The Texas Target Communities (TxTC) program provides technical assistance on land-use planning and design to small, lower-resourced communities across the state.

As a senior transportation planner in the City of San Antonio’s Transportation & Capital Improvements Department, Lauren Simcic ’14 ’16 is responsible for overseeing road improvements and providing safety education for the nation’s seventh most populous city. She credits Texas A&M University’s Texas Target Communities (TxTC) program with laying the foundation for her career.

This partnership between the College of Architecture and the Provost’s Office of Public Partnership and Outreach provides support to small communities that do not have their own land-use planning staffs. The program uses a service-learning model to deeply engage undergraduate and graduate students from campuses across The Texas A&M University System in the process of creating plans to guide the growth of small towns and rural counties.  

The program received state and national recognition for assisting Liberty County and the City of Rockport before and after recovery from Hurricane Harvey, respectively.  However, TxTC’s reach extends far beyond helping communities plan for and get back on their feet after disasters. For example, TxTC was involved in the Southeast Texas Hike and Bike Plan and is assisting the city of Nolanville in exploring “smart city” technology options, which includes managing resources, utilities and transportation, through the ENDEAVR interdisciplinary project.

Despite its statewide focus, TxTC receives little external funding, which limits its capacity to achieve its full potential. Most of its budget comes from an agreement between the College of Architecture and the Provost’s office. In addition, the services provided by TxTC are sometimes included in research grants. Typically, participating communities also pay a nominal amount to support students’ engagement, including travel, supplies and materials. Therefore, the initiative seeks donors who want to dedicate funding to support and expand its cutting-edge programs. 

 

Building on Success

The program, initially known as Texas Target Cities, officially formed in 1993 when the late Dr. David Pugh, a faculty member in the College of Architecture’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, noticed that small communities needed assistance in creating comprehensive plans, master plans and land-use plans. “We’ve had generations of planners go through the program, working with real communities learning to do this in a service-learning capacity,” said TxTC Associate Director Jaimie Masterson ’06.

In 2012, Dr. John Cooper ’92 ’94, an expert in community engagement and planning, took over the program. A year later, the initiative hired Masterson as the first full-time staff member. As its mission expanded to assist a wider range of communities, TxTC changed its name in 2015. “We don’t always work with government entities,” Masterson said. “In some cases, we work with a nonprofit or a neighborhood. We’re charged with meeting the community’s needs where they are and trying to find whatever support, resources and expertise that are on campus or on other System campuses to meet those needs.”

These efforts increased the demand for TxTC’s services and resulted in the program moving into the Provost’s Office of Public Partnership and Outreach in 2017. In addition to the growing list of TxTC partner communities, there is a growing list of recurring colleges, centers, institutes and programs at Texas A&M that collaborate with the program. This includes the School of Public Health, the School of Law, the College of Engineering, the Bush School of Government and Public Service, the Colonias Program, the Center for Heritage Conservation, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, and Texas Sea Grant. TxTC also works regularly with Texas A&M University System schools, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and branch campus, Texas A&M University at Galveston.

“We are a point of access for the know-how within Texas A&M University,” said Cooper. “When communities come to us, we listen to their dreams and help them connect to the resources necessary to begin transforming dreams to reality.”

 

Texas Target Communities works year-round with partnership communities and is currently working with Willacy County, the city of Columbus and the city of Montgomery on various projects.

Mitigating the Risk

While TxTC works with communities with a variety of needs, priority is often given to communities that are responding to a crisis or willing to invest in averting a perceived threat to its economy, environment or culture.

For example, Hurricane Harvey significantly increased interest among coastal communities in proactively preparing for the next major storm. “Everyone was affected by Hurricane Harvey in some shape or form,” said Masterson. “Communities were reaching out to us for support and we were able to have planning conversations more easily.”

Graduate students are also drawn to Texas A&M because of Cooper’s and Masterson’s expertise in this area. “One reason why I came to Texas A&M was because of its great planning work in disaster recovery,” said Saima Musharrat ’17, who currently works in transportation in Orange County, California. “I was really interested in natural disasters, hazard planning and how it affects people’s lives. I wanted to learn more about how you can plan for that."

 

A Full Slate of Projects

TxTC currently has multiple projects underway of various sizes and scopes. The largest typically lasts 15 to 18 months and involves more than 200 students. Currently, that slot is filled by Willacy County, a South Texas county and rural coastal area located just north of Harlingen that wants to develop a comprehensive plan.

Additional projects involve assisting the city of Montgomery with a parks planning project and the city of Columbus on a study to revitalize the downtown corridor. These smaller projects often last one semester and involve approximately 30 students. Other partnerships are forming for the spring semester to assist with housing needs assessment and rails-to-trails projects.

Each project requires undergraduate and graduate students to collect and analyze data and write reports on existing conditions. They also gather feedback from community members on issues and attend community planning meetings. The students then work with faculty to develop recommendations and identify funding sources for these improvements. “We try to inspire and motivate communities to take the next steps,” Masterson said.

 

Texas A&M University students gain practical hands-on experience working with the TxTC program.

Projects of all Sizes

Simcic benefited from participating in a variety of TxTC projects. She initially worked on a revitalization plan for South College Avenue in Bryan. That effort required her to work with new technology, analyze numerous demographic categories and learn about complimentary land use.

The San Antonio native then worked on a strategic plan for Liberty County, which received a national award from the American Planning Association. The wide-ranging planning process helped the rural community review its transportation and transit systems, flood mitigation and community programs. It also involved an engagement component for middle and high school students.

“Before the planning effort, the residents of Liberty County were aware of strengths and challenges within the community, but we helped them bring those needs and resources together,” she said. “Through the process, I saw the county develop a more positive identity for itself. They began to view obstacles as assets. They became proactive in using tools they had always possessed. We put them through this really long visioning process. By the end, they were confident and were giving speeches about where they wanted to end up.”

She also worked independently on the Grimes County’s Thoroughfare Plan, which received honorable mention statewide in the American Planning Association’s Texas chapter. Her work resulted in the creation of highway frontage areas as well the adoption of flood standards she recommended.

Ultimately, TxTC gives students meaningful opportunities to confront real-world city planning challenges before they graduate. “Jaimie Masterson is incredibly brilliant in making things actionable. She taught me that you can’t do everything in a day and how to be a professional,” Simcic said. “I discovered that much of a community’s strength comes from informal leadership. I gave official presentations to judges and county commissioners, but the conversations that made the most lasting impact were with ordinary people who served in small ways. It allowed me to move beyond research and see the faces behind the data.”

To learn how you can support Texas Target Communities, contact Patrick Williams '92, assistant vice president for development for academic affairs, at pwilliams@txamfoundation.com or (979) 458-0267.
Contact:

Patrick Williams '92

Assistant Vice President for Development
Academic Affairs Development Office
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