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Teaching Urban Planning and Public Policy: Developing a "City as Classroom" Model at Two New England Colleges

By Steven Corey and Mark Motte

Emerging trends in teaching urban geography, city planning, and public policy studies resonate with calls from think tanks, research associations, and most recently the Carnegie Foundation, for undergraduate education to be "reinvented" as interdisciplinary, inquiry-based, and experiential. This paper outlines a model that offers some success with inquiry-based learning strategies in the geography program at Rhode Island College and the urban studies program at Worcester State College. In grappling with the knotty problems of contemporary urban development/redevelopment policies in Providence and Worcester (downtown revitalization, infrastructure improvements, retail/commercial strategies, industrial restructuring, shifting labor markets, neighborhood planning, housing development, etc.), our students have demonstrated that work in the field--when closely supervised by professors and reinforced with well-targeted reading and case studies--is a productive and rewarding way for undergraduates to understand the dynamics of urban change.


Both Providence, Rhode Island and Worcester, Massachusetts have recently experienced dramatic transformations in their once decaying urban infrastructures. These changes promise to fundamentally alter each city's overall quality of life, public image, and economic vitality. American institutions of higher education face equally significant calls for change from the public, especially in curriculum revision and new approaches to traditional classroom instruction. Urban geography and urban studies programs are particularly susceptible to calls from college administrators and state and local policy makers to become "relevant" to the needs of the communities in which they are located. Many higher education institutions develop mission statements that include direct service to the wider community, but few institutionalize programs that actively deliver such programs. Students (and their families) also increasingly demand that programs with a focus on public policy topics deliver experiences that provide concrete skills relevant to the world of work.

This article offers suggestions for colleagues in urban geography, urban studies, urban sociology, urban economics, and undergraduate urban planning/policy departments for incorporating recent calls for inquiry-based learning into their curricula. From our own recent collaborative successes in having students analyze urban renewal projects first hand, we report on a series of strategies with which students do the following:

    conduct research in a professional mode, as though they were members of an applied public policy research project or professional consulting team; make connections between theories, policies, and social outcomes, connections that are too often obscured by traditional classroom-bound pedagogy, textbooks, and the boundaries between disciplines; find that local built environments are convenient laboratories in which to test learned and intuited ideas about how and why cities develop in certain ways; acquire critical thinking skills by analyzing real urban problems and outlining workable real-world solutions; learn sustainable skills as members of focused teams who must cooperate on every stage of the research process, from defining problems to developing policy recommendations; and plan a conference with their peers from a sister institution to share results and to debate workable solutions to the problems they have defined and studied.
Active, Inquiry-Based Learning and Collaboration

The use of case studies in the urban geography and urban studies literature has a long, rich, and still-growing history. Particularly since the mid-1980s, with pioneering works on the post-war redevelopment of cities by Fainstein et al on New Haven and San Francisco (1986), Stone and Sanders on New Orleans and Kansas City (1987), David Harvey on Baltimore and New York (1986, 2001), researchers have examined the social, political, and economic forces that shape and reshape cities, their central business districts (CBD's), and neighborhoods. Increasingly, that literature takes a comparative form (see, for example, Pagano and Bowman 1995).

During the 1990s and the first few years of the 21st Century, a growing number of scholars have focused on the cities and neighborhoods where they live and work. Of his home town, Larry Bennett explains, "I am a resident of Uptown [Chicago] and have taken a professional interest in studying the neighborhood, its organizations, and its conflicts for about five years... As an urban studies specialist [I have developed] a particular interest in neighborhood issues and grassroots politics" (Bennett 1997:5). Academics in the field of urban geography have started to look closer to home for more intimate portrayals of urban dynamics and good policy. Why not, we thought, try the same approach with our students in New England?

