11.949 | Spring 2004 | Graduate

City Visions: Past and Future


Prof. Diane Davis has written a special introduction to the course for users of MIT OpenCourseWare.

Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


This class is intended to introduce students to understandings of the city generated from both social science literature and the field of urban design. The first part of the course examines literature on the history and theory of the city. Among other factors, it pays special attention to the larger territorial settings in which cities emerged and developed (ranging from the global to the national to the regional context) and how these affected the nature, character, and functioning of cities and the lives of their inhabitants. The remaining weeks focus more explicitly on the theory and practice of design visions for the city, the latter in both utopian and realized form. One of our aims will be to assess the conditions under which a variety of design visions were conceived, and to assess them in terms of the varying patterns of territorial “nestedness” (local, regional, national, imperial, and global) examined in the first part of the course. Another will be to encourage students to think about the future prospects of cities (in terms of territorial context or other political functions and social aims) and to offer design visions that might reflect these new dynamics. Requirements: one mid-term essay and a final paper.

This course, which meets every Wednesday, will run in conjunction with a Monday night lecture series titled Cities Against Nationalism: Urbanism as Visionary Politics, mounted as part of the Jerusalem 2050: Vision for a Place of Peace project. Students will be expected to attend the Monday lecture as well as the weekly class meeting on Wednesday.

Introduction to The OpenCourseWare Audience By Diane E. Davis

We are both excited and pleased to welcome you to a very unique course, the first of its kind to be mounted in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, and one that is offered to the general public simultaneously, through OpenCourseWare. As many of you know, MIT is an institution whose motto is “mind and hand,” a phrase which reflects this institution’s commitment to scholarship and deep knowledge, on the one hand, and problem-solving on the other. This particular course builds on the spirit embodied in the MIT motto but concerns itself with cities, not just how to better know and understand them, but also how to envision and make them better places for people to live in.

The title City Visions: Past and Present is intended to convey the fact that in this course we see cities as reflecting or embodying certain visions - often those of the actors, institutions, and power structures responsible for building and managing them, but also of those who seek to change them. Thus we discuss a range of city visions - from those that embody national power (capital cities) to those that offer the promise of a better future (urban utopias). The title of the course is also is intended to call attention to the fact that cities, and the visions they embody, have a historical dimension. That is, they change over time, especially as new or competing visions of what they could or should become appear on the scene. Yet even as they change, the paths taken are molded as much by a city’s built environmental past as by the future visions generated by historically unique, new constellation of actors, institutions, and power structures. Last, and in keeping with the problem-solving ethos that streams through this initiative, the course is intended to remind all of us that the mere act of “visioning” a city, especially to be something other than what it currently is, can itself be a key step leading towards fundamental change in existent actors, institutions, and power structures and thus urban quality of life.

We were initially motivated to ponder all these issues with a specific location in mind, Al Quds/Jerusalem. We worked under the assumption that this was a city that perhaps needed a new vision; or, at minimum, that this was a city that needed to be liberated from the seemingly intractable, competing visions that were bringing so much violence and conflict to its residents. Our scholarly commitments, however, also forced us to think generally, and not just specifically - that is, about a wide variety of cities wracked by ethnic, religious, and nationalist conflict, and not just the single case of Al Quds/ Jerusalem. While clearly the unique history and politics of the latter locale makes it unlike almost any other known to humankind, we still believe that that there is great value in thinking about conflicted cities more generally, and then using this more analytical knowledge as a starting point for thinking about and solving problems in the unique case of Al Quds/ Jerusalem.

The overall course is comprised of four discrete parts that are available to you via OpenCourseWare and that, when reflected on both separately and together, will hopefully inspire new ways of thinking about cities in conflict and the visions that might be constructed to make them more peaceful, tolerant, and still vibrant places to live. The main elements of the course are:

  1. The City Visions course syllabus
  2. Taped weekly lectures, presented by guest speakers invited to participate in a lecture series titled Cities Against Nationalism
  3. Taped discussions of question and answer sessions following the weekly seminar presentations and a commentary by a specialist knowledgeable of Al Quds/Jerusalem; and
  4. Final student papers written for the course

Several additional things are worth noting.

First, with respect to the City Visions course syllabus: weekly readings are intended to be read and pondered in conjunction with the presentation offered by the invited speaker for that same week. Also, included in the section of the course are a list of readings that were assigned for a previously-offered seminar, titled Cities in Conflict. To get the most out of this course, those background readings should also be examined. Their direct relevance to the course resides in the fact that it was through discussion and deliberation of those readings that the analytical justification for Cities Against Nationalism seminar emerged. One conclusion to be drawn from those readings is that cities where the nation-state asserts its presence, thereby “nationalizing” what might have remained purely local tensions or disagreements between different groups (defined by ethnicity, race, religion, etc.), are most likely to devolve into violent conflict.

Second, and building on the insight noted above, the Cities Against Nationalism speaker series is intended as offering a new way of thinking about relations between cities and nations (or nationalism), the conditions under which these relations are established, transformed, and or transcended, and what this might mean for understanding urban conflict. None of the speakers were asked to address the situation of Jerusalem specifically; that role was reserved for the weekly commentator.

Third, final papers posted for this course show the variety of themes and ideas that can be generated by either an interest in city visions, urban conflicts, Al Quds/Jerusalem, or a combination of the three. It is our hope that consumers of OpenCourseWare would continue to produce dialogue and discussion about these themes and other relevant paper topics or research projects related to the larger aims of the course.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2004
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Videos
Written Assignments with Examples