Yesterday I had the fun privilege of being one of the guest reviewers for the first studio presentation by Urban Planning students in the GSD’s summer Career Discovery program. It was really inspiring, watching students new to the discipline — and coming from diverse educational and personal backgrounds — discovering and struggling through some of the fundamental questions of planning. Who decides? What is a good place? Who are places for? Do cars bring activity or deaden it? How do places change and improve, and can you plan for organic transformation? Does a neighborhood need a uniform brand, an identifiable character?
But there were some other themes and questions that developed over the day that were new to me, or were expressed in new ways. They were very interested in pace — the pace at which we move through the city, and what it takes to interrupt our frantic pace to introduce lingering, stopping. They also engaged time through questions of temporality and permanence, of incremental steps versus big gestures. And perhaps most interestingly, many of them engaged multiple ground planes, considering verticality — what would happen if we put a park underground? why can’t there be an observatory tower? — in a way that I found very refreshing in our world of ground-floor retail obsession. We discussed alternative conceptions of public space as a result, pushing ourselves as a group to consider possibilities beyond a green park on the street level, and how to introduce whimsy into a city environment in a way that’s effective and engaging. Some students also introduced the possibility of a “city as lab” approach to redevelopment, using comment cards, hands-on university curricula, and other tools to introduce agenda-setting and incremental processes beyond community meetings. Sometimes these proposals were inchoate, their potential only fleshed out through the review process, but that’s the point.
These projects were instructive not only for their content but also for what they did not focus on. Their studio project focused on Downtown Crossing, the only Business Improvement District in the city of Boston, and their proposals almost universally focused on consumption or leisure. In a district home to over 150 jewelers, for example, no one produced a project that engaged jewelry making, artisan production, or economic development beyond shopping and dining. Why? What can we learn about the intuitive components of city experience from this?
Another lovely thing that came up was the relationship between research and proposals — that planners need to develop an intuitive understanding of a place before they plan interventions. Their tentativeness, their unwillingness to propose things that weren’t appropriate, that betrayed their ignorance not just of the field but of the site, was an important reminder about the benefits of humility in a field that essentially involves changing how and where others live. I was reminded as we proceeded through the day about the concept of beginner’s mind, which seems to come up for me a lot (most recently in Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book Imagine) — unencumbered by the expectations of doctrinaire disciplinary thinking, these students had the possibility of introducing new ideas into the site that might never be explored. An aviary, an amphitheatre, a first-class lounge waiting area for the subway where people can meet at the center of the city and take in concerts and exhibitions…why not? Exactly. Whyever not?