On February 3rd, CoLab hosted a unique experience at DUSP – a dialogue designed to tease out not only the who and why of urban planning practice, but also a balanced how. Under the umbrella of reviewing the history, execution and future of action research, the packed room of faculty, students, alumni, Mel King community fellows and other friends from the community brought both a wealth of experience and opinions to the table. In a lively conversation, participants unpacked the idea of action research as a practice rooted in the grassroots reality of our cities.
Like the curriculum of most of courses, the dialogue started with defining the terms and the context, then considered the most effective and appropriate starting point to act. Larry Susskind described the origins of action research in DUSP as a moment of students coming forward and saying,
“I want to DO something.”
Beyond the limited client-centered relationships in studios, fieldwork, and funded faculty research projects, students longed for more complex dives into neighborhood challenges. Susskind and other faculty, including Tunney Lee and Ceasar McDowell, described the early days after the 1960’s when the flow of knowledge became multi-directional through visiting community fellows, and the work became more focused through Donald Schon’s brand of reflective practice.
The discussion revealed that no single definition of action research is universally accepted or understood. Some of this tension was rooted in the value of expertise or scientific method versus the ‘gut’ instincts planners need in a constantly evolving communities. Early on, Susskind asserted that despite our history of encouraging action research, the department is “still vague on a theory of how you learn from your own experience, your practice, your engagement. Faculty Alice Amsden later defined effective action research through the “re” of tested replicability, while professor Phil Thompson countered that no community meeting is ever like the last, and insight and analytical skills learned through action are more salient than replication. Both Masters in City Planning student Marianna Leavy-Sperounis and DUSP department head Amy Glasmeier pointed out that action research didn’t need to be either action or research, but wondered where we could find balance between both academic and practical value in these pursuits.
One point of consensus centered around action research as one valuable tool in a planning student’s arsenal, a unique tool rooted in real-time experiences within a long-term relationships between the academy and a community. McDowell advised that this tool should build from lessons learned through collective problem-solving, and be couched in long-term engagement with specific neighborhoods, like Springfield. Dennis Frenchman agreed that staying in one place, like his work in China, creates an efficiency that negates the “enormous amounts of energy to do this work.” Bill Traynor, of Lawrence Community Works, cited the ease of bringing Lawrence’s first Dominican mayor to MIT to tap MIT@Lawrence’s years of collective reflection:
“It’s about access to body of knowledge, but also access to a process where that body of knowledge is constantly refreshed.”
In the end, several students called for the department to return to MIT’s community serving roots as a land grant university by improving its articulation of action research as a methodology. Building on the department’s rich history, students could now use action research as a tool to focus on, as Masters in City Planning student Bernadette Virginia Baird-Zars described, ‘middle lessons’ that help us move beyond doubt to confidence. In fact, student Eric Mackres suggested that we focus more forward than backward:
“We need the ability to anticipate the future, to do ‘pre-search’…[we need to learn] how you approach communities with humility and develop confidence to propose solutions.”
For more details on this event, complete with suggested readings on several of the themes, check out these notes from PhD student Annis Whitlow Sengupta. Also, check out reflections and the syllabus from CoLab’s recent IAP course.
Whether you were able to attend this great event or not, what do you think? We encourage you to keep the lively conversation going here by posting your comments and reflections below.