Making Cities More Resilient: Educating the Next Urbanists

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Tonkiss_image.JPGWill an increasingly urbanized world require a generation of urban leaders with a new set of skills for approaching the problems -- and solutions -- of 21st century cities? The London School of Economics thinks that it will, and offers a graduate education program to fill the niche.

The LSE Cities Programme, founded in 1998, is the teaching arm of LSE Cities, a research center funded by Deutsche Bank. LSE Cities partners with universities, policy think tanks, corporate foundations, and other institutions worldwide to examine strategies for designing cities that perform more sustainably in areas ranging from energy efficiency to human health and well-being.

In the past two years, applications to LSE Cities' masters degree program, called MSc in City Design and Social Science, have surged. The 28 students selected for this year's cohort (from more than four times as many applications; admissions were forced to close six months early due to inability to offer more spots) represent 15 different nations and a diversity of academic backgrounds in design and the social sciences. With a faculty composed primarily of architects and urban designers who have researched in social science fields, the MSc program endeavors to produce well-rounded "urbanists," including designers who can use their craft to solve social, economic, and cultural problems; and, on the other side of the table, design-literate commissioners of buildings: policy makers, attorneys, developers, and planners.

"The key skill is to be able to communicate across disciplinary divides," says Fran Tonkiss, director of the Cities Programme (and the sole non-designer on the faculty). "I know it's very fashionable now to talk about getting out of silos of practice and policy. But in this sort of messy business of city making, it's absolutely crucial."

Tonkiss, a professor of Urban and Economic Sociology, manages program logistics, teaches students, and develops the MSc curriculum. Here, she answers our questions about crafting and providing a new type of urban design education for a new type of urban student.

Making cities more sustainable is one of the core missions of LSE Cities. How is sustainability defined and discussed in the Cities Programme?

Sustainability is a very contentious term. It's quite an easy target for critique; partly, I think, because the notion of sustainability can be somewhat neutralizing. It disguises the conflicts that lie behind sustainability and practices. Also, when defined narrowly in environmental terms, sustainability can become an alibi for what are economically and socially quite divisive programs. For example, many works of of iconic architecture being produced these days -- especially in emerging market cities -- will have an environmental pedigree, but are quite radical insertions in the urban contexts in terms of economic and social separation.

It's right to think, as the Brundtland Commission concluded, of sustainability in terms of intergenerational legacies and what we do environmentally. But it maybe masks the fact that a lot of the conflicts are going to be between generations now living, not simply between what we do now and what the impact will be on generations in the future.

We [at the Cities Programme] prefer to use the term "resilience." Sustainable urban form must be robust enough to withstand change and also adapt to change; to respond to change, and able to change over time; to be retrofitted or converted. This is true whether we're talking about a building or whether we're talking about an organizational form in the city that can adapt to change or can change its purpose or its character in response to environmental change, certainly climate change and the risks associated with that; but also in regards to demographic change and economic cycles.

It's easy for me to understand how design professionals will use the integrated curriculum to inform their design work, but can you tell me how the non-design students will utilize their design education, and how the program approaches the teaching of design for an interdisciplinary classroom?

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Julia Levitt writes and consults on sustainability, policy, innovation, and strategy in the built environment. She is currently studying management at the London School of Economics.

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