Rethinking Urban Planning Education

by Alexa Mills

Urban planning has long excelled at integrating different fields of study because cities, by nature, demand multidisciplinary thinking. Yet addressing the world’s most critical problems, such as urban poverty and energy efficiency, require a dynamism that moves beyond combining academic disciplines, and into a space that recognizes the knowledge generated by local people who live these issues first hand. With this in mind, I've outlined three potential avenues through which communities and universities might engage in more meaningful collaboration.

1. The Urban Planning Masters Thesis:
Learning to produce a traditional research document is useful for those pursuing a life in the academy, but for students who plan to become practitioners, and for the cities and regions that serve as the subjects of urban planning theses, is this time-worn document a vestigial organ? The thesis model doesn't offer an accessible way for students to present valuable information and exciting new ideas. Those working in communities don't have time to read 100+ pages, especially those written in jargon-filled university language. Could this component of planning education be made more dynamic through a more engaging style of prose, in-person events in researched cities, accompanying technical assistance documents, and research done in groups of students examining related topics? There should be a plethora of ways to revitalize the form without sacrificing rigor.

2. Place-based Coursework:
Urban planning education usually includes for-credit coursework that involves visiting a specific place and developing ideas and interventions to improve that place. Too often, these courses end in a great learning experience for students, but no significant benefit for the communities under study. Perhaps this dynamic would be different if universities went into these projects with a new mindset: What if universities collaborated with local institutions and organizations as equal partners in learning, understanding that each partner has equally valuable knowledge to contribute to the project? Final products might become more relevant to the communities meant to use them, and students might achieve a more thorough understanding of local processes.

3. Interdisciplinary Collaboration:
Urban Planning education has long trained students in a breadth of subjects, including design, economics, finance, sociology, race and gender studies, and engineering, among others. One year ago Professor Mark Taylor of Columbia University wrote a break-through op-ed, End the University as We Know It, in which he advocated for greater interdepartmental collaboration at universities. He noted that addressing the world's most pressing problems, such as access to clean water, requires interdisciplinary teams of thinkers. I agree, and argue that we need to take that concept one step further by acknowledging that local residents and practitioners not affiliated with a university department, people who every day face the questions that universities attempt to address, have unique and valuable knowledge on the most urgent modern issues, and should be equal partners in generating new answers.

Communities at the margins, those who experience water shortages and transportation failures, develop solutions faster than the distant university is able. Their ideas are more agile and apt than what an outside body can produce by itself. To maintain relevance, the university, and graduate education in particular, needs to step out of its silo.

Alexa Mills works at the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) at MIT. CoLab staff, students, and community partners work through these questions on their blog, CoLab Radio.

Credits: Photo of students participating in CoLab's Cartagena project, by Alexa Mills.