Ernest Sternberg reflects on leadership of program during period of growth

Ernest Sternberg talks to faculty during his tenure as chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning

Under Sternberg's leadership the Department of Urban and Regional Planning embraced collaboration across disciplines to launch new degree programs and research initiatives while earning an unprecedented seven-year term of reaccreditation from the Planning Accreditation Board.

By Rachel Teaman

Published January 5, 2018

“It’s been a privilege being chair, not least because I myself have learned and matured from the experience.”
Ernest Sternberg, professor of urban planning and department chair (2012-2018)

In his six years as chair, Ernest Sternberg oversaw one of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning’s most dynamic periods of growth.

Drawing from the ambition and energy of a relatively young faculty and expanded on-the-ground engagement with communities, the department launched new degree programs, formed new lines of research, and earned an unprecedented seven-year term of reaccreditation from the Planning Accreditation Board.

At the same time, the department pushed into new ways of thinking and working by reaching across disciplinary, geographic and intellectual boundaries.

New degree offerings include a doctorate in urban planning, a combined Master of Urban Planning/Master of Public Health degree, and graduate specializations in urban design and historic preservation. In 2015, the school established what is now SUNY’s only master of real estate development, with a curriculum that combines urban planning, architecture, economic development, finance and law.  

“It’s been a privilege being chair, not least because I myself have learned and matured from the experience,” says Sternberg, a nearly 30-year member of the faculty who previously served as chair from 2000-2002. “The work has been inspired by Dean Robert Shibley’s visionary leadership of the school, our faculty’s fervent pursuit of excellence in teaching and research, and a renewed passion in our communities for all things cities.” 

In recent years, UB’s urban planning faculty and research centers have helped lead the way into new interdisciplinary territory. The program and its faculty rank among the top among urban planning programs in the Association of American Universities for grant funding and research citations.

Among its most significant awards in recent years are funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and United Nations to advance food systems planning for communities around the world, a National Science Foundation grant for studying the impact of extreme weather events on cities, and state support to develop economic development best practices for legacy cities. In addition to the department’s existing research centers – the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab, UB Regional Institute and Center for Urban Studies – are new faculty affiliations with university-wide initiatives including UB RENEW and the Community for Global Health Equity. The department has hired five tenure-track faculty within the past six years.

Linking planning with design

Perhaps the greatest intellectual transformation for the department is evidenced by its increased collaboration with its neighbor in the School of Architecture and Planning – the Department of Architecture.

Dean Shibley has led this collaborative approach to pedagogy and research at the school, espousing architecture and urban planning as allied disciplines and professions, and the school as one of “architecture + planning on purpose.”

“Ernie is comfortable in the cross-disciplinary space, and the master of real estate development as well as the department’s engagement in new transdisciplinary research with public health, are largely the result of this," says Shibley. "This shift in intellectual orientation for the department is perhaps his greatest legacy.”

Omar Khan, chair of the Department of Architecture, says the entire school has benefitted from the collaborative energy. “Our ability to work together was the precursor for developing better communication and collaboration across our departments. This wasn’t an easy prospect as the programs have different cultures, pedagogies and disciplinary objectives. What we did find were areas of overlap – historic preservation, urban design and real estate development- where faculty sharing and collaboration was a requisite for developing the ideal learning experience. Our students are the better for this. The school is also better positioned to respond to the growing complexity of the built environment and influence our disciplines in the years to come.”

Sternberg says the wider lens into the disciplines is both provocative and productive. “I’ve learned about the strange tensions and ever richer and more subtle relationships between analytical modes of thinking and design thinking. This is far more than a mere difference in orientation. It can be the basis for a wide-ranging, stimulating conversation among scholars.  I hope more of us will be part of that conversation.”

Launching real estate development program

The school’s real estate development program, largely the result of Sternberg’s vision and effort, may be the most concentrated area of architecture-urban planning collaboration. Its curriculum overlaps both departments, as well as others within the university, and involves students with Buffalo’s urban resurgence for active, practice-based learning.

Says Sternberg: “Our work with real estate development has further strengthened my view about the broad relationships between design and development.  It raises the exciting possibility that there is much yet to discover on the ways in which planners and architects relate to each other and to other, methodologically oriented areas of scholarship, even economics and engineering.”

In addition to the department’s new ventures in cross-disciplinary study, the program has also expanded the studio offerings, increasing from one to two the number of required studios in the Master of Urban Planning program. Student projects generated out of the studio continue to win local, state and international awards.

Looking ahead, Sternberg will take a semester-long sabbatical before returning to teaching in fall 2018. Among his research activities are a project on the fundamentals of urban design, in development with Professor Hiro Hata, and an article on the implications of changing manufacturing on industrial land use.

Faculty and staff share their appreciation for Ernie Sternberg as he concludes his position as chair:

Dean Robert G. Shibley: “Ernie brought a high level of integrity to the position of chair. He was always willing to ask hard questions about challenges faced in both the study and practice of planning, and the relationships between the two.”

Norma Everett, assistant to the chair: “I would like to thank Ernie for giving me the opportunity to work with him, and for his patience when I was learning the new job four years ago.  One of the things that will always stand out in my mind is Ernie’s kindness to others.  I have always admired his deep devotion to his family.”

Mark Foerster, UB senior fellow of real estate development, who worked closely with Sternberg in forming and carrying the program forward: “It has been a real pleasure for me to have worked with Ernie over the last 2+1/2 years – one of the most meaningful highlights of my career.  He has had a great vision for how a graduate real estate development program could be created that truly blends perspectives from architecture, planning and business in a way that is not done elsewhere effectively.  This fills a very important gap in the universe of graduate real estate education, and is a great legacy of his leadership as department chair.  On a personal level, he is a consensus builder, generous in sharing credit, and modest (to a fault!) in deflecting attention on his achievements.”

Hiroaki Hata, professor of architecture and urban planning: “Ernie’s imagination is bigger than anything I have experienced in my life: it is unlimited and inexhaustible. But it has been his bottomless warm heart, his humanism and compassion for his colleagues and students, coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge, that have guided the department during a growing but turbulent period. He contributed to linking the two departments much closer together for which I am grateful, as are the students who are direct beneficiaries. Ernie, many, many thanks for the tireless work you have done way beyond the call of duty.”

Alfred Price, professor of urban planning and a former chair of the department: “What I personally have most enjoyed about Ernie in the time he has served as department chair is that he is a genuinely nice guy. The job can be thankless (I know, I’ve been in it) but Ernie has carried it out without ever losing his sense of humor....well, maybe once. But on balance the department looks upon his time of leadership with a sense of satisfaction.”

Donna Rogalski, department secretary, who served under Sternberg during both terms as chair: “I would like to thank Ernie for always being a kind and supportive chair. Ernie was nice to work for because he was easy going and very understanding. I will always remember his involvement in my promotion to Keyboard Specialist 2 during his first term as chair.  I am very appreciative for all the work he did in having my position upgraded.”