A man standing in front of a city street
Joshua Son, a graduate of the Master of Urban and Regional Planning and Studies program at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, now works as a city planner for the city of Chicago. (Courtesy of Joshua Son)

VCU alum Joshua Son brings collaborative spirit to urban planning in Chicago

A curiosity about where and why developers decide to build unlocked a passion for urban planning and design, says Son, a planner for the city of Chicago and Master of Urban and Regional Planning graduate of VCU’s Wilder School.

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Urbanist Joshua Son says learning how to ride a bike gave him his first real sense of freedom. It sparked his love for exploration and allowed him to go places without having to worry about a car ride. He also credits his mom for providing structure while affording him the opportunity to do what he wanted, which allowed him to have enriching experiences. This freedom was the catalyst that formed his interest in urban planning and historic preservation.

“I loved exploring downtowns and historic town centers. I noticed the mixed-use, dense nature of these areas and how different they were from the sprawl of the surrounding suburbs,” Son said. “In high school, I would meet up with friends to check out live music and bands that would be playing in local record shops and coffee shops in downtown Norfolk, and that further shaped how I perceived downtowns — vibrant, bustling, creative and diverse.”

Today, Son, who graduated with a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2014, works as a city planner for the city of Chicago. Along with reviewing large, complicated development projects, he thrives as part of a team that is developing Chicago’s own citywide framework plan. It’s something that hasn’t been done since the 1960s. Opportunities like this are what motivated Son to work in Chicago.

“I personally felt I would be cheating myself as an urban planner if I didn’t try living in a bigger, more complex city with different politics, economics, natural resources, transportation and climate than I was used to in Virginia,” Son said.

He credits the work experience he received as the senior planner and secretary for the Urban Design Committee with the city of Richmond. Son said that position provided a strong foundation for his work ethic and gave him an understanding of how things get done, or accomplished, in the public sector. It aided him with the development of a new working committee in Chicago. Chicago’s Committee on Design is a volunteer group of 24 urban design professionals that reviews projects with major implications for the urban design of the city.

Son’s work is fulfilling his fascination with how geography and demographics play a role in where and when buildings are placed. He says he enrolled in the Wilder School’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning program because it was the best fit for his learning style.

“I wanted a degree from a program that would not only provide a strong foundation in planning theory and other academic exercises but also a program that encouraged field experience because I learn best through doing,” Son said.

While participating in the master’s program at the Wilder School, Son served as a business development intern for the city of Richmond, working to attract new business to the city while retaining and expanding existing, local businesses within the city.

After graduating in 2014, he started a full-time role with the city of Richmond where he worked on efforts including a project to develop Upswing, sidewalk play stations consisting of retractable jump ropes that would make play easy, safe and available for kids and families living in areas devoid of play. In 2015, Son co-founded Breakaway RVA, an organization that leads bike rides through city neighborhoods, with a mission to build a more bike-friendly community. And he stayed involved with VCU in roles including selection committee member for the Wilder School’s Wilder School’s Morton B. Gulak Lecture in Urban and Regional Planning. In 2019, Son was named one of the VCU Office of Alumni Relations’ 10 Under 10 awardees.

He offers some sage advice for Wilder School students interested in urban planning or historic preservation.

“Any professional experience in this field is good experience; while it may not seem relevant to your ultimate goal at the moment, it may prove invaluable later,” he said. “Goals change as you evolve and grow, so be open to new experiences.”