11.337J | Spring 2007 | Graduate

Urban Design Policy and Action


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session

Course Overview

What is the rationale for government involvement in urban design?

How does government intervene to affect the design of the urban realm?

How might it intervene?

Which interventions are best suited to which circumstances?

How do other, non-governmental actors get involved in and contribute to urban design policy?

Governments at every level assume a measure of responsibility for seeking good design. Some of that responsibility is exercised directly—through the design and construction of government buildings, for example. But most changes to our environments are neither designed nor built by governments. Rather, they are the result of the actions and investments of private individuals, institutions, corporations, joint ventures, or private/public collaborations. Yet, the actions of all of these actors are affected by the design policies of government and the interventions that are undertaken to implement those policies. In this advanced graduate-level seminar we will explore new ways of thinking about urban design policy in an attempt to better understand just what government does—and what it can do effectively—in the realm of design policy.

Our exploration will be structured in two parts. In Part I we will seek to develop the elements of a theory of government intervention vis-à-vis design. We will begin by thinking about just what an urban design policy is and why government intervention is appropriate to pursue such a policy. Then we will turn to a consideration of the generic modes of government intervention and how they are, or might be, used to affect the quality of urban design.

We will argue that, despite a proliferation of government programs addressing design issues, there are only five different generic modes of government intervention. If one can map the underlying properties of these modes of intervention, one can get considerable leverage on the appropriate use of government intervention to affect design. This portion of the course relies heavily on the “Tools of Government” literature, and we will draw broadly on that literature as well as on related materials linked more specifically to urban design. (A list of the main texts in this literature is offered as an appendix in the Readings section.)

Part II will be loosely structured around two case studies plus a field trip through which we will be able to explore these themes in more depth.

In addition to the normal class sessions, I have scheduled a required field trip to one of the regular monthly meetings of the Boston Civic Design Commission. Each year my students find their visit to the BCDC fascinating and eye-opening.

The primary text is the following:

Schuster, J. Mark, John de Monchaux, and Charles Riley II, eds. Preserving the Built Heritage: Tools for Implementation. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997. ISBN: 9780874518313.

All required readings beyond the textbook are noted in the Readings section.

Each student is required to do the readings, participate in classroom discussions, attend a Boston Civic Design Commission meeting, and write two papers, one a short paper of approximately 5 pages in length and the other a longer paper of 20 pages in length. You may choose to have either Paper #1 or Paper #2 count as your longer paper.

Over the years we have accumulated a collection of readings that we have used for this course. I cannot possibly assign them all, although you would find value in each one. In order not to lose track of earlier readings that have rotated out of the syllabus, I continue to list them as supplementary readings. These citations are provided for those of you who may wish to begin your own inquiries into any of the topics raised in the course. In the Appendix I have also included lists of references pertaining to several topics, some of which are still contained within the structure of the course and others of which have been rotated out of the course.

A considerable number of student theses have grown out of the material in this course. This year I have included references to a number of these theses as examples in the syllabus. Indeed, a number of students who are currently writing their theses will be working within the tools of government framework explored in this course.


Participation in classroom discussions 30%
Attendance at a Boston Civic Design Commission meeting 10%
Shorter of two papers 20%
Longer of two papers 40%


These ways of thinking are, to a large degree, generic; they might be applied to any policy area. Thus, even though this course is offered in the City Design and Development curriculum, students from other groups within the Department of Urban Studies and Planning or even from other departments have found the material of interest. The papers can easily be adapted for students with other applied policy interests.