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What does a School of Place look like?

At the end of the year, Secretary of State for Housing and Levelling Up Michael Gove revealed that his mission would be enhanced with a new school of architecture and urban design dedicated to placemaking. Citing a report called A School of Place, produced by the think tank Policy Exchange, Gove said

"I am pleased to see this paper contribute so productively to the debate on how we improve our homes and communities. We must do all we can to ensure a new generation of built environment professionals are armed with the best skills and techniques possible to enable them to go out and build beautiful, sustainable places in which people and communities can thrive."

He added

"Much of the opposition to new housing developments is often grounded in a fear that the quality of the new buildings and places created will be deficient and therefore detrimental to existing neighbourhoods and properties. If a general improvement in the standard of design reassures the general public that this will in fact not be the case, then they may be less likely to oppose it.”

And to finalise his point, he added

"Rome was not built in a day. But it would never have been built at all if those who dedicated their lives and careers to its creation did not first know how to build it."

Mr Gove’s comments and the report itself have invited many responses, some which have criticised the idea as a waste of resources and others that argue the real cause of poor design and placemaking is the clientele - eg developers and housebuilders.

I’ve found much of this criticism curious, and am reminded of discussions I had around the practice or urban planning when I first came to the UK in the late 1980s. I had recently completed a Master in City Planning at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),and was often asked about what was perceived as my unusual approach to “town planning”.

In fact what we were taught at MIT was holistic placemaking, although it wasn’t called that then, and I would submit to Mr Gove and his colleagues that MIT DUSP is just what he’s looking for.

The Urban Planning that I studied for two years at postgraduate level was highly multidisciplinary in its approach, and the DUSP

programme educated prospective planners in the economics, politics, design, science, culture, anthropology and sociology of urban spaces. And because these fundamental but continually changing elements of urban spaces and urban life rarely

aligned, we all had to study and participate in negotiation analysis, led by the world-leading Getting to Yes team.

Students developed a particular speciality during the programme; mine was infrastructure development & finance and others included community organising, economic development, environmental design, real estate finance, international development, health planning, regional economics, and local public finance. Specialities were developed though coursework and projects; if DUSP itself didn’t offer a course, somewhere else within MIT or Harvard down the road did and we had free reign to pursue them. Projects were designed to attract funding and build real-world experience – I spent a summer investigating private finance of public infrastructure funded by the World Bank.

And all of us were assigned a small group that met throughout the duration of the programme to discuss, debate and present on a variety of topics. It was accepted wisdom that these groups were designed for conflict, assembled so that community organisers argued with real estate analysts and environmental scientists locked horns with infrastructure developers. If we wanted to get a passing grade, we had to see things from all sides and compromise to find a solution.

We were trained broadly but deeply, supported and challenged. I confess that when I began working in the construction industry in the UK and engaged with others trained in planning, I found their experience much narrower than mine. This has changed and broader, more multidisciplinary programmes do now exist and flourish, but I’m not sure if they are really the norm. Planners, please update me.

DUSP at MIT has changed, too, and its approach and offering is reflected in its mission statement:

“We prepare leaders to plan, design, and create communities and places that are socially, economically, and environmentally just.

We pursue this mission through four evolving strategic priorities: achieving racial justice, enhancing multi-racial democratic governance, tackling the climate crisis, and closing the wealth gap.

We aim to fulfill our mission through all aspects of our teaching, research, department culture, and external collaborations.”

Mr Gove, take note.

Clare Delmar

Listen to Locals

10 January 2023


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