PLAS Feature: Joe Lee (Fels '17) at Center City District

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What is Center City District? 

Center City District (CCD) is a business improvement district overseeing downtown Philadelphia, which provides services to keep Center City safe and clean while enhancing the area through investments in streetscapes, landscaping, and public spaces. I have been with the organization since January 2016 as a Planning Assistant, reporting directly to the Vice President for Planning and Development. 

What kinds of projects have you worked on at CCD?

When I first started, I was immediately put to work on collecting and analyzing employment, business, cultural, and real estate data for reports on downtown housing and the State of Center City. After the publication of those reports in the spring, I turned my attention to what has now become a five-month intensive research study on the users who visit the four parks under CCD’s purview, which includes Dilworth Park by City Hall. My task was to take a human-centered design approach to collecting the data, incorporating both design theories and urban planning methodologies. Our approach borrowed liberally from city planner Jan Gehl and urbanist William Whyte’s materials on studying public life and public spaces. The final product allows us to record each user’s profile (e.g. demographics, duration of stay, activity) and map it spatially. This is an incredibly powerful dataset that has the potential to inform and influence planning, operations, development, marketing, and policy activities. For example, we would have the means to find out where the most social or solitary behavior at noontime occurs on a typical weekday and whether the people in that space skew towards a particular gender, age, or race group. In fact, there are hundreds of ways to slice and dice the data—I really had to narrow down the research questions with my colleagues to set the proper scope for our study. 

How does this relate to your area of study?

I’m interested in urban economic development, specifically looking at the intersection of public policy and urban design. This research study allowed me to take the performance evaluation tools I learned the past year at Fels and apply them to urban design, which is an intrinsically qualitative discipline that has not fully embraced quantitative measurement applications. However, I firmly believe that policymakers who work in the field of economic development can expand their existing measurement toolkits since census economic and neighborhood demographic datasets only go so far in telling a community’s narrative. So much of economic development is about the built environment and investments in physical changes. A human-centered design data collection strategy enables policymakers to get on-the-ground information on how people actually use a particular space and make informed decisions about existing and future public investments.

What has been the most rewarding aspect to your job?

I really enjoyed participating in the entire life cycle of a research study. I worked with my colleagues to hone the research questions; develop and deploy the methodology and instruments; collect, enter, and analyze the data; and produce the final report and recommendations. I also wanted to step outside of my comfort zone this summer and do fieldwork that would allow me to get hands-on exposure to the data collection aspect of research. 

How has PLAS helped you to get this role?

PLAS makes doing internships like this all the more feasible. I, along with the other members in my MPA cohort, willingly entered our graduate programs knowing that we probably will not make thousands of dollars over the summer like our MBA counterparts. However, PLAS gave me the opportunity to explore a new field and gain practical work experience without letting finances get in the way.

What do you recommend incoming students do to make the most of PLAS?

When considering different options, I recommend that you look closely at the job descriptions first and find positions that offer many responsibilities and opportunities for in-depth learning over those that carry any perceived cachet. During the interview, ask detailed questions about the intern’s role and express your desire for ownership of a project or two, if possible. My work at CCD led me to an offer from PennPraxis that hired me to support the development of data collection strategies for the Knight Foundation’s Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative. I am the sole MPA candidate working alongside people trained in architecture, city planning, and historical preservation but was hired because of my relevant work experience at CCD and unique policy perspective afforded by my training at Fels. 

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326

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