During the fall semester, students in the Community and Regional Planning program had a rare opportunity to expand their viewpoint of planning to a global perspective, supported by the insight and expertise of Visiting Scholar Dr. Heidi Sinning, Professor of Planning and Communication at Erfurt University of Applied Sciences in Germany.
“Some of my colleagues in the field of Social Work at Erfurt University of Applied Sciences have already been cooperating with Temple University for several years. About three years ago, the president of our University, Professor Dr. Heiner Kill, had a meeting with the Department of Community and Regional Planning and the Center for Sustainable Communities to expand the cooperative opportunities between both Universities,” said Dr. Sinning, who spent a month at the Ambler campus participating in a variety of classes. “That encouraged me to get to know Ambler and to apply as a Visiting Scholar. Last June, I visited Professor Deborah Howe (Chair of Department of Community and Regional Planning). We had a very good talk and agreed that I would come to Ambler in the fall.”
Visiting Ambler, Dr. Sinning brought along a wealth of experience in both the practical application and teaching of planning to share with students in the undergraduate and graduate programs.
Before becoming a professor of city and regional planning and communication, she worked at the Bertelsmann Foundation, the largest private foundation in Germany dealing with the modernization of public administration and societal processes. At Bertelsmann, she focused her attention on city planning, “New Public Management,” and “citizen-oriented” communities. She was also a visiting professor for Urban Management at the Technical University of Cottbus, near the German border to Poland, where her research concentrated on planning theory, “in particular on the communicative turn in planning in recent years and on sustainable city and regional development,” Dr. Sinning said.
“When I began at University in Germany in the 1980s, social and ecological issues were widely discussed in urban planning. I dedicated myself to getting to know how cities and regions could develop in a more environmentally friendly and socially-oriented way and that has remained my main motivation since,” she said. “My practical experience in planning resulted from my work as a Director of the private planning firm KoRiS in Hanover — its name translates to ‘Communicative City and Regional Planning.’ With a team of 12 planners, we have been working on various urban and regional development concepts and processes in addition to exploring the fields of public participation and stakeholder communication.”
Dr. Sinning’s current research projects include “sustainable settlement development,” “cooperative housing,” and “communication in city and regional planning.”
“We’re examining how demand-oriented development in the range of cooperative-housing can be improved, particularly against the background of demographical change in Germany and new requirements of accommodation. We are working on topics like improving flats and their surroundings, participation of the tenants, and service in cooperation with four housing cooperatives in Erfurt and Berlin,” she said. “For about 15 years, I’ve also been researching communication in city and regional planning. With a team of three, we have researched the analysis, systematization, and editing of a variety of tools, practices, and methods of planning communication — citizen panels, future search conferences, Internet forums – including international references and also modern virtual tools. The resulting handbook has enjoyed widespread use in Germany.”
While at Ambler, Dr. Sinning said, one of her primary goals was to “get to know the system and daily life of an American university.”
“I wanted to get an impression of the courses in the Community and Regional Planning Program in addition to engaging in work linked with my research interests,” she said.
Dr. Sinning was involved in case studies exploring sustainable development in Philadelphia and Seattle. She also researched best practices in the United States related to “Communication Cost Transparency in Residence Choice,” part of an ongoing research project she has undertaken in Germany.
“The costs for people intending to build a new house are comprised of not only the purchase of the estate and the building costs, but also the follow-up costs, such as running costs, costs of mobility, and the expenditure of time,” she said. “This might influence the decision-making process of people who want to build a house or move to another place.”
She also visited and participated in several Community and Regional Planning courses, including People and Places, Introduction to Community and Regional Planning, Sustainable Development in Cities and Regions, Planning Theory, and Environmental Planning.
“I gave three presentations and discussed several interesting subjects with the students, such as the differences and similarities in planning between the U.S. and Germany, or Europe,” she said. “I got to know quite a few of the students. I enjoyed these exchanges a great deal — the students at Ambler are really very friendly, open-minded, and committed to their studies.”
Dr. Sinning was additionally impressed by the “new possibilities that long distance learning at Ambler opens up — students from Harrisburg are able to take Community and Regional Planning courses at Ambler.”
“They don’t need to physically come to Ambler each day, which works quite well for students with jobs, families, and other responsibilities,” she said. “This corresponds directly with a planning challenge we are facing today and will continue to face in the future — public transportation. For a sustainable Ambler campus, public transportation is an important issue so that students can reach the different parts of Temple University easily and without a car.”
City and regional planning as a whole, Dr. Sinning said, is an extremely important field for today and tomorrow.
“City and regional planning can contribute to a better quality of life in our communities and regions,” she said. “We are facing a lot of challenges, such as urban sprawl, improving public transportation, handling climate change and energy efficiency, neighborhood development, affordable housing, citizen participation, and cultural diversity and understanding.”
The Community and Regional Planning program at Ambler, Dr. Sinning said, is particularly focused on sustainability, “which I think is a very important issue in American cities, towns and villages.”
“The offered courses facilitate a broad range of different issues in planning and link ecological, social, and economical aspects to them, which is very appropriate and fitting moving forward,” she said. “Additionally, many of the graduate students who come to Ambler have practical experience in the planning field, which only enriches the discussions in the classroom.”
The Department, she added, is also strongly associated with the Center of Sustainable Communities, providing students with a broad range of research opportunities and practical applications for the topics they are examining in the classroom.
“Students in the program are provided with excellent professional guidance and personal support,” she said.
Dr. Sinning said that she sees the potential for additional partnerships between Temple University and the Erfurt University of Applied Sciences in the future.
“I see opportunities to exchange lecturers and visiting scholars and possibly developing a student program, such as a joint summer school or a long-distance learning course,” she said. “At Erfurt University we are building up City and Regional Planning, which is a new program, which could well integrate an exchange with Temple. I look forward to discuss these ideas with my colleagues in Germany.”
Dr. Sinning believes her time at Ambler could be the start of “an active partnership and exchange in the field of community and regional planning.” She would like to explore the possibility of developing joint presentations for conferences “or comparable urban research” based on case studies in the United States, Germany, and other parts of Europe, she said.
“I hope that my presentations at Ambler provided some interesting insight on planning in Germany. There are specific challenges in Germany, like dealing with the current demographical change — losing inhabitants and an increase in the number of elderly,” she said. “There are, however, a lot of similar issues that both Germany and the United States are tackling — climate change, suburbanization, and urban sprawl. I hope my colleagues at Ambler and the students here have enjoyed the discussions and our personal exchanges as much as I did, and that they have become curious about the German planning system, good practices in community and regional planning, and Erfurt University in general. It would be a real pleasure for me to welcome them to Germany.”