The Gibbs Spotlight: Madison Hughes, Regional & City Planning Student

GCA communications intern, Haley Sandell (H), sat down with Madison Hughes (M), a graduate Regional & City Planning student. Madison has a background in graphic design but a love and passion for growth and the difference she can make in the RCPL program at Gibbs!

H: How’s it going, Madison?  

M: Pretty good.  

H: So, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

M: Yeah, I grew up in Texas, and I came to Oklahoma City for undergrad in 2013. I graduated in 2017 with a BFA in fine art, So I’ve been working full time as a graphic designer in Edmond since then. Last year, I went back to school at OU in the city planning program to get my grad degree. 

H: That’s awesome. So how did you go from graphic design to regional city planning? 

M: I always knew that I wanted to go to grad school, I just didn’t really know what for. I was kind of interested in architecture because I was an art major, but I also liked math stuff, and that seemed like art math. And so, when I was looking around for architecture graduate programs, I found OU’s Architecture department website and saw the RCPL program and I had never heard of that before. But after I clicked on it and read about what city planners do, and it sounded really cool; it sounded like, you know, if I had tried to build a job that I thought would be really neat, then I would be really interested in that. So, I started researching it and thought it sounded like a really good way to blend design with community service. 

H: That’s cool. Especially because I’m also a graphic designer with an architecture minor. So really, really awesome. So, what is your journey leading up to the College of Architecture?  

M: In what ways? 

H: What made you want to pursue a STEM field in general? 

M: Well, I always really liked math when I was growing up, but I came from a really conservative fundamentalist background where I was told that like, girls aren’t as good at math and science as boys. And my brother was always encouraged; my parents were always telling him ever since I could remember that he was going to be an engineer and he is an engineer now, and when I graduated undergrad, I just was frustrated because I felt like I hadn’t ever really been academically challenged because a fine art degree–it is very challenging, just in a different way than I expected. So I wanted to experience something that was a little bit more stem heavy and city planning is I mean, there’s a lot of sociology that goes into it, but, in the research part, there is a lot of STEM stuff and I really enjoyed learning about that too.  

H: That’s really cool. So how did you decide that you wanted to come to OU? 

M: Well, when I was researching and found the city planning program; I could be wrong, but I think that OU is the only university in the metro around here that is offering that program. I also do know that the program has been in place for a really long time and so it’s pretty highly regarded. And then in February of 2019, I toured the campus and I was just really impressed with all of the facilities and resources because I went to a really small, private religious University for undergrad and there was just not a lot of funding (especially in the art department). I was just really impressed with OU’s facilities and made me really excited to want to go there. 

H: Gotcha. That’s really cool. So, can you tell us more about your fundraiser for the Black Lives Matter movement? 

M: Yeah! So a couple of weeks ago, I saw a tweet that had gone viral where somebody was talking about how sometimes it can feel impossible to know what to do to help, but they were encouraging people, you know,  start by thinking of your talents, your abilities, and what you’re good at and see how you can directly channel that into supporting the black community. And since I’m a graphic designer, one of the examples that they actually gave in that tweet was if you’re a designer, maybe you can design a shirt as a fundraiser. And I have actually previously designed a couple of shirts for fundraisers for an LGBTQ students’ group where I went to undergrad. So that just gave me the idea to try to do it again. I designed a t-shirt and put it on Teespring as a fundraiser, and as of now, I think we’ve sold 62 and raised over $700 for Black Visions Collective and the National Bale Project. 

H: That’s really exciting. That’s awesome! I think it’s fantastic that you’re using your talent to help with this movement. It’s really important that everybody does what they can. 

M: Yeah, it was really exciting because I wasn’t really sure if it would get much traction or if people would really buy them, but a lot of people shared it so it went a little bit better than I expected. 

H: Good. Yeah, this is definitely a wake-up call to the whole world, and it’s really bringing people out of the woodwork and bringing a lot of creativity out to just help in any way that we can. 

M: Yes, definitely. 

Image credit: Madison Hughes, Oklahoma City

H: So, um, before COVID and everything kind of brought down plans, what projects were you working on for city planning? 

M: Um, I didn’t really have anything that I’m personally working on right now. I was a GA with Dr. Lee and what I was working on with her all semester is, she and a couple of other professors from different universities (I’m not sure where) are working on a project right now where they’re researching comprehensive plans for cities in areas that are kind of prone to gentrification and whether or not those plans specifically addressed gentrification. And so, it was kind of just taking the whole semester with me and the other GA’s. First of all, we had to track down all of the comprehensive plans for all of the cities on our list, which was hundreds of cities. And then we had to compile them all into a dropbox folder. And then we moved on to searching through all of the plans for specific keywords and then putting that into a spreadsheet. So, I’m kind of excited to see what her results from that are. I know they’re kind of in the early stages right now, but I thought that was a really interesting topic. 

H: Yeah, that’s really awesome. Uh, so what is a project that you’ve created or worked on at Gibbs that you’re most proud of? 

