11.201 | Fall 2007 | Graduate

Gateway: Planning Action



This course introduces incoming students in the Master in City Planning (MCP) program to the theory and history 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, ethical, and practical dilemmas that planners face as they try to be effective. As such, the course provides an introduction to the major ideas and debates that define what the field labels “planning theory,” as well as a (necessarily) condensed global history of modern planning. 11.201 builds directly on the “How we approach planning” summer module that incoming students completed online.

Courses in planning history, politics, and ethics—often several of them—are required in all accredited graduate programs in planning in the U.S. It’s a condition of accreditation. Gateway: Planning Action combines those contents, with a stronger focus on real-world cases than more conventional lecture-based planning theory and history courses at other schools. It also adds several opportunities to strengthen hands-on professional competencies, especially in communication.

What is “Planning”?

Our focus is on planning action or “planned change,” i.e. intervening in the world to change it, 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 societies evolve.

Planning Where? And Theory Why?

The course is not an introduction to urban form or the city planning profession in the U.S. specifically, though our work includes U.S. cases and readings, particularly on the front end of the course. The most important of these are planning classics that are widely taught and referenced throughout the profession, inside and outside the U.S.

But don’t look for vocational insights on particular planning practices, such as urban design or transport policy analysis or anti-poverty initiatives in cities. Planning theory is just that: a body of broader ideas about the modern history of intervening in the world wisely and fairly in order to change it.

The primary objectives of the course are:

  1. To introduce students to the field of planning, broadly defined—its modern history, promise, and challenges—providing, in the process, a language and set of reference points that help define the (narrower) profession of city planning and the many fields it touches;
  2. To begin to make 65+ individuals with varied backgrounds, goals, and expectations an effective learning community grounded in mutual respect, informed inquiry, and more; and
  3. To strengthen core competencies essential to effective practice, including problem analysis, effective teamwork, and communication skills (written and oral).

And additional objectives of the course are:

  1. To help students begin to develop a workable theory of practice to guide their professional development and lifelong learning;
  2. To stimulate a critical awareness of the opportunities and challenges specific to planning in increasingly diverse societies, whether diversity is defined in racial, ethnic, religious, class, or other dimensions;
  3. To introduce incoming students to the Department, including distinct specializations and the domestic and international elements of our work (and bridges across them).

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 range of things do planners do and in what roles? 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—but in the context of applying big ideas and questions. 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 assignments (see below) emphasize fluency with ideas in some instances and also professional judgment in some instances. The not-quite-weekly Friday discussion sections give you a structured “small learning community” to complement lecture, discussions, and more in the large-class setting, where the entire MCP class has a chance to discuss issues with far-reaching implications for planning and for each of your careers.


The course is in four (4) units or parts. The first brief part (two sessions) introduces the course and core dilemmas of planning action, including major stages of modern planning’s history. The second unit revolves around a focal case and team-based oral briefing assignment. The third unit explores the major developments and debates in modern planning history and theory and culminates in a midterm exam. The fourth unit examines political, ethical and practical dilemmas of planning in a world of social diversity and inequality. It includes two memo assignments that serve as capstones for the course, plus a course review and discussion of your planning education and career development.


There is: (1) a non-graded, 500-word writing diagnostic; (2) a team-based oral briefing, of about 30 minutes, focused on a looming policy or practice decision in a simulated context; (3) a midterm exam of three take-home essay questions (you will have about a week to complete it); (4) a decision memorandum of about 4 pages drawing on two case modules taught by Profs. Rajagopal and Kim; and (5) an informational memorandum of about 4-6 pages drawing on your firsthand observation and analysis of a planning meeting somewhere in Greater Boston (review this assignment early, after Ses #1, so you don’t get stuck with few/poor meeting options late in the semester).

Group Work

Getting work done with and through other people is central to effective practice. In the words of one expert on public service careers, as well as experts in leadership and what has come to be called “personal effectiveness,” group work—broadly defined—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: (a) the main class sessions, some of which will include small-group discussion tasks; (b) discussion sections assigned at the start of the semester, which will meet regularly to discuss readings and assignments; (c) teams that work on the briefing assignment early in the semester; and (d) ad hoc groups that may meet to cover important concepts.

Evaluation and Feedback

We emphasize the latter as much as possible: giving you feedback on your work so as to sharpen your thinking and writing skills. Not everyone welcomes feedback, wherein we identify strengths as well as areas for improvement. The course also includes evaluation (numerical scoring and letter grading). The instructors (teaching assistants) do much, but not all, of the grading and feedback, with guidance from Prof. Briggs and frequent teaching team discussions to enhance consistency, strive for a constructively critical tone (which includes candid assessment of shortcomings), and ensure detail in evaluation.

Your grade will be based on:

Take-home midterm exam 30%
Two professional memoranda 40%
The oral briefing 20%
Effective class participation, including discussion sections 10%


We have scheduled the graded assignments—as best we can, within constraints—not to conflict with other assignments in the first-year core curriculum (notably, in economics).

In addition, you will complete a non-graded written assignment: a brief writing diagnostic at the start of the semester, in the form of a 1-page essay, which will allow Prof. Abbanat and the 11.201 teaching team to assess and develop your skills in outlining evidence and making arguments in writing. This builds directly on the “Reading critically” and “Writing effectively” summer modules you did online.

