The History of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning

author: Gary Hack, The University of Pennsylvania School of Design
published: July 29, 2013,   recorded: April 2008,   views: 3021
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Who better than Gary Hack to recount the colorful 75-year tale of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning? Associated with the department for more than half its life, and saturated with its lore, Hack reaches backward to describe the story’s “five acts,” and then forward to imagine the department’s future.

The department emerged in the midst of the Depression, with faculty engaged primarily in city planning. Graduates “went out with the equipment to plan the massive growth in this country that occurred after World War II,” says Hack, with the know-how for laying out roads and neighborhoods. Act 2, “the urban studies years,” came after the war, with the department swelling to accommodate returning GIs, and a growing interest in studying “the implications … of renewal and slum clearance.” The last half of the ‘50s proved fertile, with the launch of Harvard and MIT’s Joint Center for Urban Studies. Then came the 60s, and “forces at work that tore the department apart.”

The Vietnam War, city riots, and questions about the direction of urban growth, “raised enormous doubts about … what planning was up to.” MIT faculty and students became advocates for neighborhood groups. In Act 3, “the urban action era,” a new department head added such fields as criminal justice and environmental planning, and committed to diversity of both faculty and students.

By 1980, academic life had evolved into an “era of parallel solitudes,” clusters of people intensely involved with each other “with a minimum amount of glue.” This Act 4 saw the start of an international planning focus, as well as a turn toward giving students the skills to be directly involved in building and real estate.

The most recent period, Act 5, has witnessed DUSP leaders working “hard to lift out of the rich bouillabaisse constructed over all those years some themes with crosscutting energy, things that could bring people together,” such as projects in New Orleans.

Hack imagines that MIT’s DUSP, along with other U.S. planning departments, will need to function in an increasingly global and interconnected world. Confronted by climate change, and massive growth of cities, planners will need to transcend their traditional ways of thinking and working. Hack concludes with a thought experiment: If we built high-speed rail in the Northeast corridor, cutting travel time from Boston to New York to one hour, what kind of development should occur, and what are the likely impacts? “We’re ill equipped even to answer these questions, and we need to do better,” Hack says.

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