New Breed of City Planner to Study at Tech, Georgia State

As legal issues surrounding growth and development become increasingly complex, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University [GSU] have developed a concurrent degree option that helps city planners earn law degrees in a shorter amount of time.

Approved by the University System of Georgia's Board of Regents this summer, the four-year Joint Degree Program in Law and City and Regional Planning from Georgia State University's College of Law and Georgia Tech's College of Architecture began accepting students this fall. Graduate students who successfully complete the program will earn a juris doctor degree from GSU's College of Law and a master's degree in City and Regional Planning from Georgia Tech's College of Architecture.

"This isn't the creation of a new program or degree, but it does allow our students who wish to earn a J.D. degree and their master's degree to pursue both at the same time and during a shortened period," said Cheryl Contant, director of Georgia Tech's City and Regional Planning Program. "We're able to do this by allowing certain courses in GSU's J.D. program and in our master's program to count toward both degrees."

"Students at both schools will benefit from taking classes with each other, because they will gain a greater understanding of both professions," said Julian Juergensmeyer, the GSU law professor who spearhead development of the program along with Contant and Georgia Tech planning professor Chris Nelson. "The students will learn how to work together."

Contant said the concurrent degree option is one of about 20 such programs offered in the United States, and it will allow Georgia Tech and GSU to produce "a new breed of planning lawyers or attorney-planners" for the region.

"These are going to be folks who will understand the limitations city and regional planners face based on legal requirements, but they'll also understand how to change the law to achieve their planning objectives," she said. "These folks are likely to become important players in state agencies, law firms and other official capacities.

"Having been a faculty member in a program with a similar joint law degree, what I've noticed is students who would apply for jobs just having earned a J.D. and a planning degree, well, it was always so curious to employers that it made the student's resume rise to the top immediately," Contant said. "It also works out that many attorneys often want someone on their staff who has a good understanding of land-use planning."

Joe Cooley, one of the first students to enroll in the concurrent program, said that planning and law have become so interrelated that anyone practicing either profession needs to have a good understanding of the other.

"Both planners and attorneys will make better and more defensible decisions through the study of both fields," Cooley said. "I believe having both degrees as well as my previous experience consulting and in the public sector will give me a leg-up in the job market. More importantly, I believe it will allow me to be a better practitioner."

Shannon Sams, another student in the program, said it offers him a chance to become acquainted with urban and rural growth problems in more detail and with greater sophistication than either degree can offer on its own.

"I hope to develop a city planner's perspective on how to best accommodate growth and use my legal degree to form workable solutions," Sams said. "At the very least I will learn innovative land-use techniques, what factors should be taken into account before making a land-use decision, and be exposed to planners who will be making decisions or working for those who will make decisions concerning growth in the Atlanta area."

Thomas Galloway, dean of Georgia Tech's College of Architecture, said the new concurrent degree program is an exciting collaborative effort for Tech and GSU.

"This takes the best parts of two excellent programs and produces a new kind of graduate, one who will be well prepared to work throughout this region and, indeed, throughout the nation," Galloway said. "Many communities in this country -- and especially Atlanta -- need professionals with a foot in both planning and law to address critical questions revolving around land use, redevelopment, historic preservation and many other sensitive issues."

The greater understanding gained by lawyers and planners of their respective fields will help them be more creative in finding solutions to the development issues facing communities, GSU College of Law Dean Janice C. Griffith said.

"In the past, city planners have often felt stymied by their lack of understanding of what would result if they made certain planning decisions," she said. "A better knowledge of the law will improve their decision-making process. Likewise, a greater understanding of planning will help lawyers do a better job shaping the law to improve the physical environment."