11.302J | Spring 2010 | Graduate

Urban Design Politics


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


MIT students are required to get the permission of the instructor to enroll in this course.

Course Description

This is a seminar about the ways that urban design contributes to the distribution of political power and resources in cities. “Design,” in this view, is not some value-neutral aesthetic applied to efforts at urban development but is, instead, an integral part of the motives driving that development. Though many urban designers and architects often seem to regard “good design” as somehow independent from social and political factors affecting its production and use, design efforts are influenced by politics in at least two important ways. First, urban design proposals may be subject to challenge by a variety of groups during the planning process. Second, political values, whether tacit or explicit, are encoded in the resultant designs.

The class investigates the nature of the relations between built form and political purposes through close examination of a wide variety of situations where public and private sector design commissions and planning processes have been clearly motivated by political pressures, as well as situations where the political assumptions have remained more tacit. We will explore cases from both developed and developing countries.

Applying insights from architects, planners, political scientists, historians, anthropologists, and philosophers, we will analyze urban design from a variety of perspectives, including gender-based and class-based critiques. Cases discussed will include extreme examples of politically charged environments: Hitler’s megalomaniacal plan for Berlin, Mussolini’s interventions in and around Rome, as well as designs for new capital cities around the world (Washington, DC, New Delhi, Canberra, Brasília, etc.). We will then explore less extreme settings for urban design politics closer to home, by focusing on the origins and redevelopment of American public housing. Finally, the class will conclude with a session exploring the design politics of “urban resilience”: the attempt to rebuild (socially, politically, urbanistically) following sudden disasters.

Format and Requirements

The format of the class will be part slide lecture, part discussion. Participants will be responsible for four things:

  1. Completion of readings in advance of each class;
  2. Involvement in seminar discussions, including at least one short presentation;
  3. A short paper that uses selected readings to extract the “design politics” of a place or project;
  4. A term paper on a topic analyzing both the design and political history of an urban design intervention, to be presented during the final sessions of the class.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2010
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples