Meagan Tuttle

Meagan Tuttle stands in front a downtown area that was targeted for redevelopment during her former job as planner for Borough of State College. CREDIT EMILY REDDY / WPSU

Scott Truex typically invites five to seven alumni to speak to students in his 100-level Introduction to Urban Planning course, with the theme “What Planners Do.”

“They share their career path and how the program prepared them to be successful as well as suggestions on what students should take advantage of while still in school, such as internships, extracurricular activities, and minors,” said Truex, who chairs the Department of Urban Planning in the  R. Wayne Estopinal College of Architecture and Planning (CAP).

This Fall, Truex introduced a new assignment called “Alumni Interviews” in which students are given alumni bios and are asked to research that alum’s firm or agency websites and prepare  interview questions ahead of time. Using a videoconferencing tool, groups of four to six students pose their questions to alumni in the urban planning field.

Scott Truex

For his 100-level urban planning course, Scott Truex enlists alumni of the program as speakers and assigns students to interview them about their work.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit and Truex began teaching his intro class remotely this Spring, he put out a call on CAP’s LinkedIn Urban Planning Group to seek out alumni who would speak to his students about “the changes COVID-19 has had on their job and overall community impacts.”

Truex sees these interviews, which are stored for 24-hour access, as “a silver lining in this time as we have to be creative in seeing some positive aspects of the challenge.”

Among those responding was Meagan Tuttle, BUPD ’10, MURP’11. She was a familiar name to Truex. He had served as her mentor throughout her Ball State urban planning experience, working on projects through the Virginia Ball Center and various community-based charrettes.

At Ball State, Tuttle also served as an adjunct instructor and graduate assistant in the urban planning department, and worked on several community-based projects, including the Whitely Neighborhood Action Plan, the first major proposal from a Muncie neighborhood in response to the Muncie Action Plan.

Since 2015, she has served as principal planner for comprehensive planning for the City of Burlington, Vermont. In this role, Tuttle oversees the long-range planning program and collaborates with other city departments, community groups, and elected officials on a wide range of policy development, special plans and studies, and public infrastructure projects.

It’s a challenging job, becoming more so when the coronavirus hit and lives were hanging in the balance.

Tuttle leads a videoconference meeting

Tuttle (top center) shares her thoughts in a videoconference meeting of city employees that comprise Burlington’s COVID-19 Analytics Team.

Through video remote, Tuttle spoke to Truex’s students only two weeks after she had been assigned by the mayor’s office to play a lead role in an emergency team assembled to coordinate a citywide response to the epidemic. Though the demands of this task gave her only a little time to speak, Truex’s students got a rare glimpse into how urban planners deal with a major crisis in real-time.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation:

Scott: So can you tell us a little about Burlington?

Meagan: Well, it’s a city of about 42,000, which makes it the most populous city in Vermont. It’s also home to the University of Vermont and the state’s largest hospital. It’s the first city to run entirely on renewable energy, and it’s where Ben & Jerry’s and the Vermont Teddy Bear Company got their start.

Scott: How has Burlington been affected by COVID-19?

Meagan: We’ve had outbreaks at senior facilities in our county. Fortunately, the mitigation and containment methods that Vermonters are using are working, and there is real hope that cases in the state may soon plateau and then decrease.

Scott: Although it doesn’t surprise me, based on your leadership skills and background in urban planning,  I was wondering if it surprised you that you were chosen to provide leadership on the team in charge of the COVID-19 response in Burlington, given your relative age and experience?

Meagan: Yeah, a little bit.

Scott: Did you feel confident going into that, in terms of being able to manage different kinds of people and different teams?

Meagan: Yeah, the team management piece for me, that wasn’t scary at all, to be honest. Even though I don’t directly manage staff in my role, other than interns, I have often been a project manager or a team lead on really large, complicated projects that the city has worked on.

For example, we’ve been working for a couple of years on redesigning our Main Street, which has been a very complicated project for a lot of reasons. I’ve helped to coordinate and manage a team of people from across the multiple departments of the city to help us bring that project forward, and ultimately it was constructed over the summer.

So doing something like this, being in this role of working together as a team and managing a team in a collective effort, is something that I had a lot of experience with.

But, to be honest, when my coworker came to me about helping lead our coronavirus analytics team, my first thought was, ‘Well what do I know about pandemics and epidemiology and what sense does it make for me to be in this position on this kind of team?’

And his explanation to me was actually really interesting. First of all, he noted not only my personal but also planners’ ability to connect with everyone. We know a little bit about what everyone is doing and how they fit, how their piece of the puzzle fits together with the larger picture. So he felt like I was uniquely positioned to collaborate with a lot of people to help find information and answer questions in kind of emergency circumstance.

That was one thing. And the other piece of why he said that he reached out was because we (planners) just have good analytical judgment. A lot of planning is evaluating certain steps that we can take as a community. Is it the right fit, socially or economically? Is it the right fit in terms of the resources that we have to bring to bear? Is it culturally appropriate for our community?

And, you know, usually we’re looking at a much longer time horizon of having to make these decisions and think about how to operationalize those approaches. But it was those kind of skills, he felt, made me — and my boss, who also has a central role managing this team — really uniquely positioned to be the center point of a team like this.

Scott: Something I like to ask alumni who speak to this class is, how did you go from starting in PLAN 100 to eventually pursuing urban planning as a career? For you, what was that path?

Meagan: When I first entered CAP, I was fully anticipating studying architecture. It was through PLAN 100 that I was even introduced to the field of urban planning and what it entailed. And I was hooked immediately because of the tendency I have to want to be involved in a little bit of everything’s that going on. I want to understand how everything works, and why things work or don’t work, and how that knowledge can influence a lot of different things happening around me. And so folks like Scott and some of the other PLAN 100 instructors I had at the time gave me a lot of energy and excitement for what the field is. And it’s something that I’ve really enjoyed moving into my career.

Scott: And how does that apply to your current job?

So as a professional I’ve been working as a comprehensive planner. What that means is I work for cities. I do less of the day-to-day work of regulating the built environment and more of the work around envisioning what the future of our community might be. And that takes a lot of different forms. Sometimes it might be helping to re-envision a public street and creating a plan for the rebuilding of that street and getting to engage with business owners and engineers and all the other disciplines that would be involved in that.

Other times I am working on bigger-picture, long-range efforts. For example, thinking about how to address housing issues in our city and looking at a number of interrelated policy or funding programs that can help us to address housing challenges in our community.

So I do a little bit of everything. My day to day is always very different in terms of who I’m talking with and what I’m talking about, but always with the common thread of thinking about our city’s future needs and where we want to be as a city and how to help us get there.

Scott: Those are great insights, Meagan. Thank you for taking time — you are obviously very busy. We just want you to know we will continue supporting you. Keep us posted and stay safe and healthy: That’s the key.

Meagan: If it weren’t uncertain how my time was now I would be totally all in for doing a longer class presentation. But please keep me in mind for the future; I always love talking to PLAN 100!