11.016J | Spring 2015 | Undergraduate

The Once and Future City

Instructor Insights

Course Overview

This page focuses on the course 11.016J/4.211J The Once and Future City as it was taught by Professor Anne Whiston Spirn in Spring 2015.

This course examines and explores the evolving structure of cities, the dynamic processes that shape them, and the significance of a city’s history in its future development. By using lectures, readings, workshops, and field trips, students will learn how to “read” the city, and will be able to use it as a primary source. Short field assignments will culminate in a written final project that showcases students’ ability to read, analyze, and reflect upon the evolving urban landscape.

Course Outcomes

Course Goals for Students

  • Explore how natural processes shape cities.
  • Explore how socio-economic processes shape cities.
  • Understand how and why cities change over time.
  • Identify traces of change present in current urban environments and interpret their significance.

Curriculum Information



Requirements Satisfied


Typically offered every spring semester. (Not offered Spring 2017)

Instructor Insights

"By the last class session, students step back and realize that, collectively, they have constructed a theory based on their own observations, with evidence from their own sites."
— Anne Whiston Spirn

Below, Anne Whiston Spirn describes various aspects of how she teaches 11.016J The Once and Future City.


Grade Breakdown

The students’ grades were based on the following activities:

  • 60% Four-part project
  • 20% Weekly journal entries
  • 20% Participation

Instructor Insights on Assessment

I grade students’ assignments based on how astute the student’s observations are. I look to see that the observations are not trivial, that they are finding things of significance to use as evidence for an argument. I also grade students’ work based on how well they take those observations and create an argument for the import of what they have discovered.

Student Information


19 students

Breakdown by Year

Mostly undergraduates

Breakdown by Major

Variety of majors, with many students from Mechanical Engineering (Course 2). The course offers a focus on design, which allows these students the opportunity to reflect on form and process.

Typical Student Background

On the first day of class, I ask students to complete a sheet telling me a little bit about themselves. I want to know where they grew up, and where they’ve lived. If I have good examples from those places to share, I’ll bring them into the course to make the content particularly meaningful for those students.

Enrollment Cap

Limited to 25 students

How Student Time Was Spent

During an average week, students were expected to spend 12 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:

In Class

  • Met 2 times per week for 1.5 hours per session
  • Researched historical maps of Cambridge and Boston
  • Took walking field trips around Cambridge
  • Discussed how to “read” a city as a primary source

Out of Class

Students completed readings, weekly journal entries, and worked on the four parts of their cumulative course projects.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2015
Learning Resource Types
Other Video
Projects with Examples
Written Assignments with Examples
Instructor Insights