Certainly we have found little in the literature on Providence, Rhode Island and Worcester, Massachusetts. Urban analysis in the northeast has focused on Boston and New York. We reasoned that our students could test some of what they had read in case studies of other cities by tackling the "big questions" of urban change for themselves, in their own cities. We ask them to read a great deal before we unleash them into the field. But we have found over ten consecutive semesters (Fall 1997 - Spring 2002) that, if we prepare our students well in the first few weeks of class with carefully targeted readings, not only do our students become increasingly motivated by their new-found ability to go out and ask questions for themselves, but that the caliber of the work they produce improves markedly. (Upon reflection, we would not have persisted with this learning paradigm beyond one semester had we been confronted by failure.)

In researching our approach to experiential learning in Providence and Worcester, we found useful models in an emerging literature that is becoming known as inquiry-based learning. (See, for example, Gardiner 1998). In a report entitled Reinventing Undergraduate Education, the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (1998), sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, makes a strong case that too often undergraduates are shortchanged as "passive learners." The Commission's survey of colleges and universities reveals that undergraduate students only rarely have the opportunity to collect and observe primary data or tackle research questions for themselves. The Boyer Commission argues that an academic bill of rights is needed to ensure that undergraduates receive,

...opportunities to learn through inquiry rather than simple transmission of knowledge, training in the skills necessary for oral and written communication... options among fields of study and direction to move within those fields.... [and] opportunities to interact with people of backgrounds, cultures, and experiences different from the student's own (1998:12-13).

Specifically, the Boyer report calls for the following:

    more research-based learning for all students; the discovery of knowledge derived from close faculty mentoring and advisement; active learning through collaborative projects among teams of students; the breaking of disciplinary molds so that students can address research questions from inter-disciplinary standpoints; the linking of expert communications skills with all aspects of course work; a revised merit system to reward faculty for innovative pedagogical strategies that prove successful with students; and the cultivation of a greater sense of community on college campuses, so that students feel that they are integral and contributing components of the learning environment.

We have infused many of the Boyer Commission's major themes into our course designs and syllabi proposals, and have further developed the Commission's core ideas by moving to an inter-institutional scale to experiment with inter-city implementation. Our students, therefore, have the bonus of studying case studies in two locales, Providence and Worcester. Two locales enable us to illuminate the similarities and differences between our two cities and to begin to explore historical, political, cultural, sociological and economic reasons for those differences. By building direct experiences of the city-building process into our course structure, our model attempts to elicit what Gardiner (1998) calls "excitement and wonder in the classroom."

Overcoming Traditional Barriers: The Institutional And Discipline-Based Contexts

Given our institutional settings, departmental foci, and professional interests, an active learning model makes sense for three reasons. First is the opportunity to breathe life into often abstract and even potentially dry material (in our case urban policy and planning.) Despite the benefit of studying interdisciplinary fields (or perhaps because of this fact), geography and urban studies students often find it difficult to make connections between text books and the day-to-day realities of modem metropolitan life.

Second, we take advantage of several ongoing (and some recently completed) urban renewal projects a short distance from our campuses. Providence has seen the wholesale so-called "Renaissance" of its central core, while Worcester has witnessed the development of "Medical City" adjacent to its "old" downtown. Even more fortunate are the many parallels that exist between the redevelopment efforts in two cities with similar histories and populations. They are located less than one hour from each other by an interstate highway and are situated at either end of the historic Blackstone River Valley's National Heritage Corridor. As such, a collaborative approach seemed rational and mutually beneficial.

Third, an active learning model allows us to transcend the dominant instructional paradigms at our respective schools. In many respects, Rhode Island College and Worcester State College share a common heritage. Both were founded as state "normal schools" in the 19th century and have evolved into comprehensive, baccalaureate-plus commuter colleges. Most of our students are the first generation in their families to attend college and are drawn from an educational background identical to that described by Gardiner:

They view the world in rigid categories of black-white, right-wrong, and good-bad, and their knowledge is passively received from "Authorities"... In other words, they do not understand critical thinking processes (Gardiner 1998:73).

