is a sophisticated city, but faced with challenging issues. It’s not really all that different from other communities around the country, even bigger cities. Housing is now a primary issue in so many places, and becoming an economic development issue. The dimensions are different from place to place, but it’s the same set of problems.

Measuring Success with Patience, and Relationships

Community development is a very incremental process. You can’t really gauge the impact that a successful idea has had until you can look back over five to ten years, and see a trend that has been reversed.

In the early 1980s in Omaha, community development corporations developed an affirmative housing finance program to build new single-family housing. [Three decades later,] several developments proved to be a success in north Omaha, in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and paved the way to integration without gentrification.

Another significant measure of success: the relationships you build as a practicing professional. What do people think of you after five years? If you are a friend of the community, they invite you back.

Known for an Iconoclastic Image

I am a longtime urban bike rider. When I was Omaha planning director in the 1980s, commuting to the city by bike was a strange thing. Between commuting by bike and my [distinctive] hair, it created a bit of an iconoclastic image. When people see me biking now, some still think I am the planning director!

COVID Opportunities and Challenges

I run a study group on Sunday mornings for my synagogue on Zoom to read an interpret Biblical Hebrew. We have about 15 to 20 people. Zoom makes it possible for people who have moved away from the city to participate. It creates the ability to have personal connection that would have been impossible without the technology.

At the same time, people are dying to get back together. Zoom won’t completely replace personal contact. At my in-person meetings in Salina, council members were much more engaged in the presentation. We all noticed that they were much more participatory in person.

The Experience of Being There

Don’t let technology substitute for experience. People are proud of how they can use Google Earth. With GIS (Geographic Information Systems), it’s possible to know what a neighborhood is like without actually being there.

Yet, there’s no excuse for “retail planning” as a substitute for interpersonal contact, knowing and understanding people. So much of communication is nonverbal.

Don’t be a prisoner of technology. If something doesn’t look right, it’s probably not. It’s important to develop knowledge in the field to sense what’s happening. Instinct is not bad, and needs to be respected.

There’s the importance of being able to read a place. What’s working, how it connects, how it fails. The experience of being there is a critical thing. Get to know the people and the place. Take the time to do that. Talk to people, understand the relationships and the environment.

The HCD Member Spotlight is a feature that shares the passions, projects, and programs of housing and community development professionals.

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