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.


  1. Thanks Alexa for this interesting post. This subject is extremely important, yet not acknowledged by most universities offering urban planning courses. Moreover, the issue of multidisciplinarity is a hot one in most planning institutions around the world, from ministries to local governments. Indeed, most urban planning teaching and institutions work with a unidisciplinary approach, either as an architectural discipline, civil engineering or academic-focused urban sociology/geography. Many of us know about it, most don't or simply refuse the change it implies in the way public and private planning entities are organized. It is also a political issue, as these entities make their living from clientelistic relations with certain social groups. There is a monumental task ahead of us, yet it is crucial we work towards making urban planning multidisciplinary and multistakeholder.

  2. Great ideas! I hope my program makes community collaboration a real priority. It's up to us as students to start calling for it. A program that does this successfully would attract so many applicants. I think the concept applies to the professional world as well.

  3. I would push this conversation further and say that the whole field of urban planning needs to be rethought or reframed. In the world of higher education, I think planning has become marginalized. Urban planning (along with many of the social sciences including history, psychology, anthropology...) needs to go on a bender with direct messaging stating the field's ability to contribute meaningful solutions to some of the major complex issues that the world is facing: inequality, climate change, poverty... Climatologists and engineers are only going to get humanity so far. Through the educational model you've outlined, it would be good to hear how the educated "people" persons (or planners) are going to use this to start making transformational contributions to the world's problems.

  4. I love this post, and agree that it needs to be pushed even farther. The challenges for university-community partnerships is that both "sides" still think of each other as separate entities. Relationships are generally contractual, not communal, and there is little thought given to the creation of spaces where this type of cooperation and interdisciplinarity can be produced.

    What it boils down to is that urban planning education has suffered from a lack of innovation, creativity and guts, at least during the past decade when I have been a part of it. It has so much potential to do things differently, to reimagine the possibility of graduate-level practical pedagogy in the 21st century. Hopefully Polis can become a space to be part of this much needed new imagination in the 2nd century of city planning as a profession.

  5. I have seen many cases of city authorities simply not planning urban development at all, not even physical planning. Giving importance or not to urban planning is a deeply political decision, as it implies certain level of control over the way private land is used, and such control is a limit to extremely profitable real estate or industrial businesses. Somehow, the decision of reducing urban planning has permeated the universities, which have made the discipline purely instrumental (as opposed to reflexive), to be used by professionals for the exclusive benefit of those holding power.

  6. Dear Alexa,

    Inspired by this article and its many comments I envisioned a planning program that has a combination of small rigid required core and large flexible place-based research in situ.

    The student must enter the program with a place that she/he would like to focus on (e.g. Durham, NC) and reside there for the entire time of the program (being no less than 2 years). Teamed up with one or several community organizations the student will develop his research agenda by consulting with people from the neighborhood she/he resides in. This agenda must be approved by her/his advisor.

    While in residence, the student must complete core courses either remotely or during one summer.

    I think that the structure described above will provide the flexibility and agility the university as an institution requires to disseminate and react in a timely manner to the complex demands of 21st century local institutions.


  7. Wow these are great comments and ideas. I really like Alex's point that urban planning education 'lacks guts'. In the face of tremendous opportunity for innovative new solutions, where is the courage? So few classes, professors, or projects are characterized by courage. And the ones that are so often get punished. I knew of a professor who used improv comedy classes with his students as a way to improve communication between disciplines and community-university partners. Everyone loved it. The department didn't re-hire him.

    I also like the idea of a blog as a space to re-imagine planning. So many of the best thinkers refuse to leave the same old spaces - academic journals and competitive op-ed sections. Faster, more abundant, more relevant discussions are happening in spaces like Polis, in community meetings, on social media sites.

    Carlos, that's a really intriguing vision. It's a worthwhile endeavor to amplify visions like yours. It would be great to see more structures that support long-term commitments between places.

    Jordi, thank you for making those connections between education and practice, as well as for pointing out that planning education is often not as multidisciplinary as it should be. You're right - urban planning isn't so far ahead as to be excused from Mark Taylor's recommendations in his op-ed 'End the University as We Know it'.

  8. as someone relatively unfamiliar with the field of urban planning, i've sometimes wondered about its effectiveness in the form of a degree and curriculum. but the vision you have articulated for it makes it seem exciting, real, and necessary.

  9. Your piece is very relevant for urban planning education and community learning because in this field the relationship of space with land use and communities evolves so quickly and it is influenced so much by stakeholders perceptions. By the time any scholar reads, reflect, writes and publish, the knowledge is probably already absolute. This field really needs a different approach not only to create knowledge, it also needs new ways to disseminate and share new paths of community evolution. Do you know how other schools are dealing with the disconnection among stakeholders and new professionals?
    My other question is related with my experience working in the field with local officials. What I found is that local officials at the beginning are open to students participation and later they feel threat by student's questions.
    How can we engage public officials in this process community learning process?


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