Jessica Allen's headshot

Jessica Allen Explores Urban Planning through a Public Health Lens

February 22, 2024

Jessica Allen, a current Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) student sat down with MURP Student Haleigh Coar for a Q&A to share Jessica’s life experiences that led her to pursue a degree in urban planning and the impact her education at CU Denver has had on her future career.

Jessica Allen is currently in her final semester of the Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree program. She previously graduated from the University of Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in public health. Following graduation, she worked full-time as a Health Educator for the CDC Foundation where she provided immunization education for the State of North Dakota Department of Health and Human Services. She began the MURP program in Fall 2022.

What inspired you to study Urban and Regional Planning?

As a public health student, I learned the importance of systems thinking and understanding issues from a broader scale. During undergrad, I took several environmental health-focused courses that opened my eyes to just how much the built environment impacts health outcomes. This is how I came across urban planning as a career path and led me to pursue an internship with Astig Planning LLC in Iowa City, Iowa. During my time working for Astig, I worked with the team on many planning projects including a brownfield redevelopment plan and community engagement. Through this internship, I realized that planners need to address health more directly and I wanted to be a part of this change. This experience solidified my desire to go into urban planning and earn a master’s degree.

Jessica Allen (back row, center) with a group of students on a bike tour.

Where Public Health and Urban Planning Meet

What has been a major takeaway from your experiences and classes in Urban and Regional Planning?

While in the MURP program, I have always tried to integrate a health lens into all my classes and projects. Throughout my education and professional experience, I have gained the ability to speak the language of both public health professionals and urban planners. It sometimes can feel like these disciplines are two completely different fields but it is important to understand that many of the issues being addressed in public health and urban planning directly align with one another. Following graduation, I hope to work at the intersection of public health and urban planning to improve health outcomes through transportation and urban planning projects.

Your role as Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) Colorado Student Chapter Educational Opportunities Coordinator seems to fit with your passions. How has that role and the connection to the state or national chapter impacted you?

Over the course of this program, I have been involved in WTS Colorado Student Chapter. I am currently the Educational Opportunities Coordinator and I work with the other student board members to plan various professional development opportunities for students throughout the academic year. This has included organizing a professional headshot day and a transportation careers panel event. While being involved in this organization, I have become very interested in active transportation planning, multi-modal planning, and transportation safety programs like Vision Zero, and Safe Routes to Schools. I think transportation is one of the most direct links between health and urban planning and addresses many social determinants of health. WTS also provides students with scholarship opportunities and I was recently awarded the 2023 WTS Helene M. Overly Memorial Graduate Scholarship and attended the WTS Awards Recognition Luncheon in January 2024.

What is your capstone project, and why is the project important to you?

I am working with the non-profit Safe and Healthy Communities (SHC) to develop a Transit Accessibility Assessment Tool. This tool is intended to be used by transportation professionals when working on public transportation projects or plans (specifically bus and rail). The goal of this tool is to ensure that each project is promoting accessibility for all riders regardless of age or ability, with a specific emphasis on older adults and people with disabilities. As the population continues to age, we need to think innovatively and purposefully about these population groups and their access to vital resources and services in their communities.

A major focus of this project will be to interview transportation planners to ensure that we are identifying appropriate indicators for accessibility and that we are building a tool that will be practical for planners to use during their projects. This project is important to me because it ties together my interests in public health and transportation planning into one project and client. SHC is known for collaborating on public health projects related to land use planning, transportation, housing, climate, and other social determinants of health to address disparities among marginalized and underserved groups.

Jessica Allen receiving the Helen Overly Memorial Graduate Scholarship Award.

Networking in the Urban and Regional Planning Field

Have you worked with a mentor inside or outside of the program?

Yes, while in the Planning Practice and Technology course (now Planning Practice and Engagement) during my first semester in the MURP program I connected with Bradyn Nicholson (now Hopkins) (a 2020 MURP/MPH CU Denver Alumni) who works at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as the Built Environment Coordinator. Bradyn has been a great mentor since then and even helped set up an internship opportunity for me on her team over winter break last year. I’m thankful to the program for encouraging professional development and to the alumni of the program for being willing to lend their time and expertise to current students. Networking is so important in this field and it’s great that we had an assignment that led me to meeting Bradyn.

Do you currently have a job or internship?

I have been working part-time for the City and County of Denver Community Planning and Development (CPD) Department since August 2022 when I began the MURP program. I specifically provide permit and application intake support to both the Site Design and Neighborhood Development team and the Residential Plan Review team. These teams are responsible for conducting development reviews, which is not a side of urban planning I was aware of before starting the job. However, through this experience, I have become knowledgeable of Denver’s permitting and development review process. Working for the City and County of Denver has been a great opportunity for me while in the MURP program and I have gotten to meet a ton of great people/planners. I would encourage more MURP students to consider applying for administrative or permit technician roles at CPD or DOTI while in the program if they are interested in learning more about this side of planning.

Nine students stand together as they present their Mexico City Urban Planning and Design Studio project in Mexico City.

Exploring Urban Areas Near and Far

What was an impactful experience from your time in the program that you will carry with you into your profession?

One of my favorite experiences in the program was the Mexico City Public Spaces Abroad Studio. Our final project was a redevelopment plan of the TecnoParque office park. As part of the month-long studio, we went to many public spaces around Mexico City and observed how people used public spaces and moved through them. We practiced planning techniques that were new to me like sketching and creating collages to depict how spaces made us feel. That class really opened my eyes to public spaces and how they can support a sense of community. It was such a different experience from my other classes, so I really enjoyed it.

What’s next after you complete your degree?

Once I graduate, I plan to work in the transportation planning field or return to working for a public health department. I would like to be specifically focused on active and multimodal transportation planning and safety. Our transportation systems have a tremendous impact on health outcomes, from immediate health crises like traffic fatalities and injuries to more chronic health conditions like high rates of asthma due to pollution. Promoting health and prolonging life should be the main driver for decisions in a city. Plans need to be a lot more direct about why health is a top priority and there needs to be more meaningful collaboration between urban planning and public health departments. That is where I hope to see myself in the future!