For a variety of factors all too common at today's colleges, the average student has little opportunity to challenge this traditional educational culture, given the competing demands of employment, family, and often excessive course/credit loads. Professors also find it difficult to overcome an all too prevalent dependence upon passive instruction, given limited institutional resources and the demands on our own time and energy to participate in governance, community service, research, and, above all, the high number of courses to be taught. (For example, the faculty loads at Rhode Island College and Worcester State College typically include 12 credits, translating to three or four courses per semester.)

After many discussions during the spring of 1997 on the similarities between our colleges and their host communities, we decided to collaborate on a series of joint student events. In the fall of 1997 we began the first of what have become regular semester meetings of geography and urban studies majors from our two schools. To facilitate inquiry-based learning, we supplemented our weekly classroom meetings and reading assignments with a series of projects designed to give students direct experience with an active research process. Throughout the semester we acted as mentors and guided students through the steps we ourselves would undertake to study the forces driving urban renewal.

At the start of the fall 1997 semester we agreed to divide our classes into six teams (each school had an identical set of teams), each of which would study an aspect of downtown redevelopment in their cities. In addition to regular weekly class sessions, each team would meet on its own and divide up research process elements that together would form case study reports on contemporary urban problems and their possible solutions.

Students from both schools met as a whole three times during the semester, twice for guided tours of each city's downtown and surrounding neighborhoods and a third time at an undergraduate conference during which students presented the results of their research projects and fielded questions from their peers.

Students also traveled to visit their peers in the sister cities at intervals throughout the semester to share information and to plan the final conference. We appropriately entitled this first conference, "A Tale of Two Cities: Urban Renewal in Providence and Worcester," and invited the public, local media, and colleagues from both schools. The results went far beyond our expectations and led us to make far-reaching changes to our urban planning and policy syllabi.

Curriculum Revisions Arising From The Model

The courses chosen to pilot our collaborative, inquiry-based model in 1997 were, at Worcester State College, Steven Corey's Analysis of Urban Systems (UR 201), and at Rhode Island College, Mark Motte's Metropolitan Providence: Past, Present and Future (GEOG 339). Before the fall 1997 semester, Corey's UR 201 students generally wrote research papers on major urban infrastructure issues in the national context covered in assigned readings, whereas Motte's students focused on building a time-line of key public policy and private investment/construction decisions that brought Providence through industrialization, decline, and what has been dubbed a modern Renaissance.

Although both Corey and Motte encouraged their students to use Worcester and Providence, respectively, as laboratories for making observations and gathering data, few students did so. Without any experience with or direct exposure to local resources, most students summarized literature on events and trends in larger, better-documented cities such as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Motte's students normally compared the growth trajectories of these larger cities with classroom-based interpretation of Providence's development pattern (derived from legislation, published plans, and policy documents). By making Providence and Worcester the main foci of these revised courses, we required that our students seek local information first, rather than relying exclusively on previously synthesized secondary sources or local materials conveniently provided on desk reserve.

For both Corey and Motte, the process of active learning began the second week of class, when students chose a research concentration from a designated list of six subject areas:

    urban geography/morphology; infrastructure and the environment; social and demographic change, political systems; public-private development partnerships; and education, health, and human service delivery.

After selecting a category, students formed small teams to narrow down potential research topics (since our class sizes differed--Corey's with 20 and Motte's with 30--these teams also differed in size within the two institutions--RIC's larger, WSC's smaller). We held several class sessions to discuss sound approaches to social science research in an urban setting, especially finding and using local resources and gathering data to address clearly defined research questions.

In addition to showing students how to perform literature searches, to collect primary data, and to collate, analyze, and present raw data, special classes at both Rhode Island College and Worcester State College were devoted to finding and then assessing information from the internet. Both Corey and Motte emphasized the value of archival research for determining the original intent of development projects (as a baseline against which to measure how well such projects met their potential and lived up to the developers' promises), as well as the value of such primary evidence as photographs, maps, tax records, consultants' feasibility studies, development plans, and interviews with "key informants" in the policy development arena.

