Saying Goodbye: An Interview with Donald E. Zizzi, Ph.D.

Professor Donald E. Zizzi has been a faculty member in the City Planning and Urban Affairs program since 2007. His expertise lies in urban and regional economics, economic development, business development, development finance, public budgeting, and strategic planning and management. After nine years in the classroom, the respected professor and colleague says goodbye, and shares some of his experiences, lessons, and final thoughts.


Andrea: Tell me a little bit about your background. What drove your interest in urban and business development, planning, and management?

Zizzi: Hard to recall what I was thinking in my determinative years, but I would have to say that my interest in urban issues that led to a planning career stems from living in New York and experiencing them first hand.  It was clear to me fairly early that economic principles supported, or more often challenged, by public policy defined all forms of community development.  I also spent two years before my master’s degree in an underground Peace Corps-like program serving distressed communities in Mexico that was unquestionably influential.

After more than twenty years of experience in public planning/management as a city planner, county planning director and executive director of a regional planning commission, I knew I needed some ground level experience in the private sector to better understand business development and wealth creation.  I was very fortunate to have been given an opportunity to manage remote facility development and operations for a Silicon Valley based technology firm and to lead the company’s strategic planning initiative to support future global business development.  Far greater value than anything I learned in a classroom, but the experience drove me to more formal learning in urban economics.

Andrea: Tell me a little about your teaching experiences at BU. What were some of the positives and what were some the challenges? What do you like about the City Planning and Urban Affairs program?

Zizzi: I was working as a senior research associate in Northeastern’s Center for Urban and Regional Policy when I was recruited by Enrique Silva to serve on the BU City Planning/Urban Affairs Program Advisory Board.  During a comprehensive review of the course offerings, I suggested a thorough overhaul of the urban economics course which I was later invited to teach.  (OK, you think you’re so smart, you fix it.)

There is a lot to like about the program.   It serves a very important and relevant niche in planning and urban affairs allowing midcareer students to advance their education with evening classes.  The planning programs at Harvard, MIT and Tufts do not.  It also employs experienced practitioners rather than just pure academics.  I also have very much appreciated working with my fellow faculty and becoming personal friends with Enrique and John Weis.  I have a great deal of admiration for Walter Carroll, and Madhu, of course, has been the glue that holds it all together.  With her at the helm, the ship is in fine hands.  She is someone special.

Andrea: Can you talk a bit about your teaching style and what you enjoy the most about teaching?

Zizzi: As I said, what I enjoy most is the interaction with the students.  My style, if I have any style, is to keep the class sessions light and enjoyable since the material is heavy enough.  I also like to use visuals rather than just lecturing for three hours.  What I enjoy most is getting positive feedback from the students.  Interaction with students is the single reason I teach.  Having them tell me of their own enjoyment is a real treat.

Andrea: In addition to your teaching, you’re also an expert in your professional field. How do you feel your work dovetails into your teaching?

Zizzi: They are directly linked.  The reading and research I do for each are shared.  I also bring some of my consulting experiences, especially those involving local economic and business development, to the classroom to enrich my students’ learning experience.  I am not a true academic; and I know that pure economic theory can be ghastly boring without real world application.

Andrea: What is the most important lesson you want students to come away with in regards to their chosen profession? Similarly, if you could give a last lesson, what would it be?

Zizzi: As my students know, the best and most important economic and community development work is done at the local level… grounded in the stakeholders who care about it the most. Billions of federal dollars have been spent in the name of community development since I began in the 1970s with very uneven results, at best. The last and most important lesson: sustainable communities and community wealth can only be home-grown.  There is no positive national urban policy in the United States, so don’t look to Washington for one.  

Andrea: What is the most important thing students have taught you?

Zizzi: Beyond having different interests, everyone has a different learning style. I have also learned a lot about how succeeding generations view the issues.  

Andrea: Is there anything students would be surprised to know about you?

Zizzi: Hard for me to say without revealing something that they would be surprised to know, in which case, it would ruin the surprise.

Andrea: What are your hopes for future students and practitioners?

Zizzi: I hope that they do not become distressed or demotivated by the current national political climate… or any future one, for that matter.  

Andrea: Do you have any future plans, projects, or initiatives you will be working on?

Zizzi: I have been a visiting lecturer at Harvard for the last few years, and they keep inviting me back.  I will continue consulting as interesting projects present themselves.  I occasionally get invited to speak to various groups, and that’s always fun.

Andrea: What currently motivates you, or is your passion?

Zizzi: Easy question:  My grandson.

Andrea: Final thoughts?

Zizzi: BU’s MCP/UA program is a great opportunity for Boston area students and professionals to get a solid graduate education in planning and urban affairs on their own terms.  Its accessibility removes many of the barriers to graduate education that might keep some from considering advancing their resumes. Its faculty is an impressive one, and we have graduated some top-notch professionals.  I am honored to have been a small part of it.


You can read more about Professor Zizzi’s background here.


-Andrea Ciminelli