September 7, 2010
Regional Planner Brings Practical Experience into the Classroom
“My interest in regional planning developed as a student at the University of Southern Maine,” says Assistant Professor Henry Renski (landscape architecture and regional planning). “When I landed an internship with Greater Portland [Maine] Council of Governments, I’d actually never heard of planning, so really it was kind of happenstance. And even though I hadn’t ever considered myself a numbers person, I discovered a strange affinity for data analysis. When the semester ended, GPCOG hired me as a full-time assistant planner.”
A few years later, Renski decided to pursue his master’s degree in regional planning at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. That led to an invitation to stay on for his PhD. “I really enjoyed the research,” Renski says, then quips, “and since I was already accustomed to being broke, the time was right!” Truth be told, Renski was a star. He received dissertation research fellowships from both the National Science Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation.
During this period Renski met his wife, who was working on her PhD in marine biology at Duke. “Despite bitter hostilities during basketball season,” he jokes, “we somehow managed to make it work and ended up moving back to Maine for her post-doc work. I was writing my dissertation then and doing some part-time research consulting. Somehow my name was passed on to the governor’s office.” Renski ended up as special assistant to the governor, helping to develop and implement workforce and economic development policy. “That job was a real eye-opener,” he says. “It greatly shaped my perspective on research and teaching.”
But Renski missed the research aspect of planning and the university environment, so he started applying for faculty positions. He arrived on the UMass scene in the fall of 2007. “I have a number of different research interests,” Renski says. “Lately I’ve been investigating regional differences in entrepreneurship in the U.S. I’m also working on a paper examining the shifting skill distribution of the U.S. workforce among cities of different sizes.” Renski teaches development policy and quantitative methods, and believes that his background as a practitioner helps him connect to students, most of whom aspire to become professional planners.
“As a planning and policy researcher, just about all of my work translates into practical, real life applications,” Renski notes. “I maintain my ties to practice, namely as associate director of the UMass Amherst Center for Economic Development (CED), which helps area communities, nonprofits, and other regional institutions with applied research and technical assistance.” Besides focusing on his own funded research projects, he hires and supervises many graduate research assistants to work on CED projects.”
Renski chose UMass for a number of reasons. “Geography, culture, and lifestyle were major factors,” he says. “I am a New Englander at heart and Western Mass just seemed more like home than the other places I interviewed. The faculty and staff in LARP also impressed me. They are very down to earth and extremely committed to teaching and scholarship. And of course, before forming the iconic alt-rock band The Pixies, Black Francis and Joey Santiago first met here, so there you go!”
Last year LARP moved into the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, when the College of Natural Resources and the Environment and the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics merged into the new College of Natural Sciences. “I have always thought of myself as a social scientist, so SBS is a good fit for me” Renski says. “I am also excited about the prospects of working more closely with colleagues and students from the Center for Public Policy and Administration, as well as other programs and departments in SBS.”
Because LARP is fairly small, Renski gets to know his students really well. He’s the “resident data guy” in the department and has a regular stream of students coming to his office seeking help and advice on their studio projects, outside assistantships, or problems they’re having with their theses.” He also tries to stay in touch with former students, most of whom now work around the nation as economic developers and planners.
“UMass is an excellent place to study regional planning,” Renski says. “As the only accredited public planning program in the Northeast, we are much more affordable than most other planning schools while maintaining a high standard of excellence. Our curriculum has a strong professional orientation that emphasizes hands-on learning and client-based work. We also have an extensive network of alumni and connections to professional planning agencies throughout the region. As a result, many of our graduate students work on funded assistantships.”