Besides conducting monograph, journal, and newspaper research at their college and municipal libraries, students, in various combinations of teams from both institutions, visited special collections at the Providence Preservation Society, Rhode Island Historical Society, Worcester Public Library, Worcester Historical Museum, and the archives of other colleges in the greater Blackstone Valley region. Students also talked to officials in the city planning offices and other government agencies connected to downtown renewal projects. To balance the "insider views" of professionals with vested interests in the success of specific development projects, students also drew upon their own local contacts: They interviewed peers, relatives, and community activists/advocates to assess levels of public input, types of citizen participation, and the extent of community satisfaction with different redevelopment projects as well as the overall pattern of redevelopment in the two cities.

By the middle of the semester, an impressive assortment of research projects was well underway, ranging from a gender analysis of the use of public space in downtown Worcester to the role of a community group in rehabilitating a former factory as artists’ lofts in Providence. But despite assurances that they were on the right track, some members of the Worcester class feared that they had not uncovered anything particularly new or interesting about their topics.

To make matters worse, these doubts turned to personal insecurity and fears that they would not say anything that would impress their peers from outside the college, especially given the more advanced stage and scale of Providence's redevelopment plans as compared to Worcester’s (a new phobia for the books: "Urban Renewal Envy!"). In contrast, the remaining members of the class could hardly contain their excitement, bursting with energy over unearthing information and making connections between readings on national urban trends and events close to home. As time for the joint undergraduate conference neared, these competing tensions demanded resolution.

For Corey's students, the key to relieving anxiety over public presentation of their research came through a series of mock oral presentations. Throughout the semester, students were constantly told to narrow their focus and keep their arguments clear. But only by being forced to first present their findings to their fellow classmates did students come to understand the difference between simple descriptive narration and an argument concerning the nature, impact, and success of their research topics.

Four 50-minute class sessions were eventually designated for such rehearsals at Worcester State. At Rhode Island, Motte's students had only one dry run. In each one of Corey's presentation skill classes, students were instructed to speak for only three minutes on their topics. Invariably, three minutes turned to 10 or 15. Again, only by experiencing the process of presentation did students come to understand what was (and was not) important about their work. The final presentations revealed that Motte's somewhat more confident students could have benefited from this paring down process. By seeing how others in the class dealt with time limitations and how they too presented visual materials such as photographs and maps, the Worcester students learned how to polish their work for a general audience. In the end, Corey believed that these rehearsals also significantly improved the quality of his students' final written reports, since the class better understood how to present information concisely.

Once the joint undergraduate conference arrived, although still somewhat anxious about speaking in public, students from both colleges performed admirably. As well they should: As a group, they had compiled a body of work on urban renewal worthy of any undergraduate program anywhere in the country. Among the more memorable presentations were a five-minute video on the changing physical nature of Worcester's downtown and its impact on nearby neighborhoods; a series of graphic overlays showing the development of Providence's Waterplace Park and River Relocation Project; a history of downtown Worcester's commercial heyday in the 1950s; and a presentation on the planning, financing, and construction of the Providence Place Mall.

The students were impressed by what they had accomplished within a 15-week semester. Each college team expressed respect for the work of the other. Faculty, college administrators, and the media gave positive reviews. Colleagues at both institutions called for a continued and strengthened collaboration between the two colleges. The students were interviewed for an article that appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, and the collaborative projects continue to serve as models for developing geography and urban studies curricula at Rhode Island College and Worcester State. Corey and Motte are already planning a similar project for the 2002-03 academic year.


