11.016J | Spring 2015 | Undergraduate

The Once and Future City


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 lectures / week, 1.5 hours / lecture


There are no prerequisites for this course. Limited to 25 students.

Course Description

What is a city? What shapes it? How does its history influence future development? How do physical form and institutions vary from city to city and how are these differences significant? How are cities changing and what is their future? This course will explore these and other questions, with emphasis upon twentieth-century American cities. A major focus will be on the physical form of cities—from downtown and inner-city to suburb and edge city—and the processes that shape them.

Cities are constantly built and rebuilt; from the initial settlement to the present, successive layers leave traces. There are also cities within cities; every city has many districts—downtown, neighborhoods, suburbs, each evolving with its own history, institutions, successive populations, and urban form. The result is a richly complex text of artifacts: From houses to schools and banks, playgrounds to parks and plazas, alleys to boulevards, sewers to freeways. These provide clues to the environmental, social, and political context in which they were built and to the people who built them, their needs and desires. Armed with an understanding of places built in the past, we will turn to a reading of contemporary urban settlements. What do the cities being built today reveal about the values societies and individuals hold or reject?

We will explore these issues through lectures, readings, workshops, field trips, and analysis of particular places. The city itself will provide a primary text. This year, in light of the 2016 centennial of MIT’s move from Boston to Cambridge, we will focus on MIT’s original campus in Boston’s Back Bay and the university’s current neighborhood in Cambridge. A project involving short field assignments will provide further opportunity to use, develop, and refine new skills in “reading” the city. The course will take advantage of opportunities afforded by the Internet. Students will present their projects online with links to the course website. These student websites, along with weekly readings and multimedia videos, will provide material for class discussion.

This is a CI-H class, which offers students opportunity for verbal and graphic expression through class discussion, written texts, and website design. Communication-intensive subjects in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences require at least twenty pages (5000 words) of writing divided among three to five assignments; at least one must be revised and resubmitted.


Project (consisting of 4 parts) 60%
Weekly journal 20%
Participation 20%

Course Info

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