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The new challenges for urban planners

In MIT talk, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan emphasizes the need for creative urbanism in a time of economic strain.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan
Photo: Judy Daniels

In a talk at MIT on Tuesday, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan called for a new wave of creative urban planning to help cities evolve during a time of economic hardship.

“The role of the urban planner today is more important than it was 25 or 50 or 80 years ago,” Donovan said.

In his remarks, Donovan outlined his reasons for this claim, citing our era’s fiscal troubles, political pressures and environmental changes. For one thing, he suggested, the tight finances of recent years could well extend indefinitely into the future, meaning that planners and designers may often have to accomplish more with less.

“How do we plan in an age of austerity?” Donovan asked. At bottom, he suggested, planners will have to make especially sharp appraisals of the long-term value of their work.

In Boston, he said, the “Big Dig” — a massive infrastructure project that depressed 3.5 miles of Interstate 93 in a downtown tunnel — has “created great value.” Still, he asked, “How many of us believe that in today’s political environment, the funding for the Big Dig could have been raised through traditional means? So the way we think about funding this kind of investment is an enormous challenge.”

Moreover, the relentless short-term pressure of an accelerated news cycle and its effects on politics, Donovan suggested, might become an increasing impediment to the process of long-term policymaking.

“It worries me that we’re living in a world where planning itself is becoming an anachronism,” Donovan said.

‘Great places’ in cities attract people and business

In his remarks, Donovan emphasized that at a time when the number of U.S.-based manufacturing jobs has decreased, urban planning has to address “postindustrial” development as well. Cities that relied on proximity to natural resources, for instance, have to evolve to attract the “human capital” necessary to create thriving new forms of commerce.

“The cities that can create and maintain diverse, dynamic neighborhoods, [and] can make great places, in turn draw in companies, services and investments,” Donovan said.

In this vein, Donovan quoted the author Rebecca Solnit on the intrinsic value of appealing urban areas, saying, “‘In great cities, spaces as well as places are designed and built. Walking, witnessing, being in public are as much part of the design and purpose as is being inside to eat, sleep. … The word ‘citizen’ has to do with cities, and the ideal city is organized around citizenship, around participation in public life.’”

Donovan specifically heralded the Boston area as one place that has been able to accommodate older and newer forms of industry.

“Even as one of America’s oldest cities, Boston stands at the forefront of design and planning, a hub of change and growth, a city that is embracing 21st-century industries,” Donovan said. By contrast, he added, “Places like Detroit, St. Louis and Youngstown remind us that we all have plenty of work ahead of us.”

Planning for climate change

Donovan was introduced by both Xavier de Souza Briggs, an associate professor of sociology and urban planning, and by MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who noted the potential threats cities face from climate change.

Pointing out that much of Cambridge is only about 40 feet above sea level, Reif observed that rising seas would likely present a critical challenge in the future, and that there was “much more than just academic interest in finding ways to prepare and respond.”

Donovan discussed that issue in his remarks, observing that the 12 hottest years on record have all occurred in the last 15 years. He said that since last October’s Hurricane Sandy, which did considerable damage to parts of the East Coast, HUD has worked on a series of measures to help intensify long-term planning efforts nationwide.

“In some ways, the greatest challenge that we face is not how will these communities think about climate change while the memories of Sandy are still fresh, but how we ingrain the issue of climate change into the day-to-day planning that is done, not for the next year or the next decade, but for decades beyond that,” Donovan said. 

At the start of his talk, Donovan noted that his parents met at MIT — where his father was a student and his mother was an employee — and joked, “I owe my life to MIT.”

He also extended sympathies to the Institute community for the recent death of Officer Sean Collier, who was killed on campus in April.

“I want to extend my deep sorrow and condolences to the MIT community, which experienced its own very personal loss with the killing of Sean Collier,” Donovan said.

Donovan’s talk at MIT was presented by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, part of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning.

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