M: Um, so in the fall semester, that was my first semester, I took a research methods class with Dr. Lee. The structure of the entire class was that we did a lot of smaller assignments that at the end were compiled into a research proposal for a project that we thought would be interesting and included a literature review, and how we would conduct the project if we were to but we didn’t actually, you know, conduct it. Yeah, but mine, that I still think is really interesting, was on the social significance of gay districts, especially after the legalization of same-sex marriage because there’s a lot of literature on their significance to the gay rights movement, especially with the push for legal and civil rights. But there’s not a lot of research or literature on what their significance is now that queer people have legal protections and don’t really need to meet in secret, you know, to fight for rights anymore. And so I was trying to pull together a lot of literature and come up with a proposal for what it would be like to do kind of a qualitative review of what millennials, you know, aged 18 to 38 think that the social significance of gay districts are now 

H: Interesting, that’s not something I’ve ever really thought about. How did you decide that you wanted to focus on that specifically? 

M: I had, at the beginning of the semester, a lot of different unrelated ideas for a direction that I wanted to go. I started kind of doing preliminary research on a lot of them, but this was one where I felt like there wasn’t a lot of existing literature, and I also felt like it was a really interesting and important topic. There was enough literature on research that has been done on the significance in the past that I had something to spring off of, which is an issue that I was having with some of my other topics was not finding enough literature. It was also just something that was personal to me. So I felt like that would be something that I would have an incentive to work on and also, I guess, an in to interviewing people. 

H: Gotcha. So what is your favorite thing about Gibbs College of Architecture? 

M: It’s kind of a smaller college, I think, or at least on the graduate level, and my program is not that big. So I know most of the people, especially in my year and everyone’s super friendly. All the professors place a lot of emphasis on the fact that these are going to be your colleagues for, you know, a large part of or the rest of your career. I think there’s a statistic that the vast majority of the city planning graduates stay in Oklahoma. So, they’re always reminding people, you know, you’re going to be working with these people for a long time, so make sure you form positive connections, not negative ones. Everybody’s really friendly and helpful. I also really enjoy working with all the professors, I can tell that they are really invested with everybody on an individual level. It just feels very supportive. 

H: That’s awesome. It’s really cool that you guys have such a tight-knit community there. So, when did you first become interested in regional city planning? 

M: I really think it’s when I saw the link to it on the Gibbs College of Architecture page when I was just kind of doing a lot of preliminary research on available master’s degrees because, again, I hadn’t ever heard of it before. Then when I started researching it, I thought it sounded really interesting. It’s also a really broad field. There are a lot of different kinds of specializations or areas that you can work in. So I think it would be really hard to get bored, which is a big plus for me because I still work full time as a graphic designer, and I really enjoy that, but there’s not a lot of variety and there’s not a lot of room for career growth once you’re a graphic designer unless you want to be a creative director, which isn’t really something that I’m interested in. With City Planning, you can work with so many different areas; you could work with community development, more on the sociology side or more on the physical planning side is like transportation planners and stuff like that. There are just a lot of different areas to be interested in. 

H: I think it’s really cool that you can combine your graphic design background with an architecture field of study. 

M: Yeah, that was really appealing to me. 

H: So, what should prospective students know about your major and what would help them succeed? 

M: And I think one thing to know is that well, first of all, what I was saying about how broad it really is. When I was coming into the program, I was really interested but I felt like I didn’t really have a firm grasp on what city planners do, and I continued to feel that way I think through my whole first semester. Then I realized it was because there isn’t really one specific thing that’s: oh, this is what city planners do. There are so many different areas of emphasis that you could work in. So, for one thing, it’s really broad, so there’s really something for anyone that’s remotely interested in anything related to city planning. But also, I think it’s really important to realize that it is very relationally focused. You have to have strong interpersonal skills or be willing to develop them because you are working on the city level with city council members and people like that because you’re giving your recommendation for the development of the city. But even on a neighborhood level, attitudes over the past 10 years or so have really been shifting to recognizing that it’s important to facilitate the needs and voices of the neighborhoods that you’re working with instead of viewing planners as experts during the Morris facilitators. There have actually been a lot of somewhat high profile, neighborhood revitalization efforts, and especially housing initiatives, that have failed because planners didn’t really take into account the specific needs of the neighborhood that they were working in. Something that they thought was going to be a really good idea, because of really specific localized circumstances, didn’t end up serving the community that they meant it to serve. 

H: Yeah, it’s not a one size fits all kind of deal. 

M: No, it’s very individualistic. Even different communities in different neighborhoods in the same city have different needs and different cultures, and I think we’re starting to realize that it’s really important to, as much as you can, let the residents and neighborhoods kind of drive any change that they need, and we are facilitators for them. Instead of You know, coming in and telling them what’s best for them. 

H: Definitely. I like that outlook of facilitating change instead of just driving forward and doing the change.  

M: Yes, definitely. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.