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U undergraduate team wins National Planning Award for team's project Listening to Bluff, Utah.

By Ashley Babbitt, public relations specialist, College of Architecture + Planning

A team of undergraduate students from the University of Utah, led by associate professor Stephen Goldsmith, has been awarded the 2017 American Planning Association Small Town and Rural Planning (STaR) James A. Segedy Award for their project entitled “Listening to Bluff.” The project is a small-town plan created by students pursuing an urban ecology major in the City & Metropolitan Planning Department.

The goal of the project was to work in collaboration with the community, to listen and seek to understand the character, stories, values and goals guiding the future of the area.


Bluff, Utah, a town located in the southeastern corner of the state with a population of just 258, hasn’t had an updated town plan in more than 20 years. At the invitation of the community, the urban ecology students visited Bluff to spend time at community gatherings, to conduct surveys and to compile community feedback through a specific ‘listening process’ that Goldsmith has used in the urban ecology workshop for the past six years.

“When people in the built environment professions go into a place at any scale, let go of their ego in order to truly understand and identify community needs, they’re able to support those communities in passionate ways, revealing opportunities to preserve, enhance and repair those elements that are the most important to them,” said Goldsmith. “Students learn how to listen to not just the people, but the way the wind blows, the way they feel while walking, the way the night sounds different than the day. Effective, whole system listening is a skill we work to develop among our urban ecology students.”

Throughout the project, the students explored the town’s governance structure and future economic opportunities.

“This planning project came at a time when the community was reevaluating their desire to incorporate into a town in order to effectively self-govern,” said Jose Galarza, DesignBuildBLUFF director. “Stephen Goldsmith’s ‘listening’ approach perfectly suited the kind of engagement that they needed, matched the approach that DesignBuildBluff tries to foster and leverages the already existing know-how and capacity of the most engaged community members.”

Seated on the Colorado Plateau, Bluff enjoys some of the darkest night skies on the planet. The students shined a light on the possibility of astro tourism as an economic development boost that is low impact on the environment. National Geographic listed the entire southwest region as one of the best stargazing sights on the planet. The Consortium for Dark Sky Studies, an emerging collaboration of the University of Utah, is leading the conversation on how preserving the dark has an important and lasting legacy on people’s imagination and tourism of the state of Utah.

“The Award Committee was incredibly impressed with the professionalism of the plan and the planning process,” said Jessica Garrow, STaR chair. “The plan not only includes extensive analysis, but is based on broad citizen input, something that is not often seen in student projects. This plan demonstrates that students can play an important role in planning for small towns.”

The presentation to the Bluff community will take place March 25, and the STaR award presentation will take place during the 2017 National Planning Conference in New York City on May 7.

The “Listening to Bluff” planning document can be found in its entirety at