Georgia Tech awards Mike Dobbins for his students’ work with Atlanta’s blighted communitiesMike Dobbins' freehand drawing of the Memorial Drive corridor helped establish the parameters of the studio. File/Credit: Mike Dobbins
By David Pendered
Mike Dobbins is the first non-scientist to win Georgia Tech’s Innovation and Excellence in Laboratory Instruction Award, which recognizes his work with the CityLabs program in the School of City and Regional Planning.
Dobbins is best known these days for the reports and proposals his students have produced on sweeping urban redevelopments. Recent topics include Memorial Drive; Fort McPherson; West End; and Northside Drive (which influenced the debate over Atlanta’s provision of $200 million in bonds to build the Falcons stadium).
Reports produced under Dobbins’ guidance traditionally cite the benefits of bringing all stakeholders into discussions – residents, community organizations, governmental entitites, and developers. The reports also emphasize opportunities to create jobs for nearby residents; to provide affordable housing; and to enable current residents to keep their homes after the neighborhood is improved.
“Professor of Practice Mike Dobbins is a master of project selection, client relations, planning vision and student mentoring who not only consistently achieves the promise of experiential learning, but whose students leave Georgia Tech ready to overcome the most demanding professional challenges,” Bruce Stiftel, chair of Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning, said in a statement.
This is how Dobbins characterizes the outlook he tries to infuse into students:
“What I tell people who want to go into planning is they have to have a high level of tolerance for ambiguity. A lot of output has to come from them interacting with each other, and with me ensuring a range of disciplines are represented in subgroups, so they get a taste of the organizational environment they are heading into.”
Dobbins was light hearted as he began discussing the award and its import for the school and its students.
“The first thing my colleagues told me is that I’ll have to start wearing a lab coat to teach the studio,” Dobbins said.
Then, as he so often does, Dobbins quickly shifted to provide the expansive and comprehensive view that shapes his work with students.
“Georgia Tech is rich in resources, and our neighbors are really in need of having a technical support system to go with their own aspirations to improve their community.
“The goal is to use graduate students, faculty, and research … to find out what people in the community are thinking, and what they need, and what we might have to offer. The community has a lot of knowledge that we don’t have.
“We bring together students, faculty, GDOT, MARTA, and city government, and we bring these agencies together and put them in touch with each other so they can get a sense of the wholeness of a problem rather than seeing just the pieces of it that are their particular responsibility.
“From the microcosm point of view, it’s important to get students with various backgrounds to hear each other at the microcosm level in the studio and bring these capabilities into the community, where the first admonition is LISTEN, in capital letters.”
As a professor of practice, Dobbins is charged with bringing “real life” experience into an academic setting. He has served as planning commissioner in Atlanta, and brought public sector planning experience gained in New York, New Orleans, Birmingham, and Berkeley. He has taught part-time at Columbia, Tulane, Birmingham Southern, and University of California at Berkeley, according to his online bio at Tech.
Dobbins also teaches the fading art of freehand drawing for planners. He said the practice teaches and reinforces the various perspectives that go into the creation of a good solution. Dobbins rarely seems to leave a conversation without making a drawing to illustrate his thoughts, or to share some drawings he made beforehand.
Dobbins is starting to assemble a studio project for the fall semester. He said he looks forward to opportunity to look at a situation with the students.
“I learn a lot,” Dobbins said. “I walk into a roomful of students and they all are smarter than I am. But I know more than any of them.”