Late Submissions

We routinely grant extensions for genuine emergencies (contact Prof. Briggs by phone and email), but in fairness to your colleagues, unexcused late submissions (exams or other assignments) will be penalized, with points deducted according to how late you submit. Details are on each assignment.

Professional Communication

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 required workshops on professional speech and writing, with a focus on informing and persuading decision makers, constituents, or clients.

Improving Your Writing

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. But that course is open to all. She is also available, throughout the semester, as a writing coach, and so are staff at the MIT Writing and Communication Center (see its Web site). Be sure to contact them with adequate notice, i.e. well in advance of assignment due dates.

The Classroom: Main Class Meetings

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. Much of our time will be spent in the “group of the whole” (entire class) but sometimes, we will use small groups, as few as 2-3 members apiece, to give you a chance for very interpersonal exchange and comparing ideas with classmates.

Whatever the format and scale, 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 into view;
  • Listening actively: Listening to understand, checking assumptions, building on others’ ideas, 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, which means being more than a spectator.

Teaching Styles

Prof. Briggs’s style for leading discussions is relatively Socratic: not just posing a question but posing a follow-on and then another. The objective is not to test your knowledge or recall so much as to sharpen your capacity to think critically about the course’s key themes, to recognize assumptions behind your arguments, and to help you learn how to learn systematically from cases (from specifics to general principles). This includes pushing you to consider what may be unwelcome implications of your first ideas (responses). It also means ensuring that you grasp the arguments in major planning readings, which is distinct from encouraging you to simply voice your opinion on an issue. We will do the latter, too, but we should recognize that these two things—opining vs. making arguments that address the assigned material—have distinct values in terms of your learning in the course.

Other faculty teach according to their own style, some following a much more lecture-driven mode with a straightforward Q&A (you, the student, ask the questions, and the lecturer answers as best s/he can, then the next student asks a question, and so on).

The Classroom: Friday Sections

These are designed to complement the main class meetings in several ways: proceeding at a pace that ensures comprehension regardless of how much background preparation, of a given type, you bring to the MCP program; giving you a chance to ask questions you might not ask in the main class meetings; and giving you a chance to build useful working relationships with a smaller group of classmates as well as your section instructor. All of this is crucial for learning effectively in a course that moves quickly, along a very multi-faceted agenda, with a large group of students who do not share a common reference point for planning’s roles or a common educational background pre-DUSP.

The Teaching Team

Prof. Briggs’s role is to design and manage Gateway and teach a variety of case sessions, including those that connect the distinct units of the course; he also designs and administers the exam and makes final decisions about assignments and grades. The other faculty members teach cases, designed to contribute to our course objectives, which draw on their special strengths and experience. Prof. Abbanat leads the writing diagnostic and offers feedback on drafts for the written assignments when approached by students. Three DUSP doctoral students support the course by leading review (recitation) sessions, grading and offering feedback on two of the written assignments under Prof. Briggs’s direction, and shaping the assignments and content of class meetings as well. Each of them is engaged in interesting, cutting-edge research (just ask them).

Course Materials

We will cover quite a range of ideas and historical developments that define planning—and at a relatively brisk pace. For most class sessions, you will read assigned material guided by specific study questions, though you are welcome to go beyond them. The questions, which also provide a guide to study group work, are linked to our central objectives for the case (or other discussion topic) at hand, which is linked in turn to the larger course focus on planning’s defining traditions and dilemmas. Most readings and all study questions will be in course readers available for purchase and also on reserve at Rotch Library. Because we like to take advantage of current events and customize discussions, the readers are not prepared all at once but edited until a few weeks ahead of your use.

The following required texts are available through the MIT bookstore, as well as online and other booksellers; several copies are also on library reserve at Rotch:

Campbell, Scott, and Susan Fainstein, eds. Readings in Planning Theory. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003. ISBN: 9780631223474.

Forester, John. Planning in the Face of Power. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989. ISBN: 9780520064133.

Susskind, Lawrence, and Jeffrey Cruikshank. Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1989. ISBN: 9780465007509.

Why These Books?

The first (“RPT”) is an important anthology of many key issues. It also makes a thoughtful case for how reflecting on planning theory improves planning practice. The second delves deep into planners’ everyday encounters with their publics and even the interpersonal dimensions of practicing in ways that are ethical and effective, whereas much commentary about planning remains broad, structural, and sometimes abstract too.

We will also use excerpts of these important books, which are on course reserve at Rotch, among others:

Friedmann, John. Planning in the Public Domain: From Knowledge to Action. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987. ISBN: 9780691022680.

Hartman, Chester, and Gregory Squires, eds. There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006. ISBN: 9780415954877.

Sanyal, Bishwapriya, ed. Comparative Planning Cultures. New York, NY: Routledge, 2005. ISBN: 9780415951357.

Scott, James. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN: 9780300078152.

These last four include, respectively: (a) a sweeping intellectual history of modern planning and what Friedmann calls its four main traditions (the book is dense in many places but a treasure trove if you’re interested in whose ideas influenced whom and around what seminal world events); (b) a range of critical analyses of post-Katrina recovery planning and politics, relevant to our team assignment; (c) an effort to ask, of contemporary planning, “are there shared cultures of planning or are very different societies on very different tracks, and if so, why?”; and (d) an incisive history, by a political anthropologist, focused on what rational modernist planning—and its “schemes”—set out to do, why, and with what results.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2007
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments