PLAN 74:
Taking A Holistic View

Alumnus Profile: Michael Sherman (MCP/SMArchS’93)

Alumnus Michael Sherman is director of policy research for the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) in Washington DC, the federal government's planning agency for federal land and buildings in the National Capital Region (NCR).

In the recent past, as chief of staff, Sherman had a bird's eye view of the entire NCPC operation and its geographic jurisdiction – covering 2500 square miles, including DC and parts of Virginia and Maryland. In this role, Sherman's tasks involved serving as staff advisor to the Executive Director of the Commission, and preparing and reviewing policy recommendations and technical proposals relative to the District of Columbia and Federal interests in the development of the National Capital Region.

'I saw how we were organized, how we’re staffed, budgets, all of which gave me a comprehensive view of the agency,' he says. 'I was also responsible for making sure the executive director was aware of all relevant issues.' He has assisted with the review and approval of projects such as the WW2 Memorial and review of the proposed African American Museum. As the previous director of the agency’s Technology Development and Applications Division, he also supported the agency's initiatives with GIS and 3D computer aided design and visualization.

Currently, as the agency's director of policy and research, Sherman oversees the development of the legislatively mandated comprehensive plan and federal capital improvement plan for the NCR. He also leads the agency's policy research efforts.

Before coming to MIT, Sherman earned a US Army ROTC scholarship at Hampton University and subsequently served a four-year active duty commitment. 'Toward the end of that commitment,' he says, 'I wanted to get back into urban design and architecture and I realized MIT was one of the best places I could go. I had a lot of flexibility and resources here. I had great professors and awesome classes in urban design, architecture, technology and real estate. For me, it was a great opportunity.'

From 2006 to 2007, Sherman was recalled to active duty and mobilized by the Corps of Engineers to serve a one-year tour of duty in Kuwait and Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (He still serves in the US Army Reserves as a Major.) 'This experience gave me an even greater appreciation for my opportunity to help design our future national treasures with NCPC,' he says.

While at MIT, one of his favorite experiences involved being selected with other students to study downtown Tokyo with Gary Hack, who was then a professor of urban design at SA+P. According to Hack, who recently stepped down as dean of the School of Design at Penn, 'Michael was a real leader of that studio, helping get his team to a consensus on proposals. He also had fine instincts about culture, and was able to quickly read the situation we were presented with, and how our clients might respond.'

Coming out of SA+P, Sherman became expert in seeing projects through the lenses of architecture and city planning, incorporating knowledge from different fields for a holistic view. 'You might have to be a specialist in one area, or you might have to think strategically for some large policy decisions. When we have site-specific buildings or commemorative works come through the door, I think about the location and symbolism of the monument, its impact on immediate environs, and its long-term impact on the urban environment of the nation’s capital.'

Sherman believes untangling the biggest challenges in the field requires asking the right questions. How do you address sustainable development while also addressing housing and transportation challenges? How do you involve the private and public sector in addressing these issues? The approach in his words is, 'not to think about issues in a stove-pipe fashion. Problems may be vertical but the solutions should be horizontal and cut across various disciplines.'

He continues, 'What I’m learning more and more is that we may give an issue a name, but it cuts across various disciplines. As planners, we should take the lead to integrate different issues. 'The current administration is starting to do this. President Obama has directed agencies to take a regional approach to planning that disregards traditional jurisdictional boundaries and plans to set policies that takes into account how cities, suburbs and exurbs interact. President Obama’s urban policy agenda will use this integrated approach to enhance economic competitiveness, sustainability and equity in our cities and metropolitan areas. The biggest challenge for us in the NCR is defining these problems then taking a comprehensive and integrated approach to solving them.'

To current students he says, 'You need to read and study a lot about what the relevant related issues are that may impact planning in general, not just in your special area of study. You have to be aware of how these issues come together in a planning problem and to understand how to bring aspects of different fields together to solve the problem.' His most useful advice: 'Try to make a positive difference but try to do it in something you love.'