Getting to Know Dr. Sandra Whitehead: New Program Director for Sustainable Urban Planning

September 3, 2019
Whitehead-new program director at the new student orientation

Dr. Whitehead, new program director (right), Doug Kreitemeyer, President, Sustainable Urban Planning Student Organization (center), and Melissa Feuer, CPS assistant dean of students (left), at the fall 2019 SUP student orientation.

Dr. Sandra Whitehead took the helm as the interim program director of the Sustainable Urban Planning Program (SUP) effective July 1, 2019. Now that Dr. Whitehead is settling into her new role, we wanted to give our readers a chance to get to know her a little better.

Q: You are the newly appointed interim program director for the SUP program, but you aren't new to GW. Tell us about your previous experience at GW.

A: I began teaching in GW’s Sustainable Urban Planning Program (SUP) four years ago, in the fall semester. I am already well versed in the program, know many of the students and have been actively involved in strategic planning and accreditation processes with the previous director.

Q: How did you get started in the Sustainable Urban Planning field?

A: I am seventh generation Floridian whose family has farmed on the same land for close to 300 years. Growing up, we had a very deep sense of place and how it has shaped our culture and family history. I always felt a deep sense of responsibility to past and future generations. My undergraduate work is in applied cultural anthropology, studying how to preserve our spaces and culture. I chose to study policy in graduate school because I saw how policies about land use and infrastructure had transformed my home state.

While at Florida State University, I completed my M.P.A. and Ph.D. in Public Administration with a focus on Infrastructure Finance and Planning. I spent the next 20 years as a practicing planner working on a wide variety of issues such as: economic development, affordable housing and the intersection of health and planning. One of the strengths I bring to this position is this practical planning experience and more than 15 years of policy experience, working in the space between the professions of planning and sustainability.

Q: Will you continue teaching in addition to your new program director responsibilities?

A: Yes, I am continuing to teach and have expanded the course offerings. This semester I am teaching a newly developed course on Diversity and Inclusion, about the influence of race, sex and identity on sustainable urban planning. The demand for this course was student driven and came out of the program’s strategic planning process. I will continue to teach the Studio Class in Sustainable Urban Planning, where the students perform work with practicing planners, the Land Use Law class and a course in Urban Health Impact Assessment. 

Q: Tell us more about the program’s strategic planning process.

A: The strategic planning process was quite involved and included the program’s advisory board, alumni, faculty and students. The perspectives of local community planners were also included in the process. There were six meetings and many discussions about the program’s goals, missions and vision statement. The 2019 Strategic Plan is available to download (PDF) from the website.

Q: Any initial thoughts you’d like to share on the state of the program and where you see it going under your leadership?

A: It is an exciting time to be the program director with the strong foundation that Dr. John Carruthers laid. The program has recently received accreditation from the Planning Accreditation Board (PAB) and has recently completed an in-depth strategic planning process.

We have a number of new employer partnerships and cross-departmental collaborations within the university. We are helping students customize their curriculum options to match their interests, including options with the walkable urban real estate program in the GW School of Business and the community development program in GW’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy & Public Administration.

Q: Tell us more about your main areas of expertise:

A: My main areas of expertise within the sustainable urban planning and policy arena are all health-related. I’ve been fascinated by the intersection of heath and the environment and approached it from different angles, studying:

  • Health and the Built Environment, the impact of  community design on public health;
  • Health in All Policies, where planners work across sectors to involve all parties in building a healthier community; and
  • Health Impact Assessment, a structured process to formally evaluate community design and policy and make recommendations to improve public health

Q: Are you currently doing any volunteer work?

A: I have been serving on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since December 2017. The Council provides independent advice and recommendations to the Administrator on a broad range of issues related to environmental justice.

I am also a Working Group Co-Leader and serve on the Steering Committee for SOPHIA-The Society of Practitioners of Health Impact Assessment.

Q: Tell us about your family.

A: I’m married to my college sweetheart and we have three grown children who are scattered around the country. All three are engineers (2 mechanical, 1 civil) and one is a physicist as well. My daughter is in Spokane, WA, one of my sons is in Baltimore and my oldest son is in Florida with a 1-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, who is adopted, as he is. Growing up I also had an adopted brother and sister, so adoption has been an important part of my life.

Q: How do you like to spend your free time?

A: I like to read and watch movies. I really enjoy hiking when I get a chance. We recently went to Luray Caverns with my granddaughter while she was visiting from Florida. 

Q: What advice would you give to the SUP students as a whole?

A: Graduate school is a time to grow and explore. Be open to new ideas and different class topics. You might be surprised how a topic you thought seemed dull at first ignites your passion or even becomes your area of future expertise.

More information about her background is available online:

Contact her by e-mail


SUP new student orientation student group with new PD

From left to right: Current SUP students Kevin Brown and Amanda Esposito, new program director Dr. Sandra Whitehead and SUPSO President Doug Kreitemeyer at the fall 2019 program orientation.