Our students continue to perform better under our collaborative, inquiry-based, action research model than in the other courses we teach in our departments. We are actively pursuing the development of this model and hope to extend its use to other courses. Of course, there are some disadvantages that professors planning to teach inquiry-based courses should be aware of, including the following:

    the time required to carefully manage course time and to divide it successfully between classroom and field work; the need to develop and adhere to a complex calendar of site visits and field trips, which may not always mesh 100% with class times; the many logistical problems of gaining student access to archives and useful interview subjects, including city planners, leaders of nonprofit organizations, local historians, project developers, bankers, politicians, and other policy makers; the need to assemble an in-house library of project-specific source materials before the beginning of each semester and to update those materials with current press clippings, feasibility studies, planning reports, environmental impact statements, and land use maps at least annually; and the crucial aspect of raising student expectations from the outset, so that they will be responsible for their own field projects and for cooperating in groups, and explaining clearly and forcefully that these courses consist of more than reading, traditional take-home assignments, and preparing for examinations.

Despite the extensive planning time required to make such courses successful, the rewards for faculty have been the extraordinarily enthusiastic student responses and the high quality of student work. Many of our students are nonresident commuters, who generally have little incentive to remain on campus after classes. We find that they collaborate well and quickly become productive members of a team. Many students inform us that these courses represent the first time they have felt a part of the institutions and departments in which they study. In the end, our model allows these students to accomplish the following:

    perform applied research similar to Professionals such as community planners, environmental analysts, and even academic researchers in fields as diverse as geography, political science, public administration, and urban history; make connections about community decision-making that cannot truly be revealed by inference from classroom-based activities or course readings; use the cities where they live in new and exciting ways by seeing these places as the outcomes of continuing, dynamic processes that can be studied and understood; develop critical thinking skills by analyzing, critiquing, and suggesting innovations to prevailing policies in areas that affect their every-day lives; and acquire valuable, lasting skills in group dynamics, conducting research, writing reports, and giving oral presentations--skills that promote enhanced career and graduate school aspirations.

To summarize, by having students participate in what we call "action research projects," literally outside their classroom windows at Rhode Island College in Providence, RI and Worcester State College in Worcester, MA, professors and students accomplish the mutually reinforcing goals of (1) a more stimulating teaching and learning environment for all involved; (2) greater student time-on-task and productivity; (3) higher levels of student motivation, attainment, and course satisfaction; (4) a better quality course product (essays, field reports, work logs, and final reports); and (5) consistently higher recruitment into both upper-level, urban-oriented courses and the major, as measured by students selecting geography or urban studies as their principal fields of study.

Naturally, we are eager to hear from colleagues who are working on inquiry-based learning projects within departments of geography, planning, urban studies or other social science disciplines. We are willing to share syllabi and to extend the network of institutions collaborating on field-based urban planning work with undergraduates in the U.S. and elsewhere. Steve Corey can be reached at (508) 793-8633 (Department of Urban Studies, Worcester State College). Mark Motte can be reached at (401) 456-8378 (Program in Geography, Department of Political Science, Rhode Island College).


Bennett, Larry. 1997. Neighborhood Politics: Chicago and Sheffield. New York: Oxford University Press.

Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. 1998. Reinventing Undergraduate Education. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Fainstein, Susan, Norman Fainstein, Richard Hill, Dennis Judd, and Michael Smith. 1986. Restructuring The City: The Political Economy of Urban Redevelopment. New York: Longman.

Gardiner, Lion. 1998. Why We Must Change: The Research Evidence. Thought and Action XIV (1) (Spring).

Harvey, David. 1986. The Urbanization of Consciousness. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harvey, David. 2001. Postmodern Geographies. New York: Blackwell.

Pagano, Michael and Ann Bowman. 1995. Cityscapes and Capital: The Politics of Urban Development. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Stone, Clarence and Heywood Sanders (eds.). 1987. The Politics of Urban Development. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Copyright © 2002 Steven Corey and Mark Motte

Teaching Urban Planning and Public Policy:Developing a "City as Classroom" Model at Two New England Colleges, Issues in Teaching and Learning, 1:1, 2002.

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