The future of urban planning: Yingling Fan

July 5, 2012

People, Profiles

Yingling Fan

In Minneapolis today, change is everywhere: the city is expanding its light rail system, widening highways, and building bridges. What will these infrastructure changes mean for the health and well-being of residents in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota?

That’s the kind of question central to the research of Yingling Fan, a McKnight Land-Grant professor who studies the health and social impacts of urban land use, growth management and transit improvement.

“Designers may focus on an individual building. Engineers may focus on an individual road. What I do as a planner is to be comprehensive, looking beyond individual trees, and seeing the whole forest,” she explains.

Parks for the public good

During a trip to Ikea, Fan noticed a balloon artist performing for children at the store. She wondered about the performer’s choice of venue. Why hadn’t he gone to a public park to reach families with children?

Fan’s McKnight research project focuses on designing green spaces in urban areas. She hopes creating better parks will lead to stronger families and unite struggling communities.


“How can we create parks that will serve a diverse population of urban residents? What features do residents look for in a public gathering place?”

In an effort to define the distinct needs of each community, Fan’s team is asking these questions of residents in lower-income Minneapolis neighborhoods.

The lab of everyday life

Effective socio-spatial planning requires a real-world setting. Fan doesn’t have the advantage of testing a hypothesis in a controlled environment. This makes her especially attuned to the complexities and impacts of her research.

“You’re dealing with an environment that people live in. So when we create knowledge, it’s important to be sensitive to the settings in which we carry out the study. It’s important to say A led to B, but this is contingent upon C,D,E,F.”

As a new mom, Fan now understands such complexities like never before. Raising her six-month-old son has led to a new appreciation of family and community needs — and how to plan accordingly.

What’s next?

When asked about the future of socio-spatial planning, Fan points to the following trends:

Shifting family structure: The prevalence of the nuclear family structure continues to shrink. Researchers estimate only one-third of today’s families fit the mold of the nuclear family. Therefore, researchers will adjust how they approach city planning and design. Urban planners will collaborate more closely with family studies experts to meet the needs of the changing family.

Transit and social equity: In the next 20 years, Minneapolis communities will experience rapid growth in transit opportunities. All eyes will be on the Twin Cities as socio-spatial planners examine how regional transit investments impact the economy, quality of life, and distribution of employment benefits among different income groups.

Photos by Richard Anderson
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