AFIT community planners course is more than an academic exercise

  • Published
  • By Katie Scott
  • Air Force Institute of Technology

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- The increasing complexity and visibility of an Air Force community planner's job requires knowledge and skills in many diverse yet intricately interrelated topics. The comprehensive planning development (WENG 520) course offered at the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Civil Engineer School enables students to gain an understanding of how planning decisions are shaped by physical, economic, political, social, environmental, and cultural considerations. 

“Every Air Force base has one or more community planners who are in charge of the short-, mid-, and long-term facilities planning of the base. This is the one course that they go to in residence to solidify their skills,” said Captain Andrew Fenner, CE School planning instructor.

A community planner’s job can range from site planning – determining the best location and orientation of a new building for example – to planning an entire new installation. The CPD course at AFIT is targeted at the mid-level project focusing on parcels of land grouped together to form base districts. Through field surveys and design review sessions, students learn how to prepare a program for short and long-term development based on their plan. 

“The students learn how to create a district plan and to do so, we have them create a one for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Instead of doing everything theoretically, they actually go out to the site, look at data, create the plans, and present their project to the 88th Air Base Wing CE personnel,” said Fenner. “I tell the students, ‘We're not going to just sit here and lecture and learn about how to write the plan. We're actually going to do it, and we're going to learn it as we do it.’”

For the most recent class, Fenner had the students break into three groups to develop a district plan for an area on Wright-Patterson AFB surrounding the hospital and historic housing buildings. “This year, we gave them a massive design project to bed down 700,000 square feet for the Space Force,” said Fenner.

The students start with a site visit, work through a strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis of the area, develop a mental map to identify pathways, barriers, and landmarks, and then create zoning maps.  The students use all of this information to develop their illustrative drawings. “The students are physically drawing on their zoning map, adding in buildings and deciding where to put details like sidewalks and trees,” said Fenner.

The project culminates in a presentation the students give to a panel that includes CE school faculty, 88th ABW CE representatives, and the lead planner for Wright-Patterson AFB. “The three groups produced three different plans,” shared Fenner. “One was very conservative and easy to do versus one that was kind of crazy progressive. They were moving fence lines, moved the hospital outside the fences, and designed a building to look like the Space Force symbol from above.”

Having CE expert representatives on the panel who know the Wright-Patterson AFB area well provides an extra layer of intensity to the student’s presentations. “At the end of the day, the students learn how to actually do the plan versus just reading about it. They're really focused on the politics piece; understanding that a plan is only as good as you can present and talk about it,” said Fenner. 

At the end of the course, Fenner provides copies of the student projects to the 88th ABW who have used some of the student’s work and ideas to inform current and future projects on Wright-Patterson AFB. “The base has actually contracted with an architectural engineering firm to develop a district plan for the area on base that we focused on in this course,” said Fenner. “They are pretty excited about having the products that we did to compare with the contactor’s work to get a better product.”

Another Wright-Patterson AFB project that stemmed from the students in the CPD course is an Enhanced Used Lease area near the AFIT campus. “The 2017 class looked at what could be developed in a grass area next to AFIT and developed a plan that showed lots of facilities could be built in that space,” said Fenner. “When we presented it to the leadership, it got them excited and it started a conversation that is now turning into something real. Wright-Patt is pretty lucky. They get to have 15 to 20 qualified planners coming in every year and looking at different parts of their base.”

The week-long course also provides the students the opportunity to network and meet other base planners. The students work on their projects in small groups which requires a lot of communication and interaction with each other. “There's generally one planner at most of bases, so they don't have a community around them to discuss ideas. This is one of the few times in a planner’s career where they will be surrounded by other Air Force planners,” said Fenner.

Fenner also ensures that one of the instructors of the course includes the Air Force’s community planner. “Amy Vandeveer, the Air Force Senior Community Planner from the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, or someone from her office, comes to co-teach the class with me because it's also an opportunity for them to connect to their people in the field,” said Fenner.