11.016J | Spring 2015 | Undergraduate

The Once and Future City

Instructor Insights

Drawing Inspiration from Research

In this section, Anne Whiston Spirn discusses how her research shapes 11.016J/4.211J The Once and Future City.

"Every place is in the process of becoming."
— Anne Whiston Spirn

I’m a photographer as well as a landscape architect and urban planner. I’m always looking and asking, “What are the processes that are shaping this place?” I’ve always been fascinated by this. And not just as a theorist but also as a practitioner, it’s important to understand that places are constantly changing, that they are not static. Urban designers and planners have to understand that every place is in the process of becoming. To understand that, you have to explore the trajectory of its history. What are the processes that shaped this place in the past? Which of them are still functioning?

The dynamic nature of the urban landscape absolutely must be addressed in any design or plan for the future, because otherwise you risk failure. If you’ve failed to identify important processes at work in a particular location, whether they’re natural processes or social, economic, and political processes, then your design or plan may fail. It’s essential to be able to read a place from this perspective, because survival may depend on it. Home owners, for instance, need to know if their property is on a landslide-prone slope or in a flood plain. But you also can read a city for fun, like you would read a book.

I have been working on the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, an action research project, since 1987. In the mid-1980s, my research linked blocks of vacant land in low-income neighborhoods to the buried flood plains of former creeks, which are now in sewers. The sewers were built in the nineteenth century, the valley bottoms filled in, and streets and houses constructed. Over time there has been subsidence on the buried flood plain, which resulted in the collapse of homes and businesses. In the Mill Creek Watershed in West Philadelphia, the first cave-ins happened within 30 years of construction, and they continued over another 50 years.

However, the cause of this vacancy was invisible even to the people who lived there. They thought it was due solely to economic reasons, and they didn’t see the relation to hydrological processes as well. Nnot only did the residents not perceive the cause, neither did the city’s planners. The most effective way to demonstrate the correlation was to show them a series of historical maps in order to point out how the neighborhood had transformed over time, when and where these vacancies appeared, and the fact that they are concentrated within the buried flood plain.

I started teaching a course related to this research in the mid-1990s at the University of Pennsylvania, and around that time, I started work with a middle school in a low-income neighborhood near the university. My Penn students brought in primary historical documents of the neighborhood surrounding the school, in order to teach the middle school kids how their neighborhood came to be the way it was.

Over the course of eight class sessions in a single semester, this study had a transformative impact on these kids. The children had thought that their neighborhood had always been the way it was. They believed that things couldn’t change. But after they came to understand how the neighborhood had changed over time—due to the buried flood plain of the former creek, but also due to various economic practices and public policies in the mid twentieth century, such as redlining and the construction of public housing—they began to understand the processes that had shaped their neighborhood. It had not always been racially segregated. It had changed for the worse due to very specific policies and actions that originated outside the neighborhood itself. The deterioration was not the fault of the people who lived there. It turned out the children had been ashamed of their neighborhood, and when they understood the forces that had been at work, they were relieved, and they were inspired to propose change.

This is all part of my ongoing research. The West Philadelphia Landscape Project is a 30-year action research project in which I’m still engaged. One of my books, The Language of Landscape, is about the ideas that underlie the course, The Once and Future City, as well as other courses that I teach at MIT: Sensing Place: Photography as Inquiry and Ecological Urbanism. And The Once and Future City itself is part of my research. I plan to write a book with that title, summarizing what my students and I have discovered about how and why cities change over time and how to read the stories of those changes in the form of the city.

Course Info

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