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Freshmen to learn New Orleans' lessons

New architecture and planning course explores 'cities at risk'
The Ninth Ward in New Orleans in mid-September, 2005. MIT freshmen will use the city as a case study for a new course on "cities at risk."
The Ninth Ward in New Orleans in mid-September, 2005. MIT freshmen will use the city as a case study for a new course on "cities at risk."
Photo / Marvin Nauman - FEMA

New Orleans will be used as a case study this year to teach MIT freshmen the complex dynamics of "cities at risk" -- cities that have faced destruction on a scale so huge that it calls into question their very survival.

With the city as its laboratory, the spring course offered by the School of Architecture and Planning will encourage students to use physical design, social policy, engineering, technology and other innovation strategies and tools to assess and solve the city's problems.

An alarming number of cities are currently at risk -- Detroit, St. Louis, Mexico City, Johannesburg, South Africa, and San Diego, for example -- whether their problems result from such natural disasters as hurricanes or from man-made disasters, such as urban renewal failures. In the years to come, the new course, called CityScope, will focus on many of them.

New Orleans was chosen as this year's focus because of the continuing urgency of the city's problems and because of the breadth and depth of MIT's efforts there already.

Designed to get students excited about cities and the complex challenges they pose, CityScope also aims to expose freshmen to a wide range of computation, calculation and analytic techniques for identifying key urban problems -- techniques such as spatial data analysis, census analysis, econometric modeling, cost-benefit analysis and survey research.

Central to the challenge is the fact that cities are complex domains with a wide variety of stakeholders; there is often little consensus on what issues should be addressed first, and why. Students will be asked to take a reasoned position on which urban problem they think should get priority attention, and they will be exposed to the tools they might need to convince their classmates and the public of their position.

All these goals will be accomplished through teamwork, as groups of five students work together during problem-solving modules and final presentations.

The course will begin with a two-week trip to New Orleans in January, during which students will be exposed to the political and environmental history of the place and its physical, economic and social characteristics.

Over the course of the semester, student teams will work to understand the city and its challenges from the smallest scale (individual connectivity) to the largest (the role of the city in a regional or national economy).

The course will end with a competition in which the teams present their strategies for improving the quality of life in New Orleans. A winning entry will be selected by a jury of MIT faculty and selected visitors from New Orleans.

CityScope will be directed by three core faculty members, each representing a different perspective in the School of Architecture and Planning -- architecture, urban studies and planning, and media studies. Faculty from other MIT divisions will also be invited as presenters or jurists, and Professor Diane Davis, associate dean of the school, will provide course continuity over the years by working with each year's faculty to fine-tune assignments.

This spring, Phillip Thompson, associate professor of urban studies and planning, and John Fernandez, associate professor of architecture, will be the primary instructors for CityScope.

Funding for the course comes from the d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education.

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