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
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
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
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
...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
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
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
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:
infrastructure and the environment;
social and demographic change,
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
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;
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:
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Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. 1998.
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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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