11.016J | Spring 2015 | Undergraduate

The Once and Future City

Instructor Insights

Reading the City

In this section, Anne Whiston Spirn discusses how 11.016J The Once and Future City challenges students to think in new ways. Specifically, the course offers students the opportunity to develop visual thinking skills and to consider the processes shaping the urban form.

Focusing on Form and Process

One thing that I really love about teaching this course is that the students are from all over MIT, across all four undergraduate years and from diverse majors. If there is one major that is particularly apparent, it would be Mechanical Engineering, and those students tell me that it’s because the course has a focus on design. MIT students, and Mech E students in particular, are hungry for courses that give them the opportunity to reflect on form and process. Some students take the course because it fulfills one of MIT’s communication intensive requirements.

"The focus of the class is on the urban form of the city, including the shape of its buildings, its buildings and parks, the structure of its street system; so the infrastructure, the form of that structure."
— Anne Whiston Spirn

Many students find the class tough. I bumped into a student a few months after the course was over, and he said, “I loved your class and I got a lot out of it, but it was the hardest class I’ve taken at MIT.” This kid was a sophomore. He’d been taking physics and calculus courses. I couldn’t believe it!

The class asks students to look at primary documents—particularly maps—and the city itself, and to make observations, to find “significant details” that will serve as evidence to form an argument. Many students find this difficult. They’re not just taking a text and applying it, or critiquing something that already exists. They are developing visual thinking skills, and they have to make observations using their own eyes and mind. Many are not prepared for this. Something else that frustrates some of the students is that there is not necessarily a right answer to a question.

Thinking about and understanding processes is another thing that they may not be used to, although they’re certainly used to thinking about processes in their science and engineering courses. It differs from other courses that they might be taking in architecture or art history in that I’m asking them to go beyond the form they’re observing, to understand the processes that have shaped that form. The focus of the class is on the form of the city, including the shape of its buildings and parks, the structure of its street and transportation system, the disposition of its land uses. The emphasis is not just on an analysis of the form itself as a composition. The emphasis is on understanding the processes that gave rise to that form.

We spend one section of the class on natural processes and another on social, economic, political, technological, and cultural processes. I ask them to imagine, “What are the processes that shape urban form?” It is the form of the city that makes those processes visible.

During the course, students practice reading an urban site of their choice. Early in the class they work with historical maps, so they gain the advantage of knowing what the place was like during different historical periods from the seventeenth century through the 20th century. They carry those maps around with them when they do their last assignment, looking for signs of past neighborhoods, looking for traces of the past.

What many of them come to realize is that they have assumed that the city has always been the way it is today. They realize how naïve that is, but they never before questioned how the city came to be the way it is.

Moving from Site Specifics toward Generalizations

Normally, each student picks a site anywhere in Cambridge, Somerville, Boston, or the larger region. Some of the sites they select were built up during colonial times, others weren’t developed until the late 19th or early 20th century, so, collectively, we have sites that have been influenced by different periods of history. The students pick their sites based on interest; for example I encourage someone who is interested in transportation to pick a site which is a transportation hub of some kind, or which features multiple modes of transportation. Because the students have diverse interests, we get a diversity of sites, which then provide the class with a diverse set of factors that have influenced the form and character of the city as a whole. This year (2015), because of the 100-year celebration of MIT’s move across the Charles River from Boston to Cambridge, the students chose sites based in the two MIT spheres of influence in the Back Bay and Cambridge.

The most exciting class session of the entire semester is the last class, where we go around the room one by one, and I ask the students to say what the most important factor in determining the form and character of their site is. When we go around the room, one student will say, “the arrival of the railroad.” Others will say, “the environmental location,” or “demographic change.” We make multiple passes around the room, and I write down all their responses on the board. Finally, we step back and reflect on the list they have generated, and the students realize that they have constructed a theory of how and why cities change, which is based on their own observations, with evidence from their own sites. It’s this “aha” moment, where we’ve gone from observation to generalization.

Inspiring Students Beyond the Classroom

After they complete the course, I get emails from students telling me, “I’m at my summer job at Google, and I can’t believe all that I’m seeing in San Francisco. I can really read the city.” Other students will write and say, “I went home, and now I’m actually looking at my hometown in a completely different way.” That’s so gratifying. I tell them at the beginning of class that they will see the world differently at the end of the semester. And it’s true. Once students catch on, they’ll never see the world the same again.

One student, a physics major, wrote in his evaluation, “Everywhere I go, I now see patterns and processes. One of the most valuable skills I acquired from 11.016J The Once and Future City is visual learning. Before our discussion on styles of learning, I had believed that I learned best by numbers, or more exactly, equations. As a physics major, I had developed intuition in describing phenomena in terms of equations and in interpreting equations into physical figures. I never before realized that those skills also require visual thinking. I am inspired to tackle my work in physics through, I believe, a more illuminating approach.”

To see these students opening their eyes and seeing things differently is great. Some students catch on immediately; other students struggle. But, by the end of the semester, all of themare seeing things differently. It’s particularly gratifying to see the ones who struggle and then get there in the end.

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Spring 2015
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