The UNM School of Architecture and Planning has a new director of Community and Regional Planning. Renia Ehrenfeucht calls herself a “westerner” - born in Los Angeles and living in northern California, Seattle and Colorado. However, she comes to UNM by way of New Orleans where she taught at the University of New Orleans.
“New Orleans was my break from the west,” she said, adding that she arrived in New Orleans in 2006, following the destruction of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in August and September 2005, respectively. Ehrenfeucht finished her Ph.D. in March of 2006 following her arrival in New Orleans in January of that year. “I came on as an assistant professor and was named chair in 2012,” she said.
As someone who is dedicated to the study and teaching about cities and urbanization, Ehrenfeucht likes to make “the content come alive” in order to show the ongoing effects of an area’s history and how broad societal trends play out locally. “The entire time I was in New Orleans the city was in recovery. We were all involved in the planning processes and discussing what the region would become,” she said, adding that she researched rental housing redevelopment and how diverse stakeholders responded to the city’s recovery.
“I left at the 10 year anniversary of Katrina. The city is doing better than people expected,” she said, adding, “but the fundamental problems haven’t changed.” Wages are low and underemployment is common, some neighborhoods face ongoing disinvestment and, as a result, the recovery is uneven. “My commitment, in planning and teaching, is to understand why these problems persist and how to change that,” Ehrenfeucht said.
Coming to the University of New Mexico she sees similarities between the Land of Enchantment and Louisiana. “Both are culturally rich. Some people live in land-based communities and others live in urban areas.”
“The Southwest, like all regions, is impacted by globalization and global systems of food production and manufacturing. This shapes what is possible in a region and how it can retain its distinctiveness,” she said. It also means that some cities, regions and rural environments lose population. This is a subject she researches. “How does population loss affect people who stay? Planners have to address population loss proactively, but we don’t know how to do it well,” she said.
“We are challenged to dismantle the inequality and racism,” she said, adding that planners’ jobs are to make visible how the built environment influences these factors and address them. “We have to keep saying what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” she said. They also need to understand the impacts of policies at different scales. One important transition is the shift away from mass incarceration. “This is critical, but how do we do that? People will needs jobs when they get out of prison. Prisons also are the only jobs in some places. As they close, what kinds of jobs will become available for residents in the area?” she asks. Smaller issues also have large effects.
Another area she researches is public space use, places where people respond to diversity every day. Recently, she has been focused on street vending and food trucks that have become controversial in many cities. Planners play an important role to be sure that everyone can earn a living and at the same time they address conflicts that arise.
New Mexico needs to strengthen its economy, and Ehrenfeucht said that the next generation of planners will be at the forefront of the transition to new workforce opportunities. Planners are intimately engaged in economic and workforce development. “In Community and Regional Planning, we will be working with this and other innovative ways to help our region thrive,” she said.