MIT’s Advanced Urbanism

“Here at MIT, we have the infinite flexibility to innovate,” said MIT landscape architecture professor Alan Berger, in a tour of the new Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU), an ambitious program that seeks real-world impact. Berger said the role of the new CAU, which includes 27 different planning, landscape architecture, architecture, and engineering professors from five different MIT schools, would be to challenge existing notions about urban development through research into what’s actually happening.

At MIT, almost every faculty has a lab. Some of those labs form together into centers. The goal of the centers is to get students and professors to share research, to force “everyone to find out what’s behind all those closed doors.” As such, each project the new CAU will take on will be a “full-blown collaboration between disciplines.”

Berger and architecture professor Alexander D’Hooge co-direct the CAU, rooting it in a set of clear principles. First, the projects the center will take on must have real-world sponsors and aim for real-world impacts. Second, each project will be collaborative from the get-go, with a mix of architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, and planning professors. “Everyone brings equal knowledge.” He even said one assistant director’s role will be to simply ensure that true collaboration happens between the disciplines, and “no one is a sub-contractor.” Berger said that’s needed because collaborating on research is “really hard, time consuming, and socially complicated.” (Berger is one of four research-focused professors of landscape architecture at MIT, a school that interestingly doesn’t offer any landscape architecture degrees, but is rightly famous for their world-class planning school.)

One of CAU’s first projects is a collaboration with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Clinton Global Initiative, on Health + Urbanism. Out of 40 cities first examined, some eight cities were further evaluated and then three cities finally selected to work with the center. The goal, said Berger, is to identify “real players” in each city, a local constituency that “can construct a new infrastructure that will change the health situation.” Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta, cities all facing exploding growth — and sprawl — are the cities moving to the next stage. Over the next decade, the CAU hopes to transform one of these cities, and their residents’ health performance.

What worries CAU and AIA is a “new wave of suburban explosion is coming.” He said already 67 percent of Americans aren’t lucky enough to live in that ideal “live, work, play” environment. Many people also chose suburbs because “there are better services, these places are closer to jobs, and they get a better deal, a bigger home.” Berger argued that the data shows “suburbs will continue to be a huge growth area, and no one is ready for this.”

Unfortunately, Berger sees this as inevitable because “too many cities don’t have land use controls.” While New York City, Seattle, and other cities have “hard controls, some 60 percent of cities don’t.” And the truth may be many people actually “want suburban development.”

As an example, he pointed to trends he and other researchers at MIT have examined in Chicago and its burbs. Between now and 2040, population growth within Chicago’s core will be 14 percent, and employment will increase 18 percent. However, within the broader Kendall county suburbs, population growth is expected to be 81 percent and employment growth, a whopping 173 percent.

He said a clear understanding of these kinds of future growth trends is crucial “if we are going to redirect landscape architects to places of urgency.” He sees his mission as “informing our discipline and enlisting practitioners” to focus on the real problems coming.

In the case of Atlanta, where he sees suburban growth exploding as well, he largely views the new, multi-billion-dollar Atlanta Beltline initiative as a misguided effort. “You have to look at where the jobs are being created, they are all out in the suburbs.” The Beltline, he fears, will do nothing to stop those trends. While the Beltline may provide a great way to walk or bike in Atlanta, Berger says the real health problems aren’t in that part of the city.

Furthermore, his research argues that “suburban development doesn’t cause obesity,” but that “more obese people chose to live in car-centric suburbs.” He said “we have to be careful about causality” when looking at large amounts of data. He added that there is a dearth of data on obesity, as hospitals don’t collect and report that information. In fact, data on diabetes is often used as an indicator of obesity. He also poked holes in recent data on obesity rates in New York City, saying that was collected through faulty “voluntary questionnaires.”

Berger questioned the whole notion as to whether cities are really healthier environments than suburbs, countering the messages promoted by so many public health and design organizations. He said “there are no silver bullets, each place has their own health context.” As an example, he pointed to one new “live, work, play” development put up next to a major interstate in Los Angeles, in an area with some of the worst air in America. While Los Angeles is trying to do right, the city planners and developers, in effect, made the health outcomes of the people living in that community even worse. “That’s what I mean by the fact that we need to find about the real issues and then design changes.” He said “we have to uncover those problems and then solve them.”

While AIA may have sponsored the report, Berger sees the focus on their new research, which has taken the form of a new report, Health + Urbanism, as fundamentally a problem for landscape architects. He said “evaluating problems at the broad scale of cities and their suburbs — and then finding solutions — is truly an Olmstedian undertaking.”

Image credit: Chicago sprawl / Urban research blog

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