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11.S955 – CoLab-orative Methods for Planning with Communities

IAP 2012 Course, MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning

Course photo
Yasuhiro Matsui (MIT Sloan Fellow '12) shares a story with classmates during a Critical Moments reflection session. Photo by Amy Stitely.

The goal of this three-day intensive workshop was to introduce students to different methodologies and approaches for effectively engaging communities in participatory planning processes. The theory behind the workshop is that marginalized voices are important, and as planners we need to be able to engage them in the decision-making process. Through hands-on exercises, students were exposed to community media, participatory visioning, and reflective practice and had the opportunity to reflect on how they could use them when working in the field.

On the first day, students learned the elements of a compelling personal narrative. The group read ten short stories written or spoken by people who have had had personal experiences that relate to larger policy issues. In one essay, for example, a woman described the changes she faced when the public housing authority decided to demolish her building. Students voted on three stories to discuss with the group. After class, students had the option to write their own personal narrative, or to find a similar piece of media and examine it. Several of the students published their work on CoLab Radio.

The second day was aimed at providing students with the opportunity to participate in a community-engagement visioning workshop, in order to learn how to conduct and facilitate such a workshop in the future. Patricia Molina Costa guided the students through the European Awareness Scenario Workshop (EASW) methodology, a structured discussion that allows for a diverse group of people to develop a joint vision of the future for a certain problem or area. In order to allow for students to be real participants, we used an area that they are all familiar with—Central Square, Cambridge, which is actually undergoing a participatory planning process— as the case for the workshop. At the end, we discussed briefly about the methodology itself, and reflected about its design and in which situations it could be used.

Course photo
Students present the positive and negative visions during the EASW workshop. Photo by Patricia Molina Costa.

The last day, Amy Stitely and Ceasar McDowell introduced students to the idea of reflective community practice. On an individual level, reflective practice is a vehicle for improving one's process of learning-by-doing. However, on a community level, reflective practice is a way to help groups to uncover collective knowledge about a place, system, issue, or question. In class, Professor McDowell demonstrated how a planner can act as a mirror to a community. By modeling the Critical Moments Methodology, he showed students how they could answer their own key questions through structured reflection and personal storytelling. At the end of class, we looked at an initiative called Engage the Power which uses the question as a tool for building inclusive conversations.

The students that attended the workshop brought in a great diversity of backgrounds and expertise, which generated deep discussions about important issues. For instance, the questions of the distribution of power, the role of the planner, the search for neutrality or the advocacy mission of the profession arose during the three sessions. On the whole, the class was successful in that it engaged a diverse group of students in a constructive analysis of what it really means to be an "inclusive planner." In their evaluations, students appreciated the opportunity to connect with CoLab staff and work. We also noticed that the students who had the least experience in designing participatory processes got the most from the class, and one student suggested that we should be advertising this class across all of MIT and not just the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

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