11.201 | Fall 2005 | Graduate

Gateway: Planning Action


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 2 hours / session


This course introduces incoming students in the Master in City Planning (MCP) program to the theory and practice of planning in the public interest. It relies primarily on challenging real-world cases to highlight persistent dilemmas, the power and limits of planning, the multiple roles in which planners find themselves in communities around the globe, and the political and other constraints that planners face as they try to be effective. In all these ways, our focus is on planning action, not the history of urban development or urban social theory, though we will explore the ways in which planning ideals and cities have shaped each other as society evolves.

The primary objectives of the course are:

  1. To introduce students to the profession - its history, promise, and challenges-providing, in the process, a language and set of reference points that help define the profession and the many fields it touches;
  2. To help students develop a workable theory of practice to guide their professional development and lifelong learning;
  3. To stimulate a critical awareness of the opportunities and challenges specific to planning in diverse societies, whether diversity is defined in racial, ethnic, religious, class, or other dimensions;
  4. To develop core competencies essential to effective practice, including problem analysis, teamwork, and communication skills (written and oral presentation, media support); and
  5. To introduce incoming students, through hands-on work, to the Department, including distinct specializations, the domestic and international elements of our work (and bridges across them), the curriculum, and cutting-edge research on cities, social justice, and problem-solving happening at and around MIT.

In pursuit of these objectives, we’ll visit and revisit fundamental questions: Where did planning come from, and where is it going? What are its core values and ethical commitments? What do planners do? Is there an identifiable public interest, and if so, how can planning promote it as cities and societies change-often in profound and confusing ways?

Format and Requirements

The course format and requirements emphasize the development of practice competencies and professionalism. Like much planning practice, much class time will be interactive, calling on you to be an active learner. Our work on real-world cases will be necessarily selective: That is, our work cannot be “mile-wide and inch-deep.” So our cases will center on focal themes. The written and oral assignments emphasize professional audiences and tasks as well as intellectual inquiry. In several instances, the course will engage you as a peer coach, critiquing your colleagues’ work, both to enrich the “360-degree” feedback available to them and to develop your own understanding of the varied demands of effective practice.


The course is in six compact units. The first introduces the course and core dilemmas of planning theory and action. The next three units revolve around major cases, each taught by a lead faculty member with a deep knowledge of the case and by a supporting instructor. The fifth unit focuses on interest-based negotiation and stakeholder mapping. The sixth and final unit focuses on cities of tomorrow and cities of difference-issues of human diversity in public life and professional work, as well as your own planning education. The final exam concludes the course.

A typical case-based unit of the course will include four (4) class sessions and a recommended, out-of-class Friday review:

  • A class session that introduces a major real-world case, using advance reading (for which specific study questions are provided), lecture, and discussion;
  • A second session allowing for extended discussion of the case and its implications, as well as a written and oral assignment;
  • An optional, out-of-class case review session led by one of our doctoral teaching assistants;
  • A session for oral briefings by student teams, which will be videotaped and evaluated to help you develop communication skills as well as analytic ones;
  • A “redux” session in which we revisit and deepen a semester-long discussion of classic themes and dilemmas of planning through the lens of the case just covered i.e., in which we shift our focus back to understanding the field rather than the case per se.

Group Work

Getting work done with and through other people is central to effective practice. In the words of John Isaacson, an expert on public service careers, this is one of the three essentials of working in the public interest:

  • “Hunger”: A passion for public service, a “fire in the belly,” the desire to make a difference in the world;
  • “Speed”: Analytic sharpness, the ability to think your way through hard problems, and to make new mistakes (not the same old ones), each and every day; and
  • “Weight”: Knowing how to function on a team or inside an institution, knowing when to assert and when to “salute” (defer), asserting your own authority (including your expertise) productively while working productively with the authority of others.

As such, you will work in a variety of group settings:

  1. The main class sessions;
  2. Small study groups assigned at the start of the semester, which will meet regularly to discuss readings and assignments, including the final exam;
  3. A workgroup assigned the task of analysis and recommendations in the form of an oral briefing linked to one of the main cases; and
  4. Ad hoc groups that meet, for example at review sessions, to cover important concepts.

Evaluation and Feedback

Your grade will be based on:

  1. Two written assignments of approximately 6-10 double-spaced pages apiece;
  2. An oral briefing (professional presentation) prepared and delivered in class with your team;
  3. A take-home final exam; and
  4. Effective class participation week to week.

The written and oral assignments will be linked to our cases, with specific instructions available in the assignments section.

Note: You will prepare and deliver an oral briefing for one case (according to your workgroup assignment) and written assignments for the other two cases. Written assignments are due in class on the date of the briefings.

In addition, you will complete a non-graded, brief writing diagnostic at the start of the semester, in the form of a 1-page memorandum, which will allow us to assess and develop your skills in outlining evidence and making arguments in professional settings. The teaching team will encourage some students to work intensively on writing skills through the linked course in planning communication (11.225), taught by Prof. Abbanat.

Beyond evaluation, the teaching team will work to offer specific, constructive, and critical feedback to you, both on written assignments and in debriefing presentations.


Two Written Assignments (Individual) 30%
Oral Briefing (Group) 25%
Final Exam 25%
Class Participation 20%

Professional Communication and Groupwork

The main course assignments, along with special skill-building instruction and resource materials, are designed to make you a more competent communicator in a variety of planning contexts. Our work together will include two required workshops on professional communication (Workshops 1 and 2), covering: professional memoranda, press releases, and other common formats for professional writing (only some of which we will be able to practice in a meaningful way in this course); design and delivery of oral briefings (professional presentations) for decision-makers, which are supported by, not driven by, information technology or other media. We will also be able to discuss fundamentals of effective teamwork and self-management.

The presentations you give will be videotaped, and using the video, you will debrief your work with Prof. Cherie Abbanat, in addition to written feedback you receive from the teaching team on your content and delivery. These videos may also be used, at a later date, as part of the Department’s video library for future students.

Democracy (And Responsibility) in the Classroom

A premise of the course is that our own efforts to engage challenging topics will reflect the very real-world challenges we wish to understand. The classroom is thus a case in point, and while faculty bear a special responsibility given their role in guiding the work, every class member is responsible for contributing to our success. Our discussions should therefore reflect a commitment to the very working principles - or ground rules and norms - on which effective action in a democracy depends, especially in diverse societies, for example:

  • Respect with Challenge: Promoting mutual respect, being as inclusive as possible, but being willing to disagree thoughtfully where it will support a better discussion or bring important ideas and differences in perspective (vantage point) into view;
  • Curiosity with Candor: Following questions, questioning “givens” (prevailing assumptions, for example);
  • Listening Actively: Listening to understand, checking assumptions, not simply waiting our turns to talk; and
  • Assuming Responsibility: In our case, for the work of making the classroom an effective place for learning together, being more than a spectator.

Course Materials

For most class sessions and for your study group meetings as well, you will read assigned material guided by specific study questions, though you are welcome to go beyond them. The questions are linked to our central objectives for the case (or other discussion topic), which is linked in turn to the larger course focus on planning’s defining traditions, roles, and dilemmas. In some instances, we will offer recommended readings or lists as take-away resources on important topics.

Required Texts

Friedmann, John. Planning in the Public Domain: From Knowledge to Action. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987. ISBN: 0691022682.

Fisher, Roger, and William Ury. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Penguin, 1991. ISBN: 0395631246.

Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Activity Assignments