4.253J / 11.302J
Urban Design Politics

Permission of instructor

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 and designs for new capital cities around the world (Washington, D.C., 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 sessions exploring the design-politics of urban security and “urban resilience” — the attempt to rebuild (socially, politically, urbanistically) following sudden disasters.