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A manifesto for designing cities

Posted: 03 Jan 2018 09:00 PM PST

"The city is a people's art, a shared experience," a Philadelphia architect and planner named Edmund Bacon once wrote, adding that any urban designer's job was to "conceive an idea, implant it, and nurture its growth in the collective minds of the community."

It sounds like a common-sense approach to city building — and one that could lead to a pleasing urban mosaic, as both community needs and architectural styles change over time. But according to MIT professor Brent D. Ryan, this approach to designing cities that are of the people and for the people has been absent from most urban design work.

Instead, Ryan thinks, today's cities have been saddled with grandiose urban projects that, although they may have flashy veneers and stylistic coherence, lack sensitivity to the diverse needs of city life and the long timeframes over which urban development is evaluated. The result is that designers, developers, and city officials continue to think of urban design as little more than massive building projects that more closely resemble art for art's sake than design for people's sake.

"We need to adapt urban design to the kinds of cities and societies that we have," Ryan says. "Perfection is not really achievable."

Ryan, an associate professor of urban design and public policy in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, has detailed this perspective in a new book, "The Largest Art: A Measured Manifesto for a Plural Urbanism," recently published by the MIT Press. The book is a call for a pragmatic and democratic approach to urban design, one that often acknowledges community input and recognizes the many kinds of "pluralism" in urban life: the numerous interests and built elements that exist, in multiple layers, as cities get built up over time.

"The world is becoming more plural, in many ways," Ryan says. "Cities are becoming more plural as they grow in scale. And a lot of the dialogue in urban design shows we've been running out of gas, in terms of previous ideologies about how to design the city."

From Louis XIV to Le Corbusier?

As Ryan details it in the book, much of today's urban design work may be modern in style, but it is actually rooted more deeply in the past: the 18th century, to be precise.

"Urban design has at its heart a kind of hegemonic approach toward space that's derived from its origins in 18th-century French urbanism," Ryan says. Louis XIV of France could have Versailles built by fiat, Ryan notes, and Peter the Great soon imitated him with the construction of St. Petersburg; such massive, "unitary" projects became a paradigm for later generations of urban designers.

"These kinds of stand-alone, new-city, single-actor, great-power models of urban design were translated literally into things like [Daniel] Burnham and [Edward] Bennett's plan for Chicago, and into projects like 20th-century city visions," Ryan says.

The Chicago plan reshaped large parts of the city in the early 20th century, while Swiss designer Le Corbusier later influenced both architects and academia. But the outcomes that resulted — seemingly endless regular street grids, freeway-based cityscapes, and homogenous urban megaprojects — have been controversial precisely because of the impositions they place on a communal urban experience.

"There's a pretty unbroken historical trajectory of thinking about urban design that I think has very little connection to the cities and world that we live in today," Ryan says. "Our task for the future is to see how much we can move away from that hegemonic orgin of the field, which I think is increasingly obsolete."

Ryan provides a variety of examples of urbanists and artists who have contributed to a more pragmatic, pluralistic, democratic vision of city design, including Philadelphia's Bacon; former MIT professor Kevin Lynch, whose work made the case for an aesthetic with many sources, rather than a single stylistic mode; and David Crane, a postwar urbanist who characterized urban design as being more like "composing a painting on a flowing river" than imposing a unified vision on a whole city.

Ryan also analyzes examples of real-world urban design interventions that he thinks exhibit pluralism in action, from the sculptures of Constantin Brancusi to a social housing complex in the Bronx, New York, and the evolution of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

"I want an urban design philosophy that is appropriate to the cities and societies that we want to have," Ryan says.

Rebuilding blocks

For all his emphasis on practical pluralism, Ryan very much regards urban design as an art form to be savored — which is partly why he wants to encourage its conceptual reimagination through pluralism.

"It's the largest of the arts, in a very real way," Ryan says. "The London Green Belt [the ring of open land around the metropolis] can be regarded as a work of art at the scale of a metropolitan area. We don't have any art that is larger than that."

Ryan's argument that urban designers should be sensitive to their urban contexts is also informed by his previous work on cities, including his 2012 book, "Design After Decline." In that volume, Ryan looked at the postindustrial landscapes of U.S. cities and explored the ways planners could help rebuild those areas.

In such circumstances, helping cities evolve is as much of a pressing challenge as helping them expand.

"Cities are becoming larger and more complex, and at the same time, we're more and more shifting away from building in empty places to building in places already inhabited to some degree," Ryan says. "We're more and more rebuilding the cities we have, as opposed to building new cities at the frontier … and when you're rebuilding a city, your concerns are entirely different. You're dealing with multiple property holders, the existing urban fabric, the presence of multiple eras of construction, and all the people who live in those places."

So while his new book is intended as a "shot across the bow" of academic urban design theory, Ryan says he hopes people will recognize that, if anything, a broader view of the designer's role can expand opportunities for the profession.

"We need to broaden our approaches and conceptions of urban design," Ryan says. "If we stick with the unitary conception of urban design, we may not have too much urban design at all any more."

Changing lives with heart, humor, and engineering

Posted: 03 Jan 2018 08:59 PM PST

Nick Schwartz likes to describe himself as "a nerd with a heart." Before finals period at the end of each fall semester, the mechanical engineering senior and nuclear fusion enthusiast dons a Santa Claus costume and hands out candy to students, staff, and faculty passing through the lobby of Building 7.

"I came up with [the idea] my sophomore year and thought it would be really fun," Schwartz says. For his senior year, Schwartz aimed for something "bigger than ever." He and his elves — his friends and classmates who also join in on the holiday costume-wearing — handed out thousands of pieces of candy while Christmas music played in the background.

"It makes a lot of people smile," he says proudly of his annual tradition, which is funded by the MIT SHASS-based de Florez Fund for Humor. Schwartz tends to make a lot of people smile with his work — both inside and outside of MIT.

Meaningful engineering

When Schwartz first arrived at the Institute, he wasn't committed to engineering until he took 2.001 (Mechanics and Materials I), with Rohan Abeyaratne, the Quentin Berg Professor of Mechanics, during his freshman spring semester.

"It was fascinating because we were learning these very complicated theories, and then every single class we were applying them to real problems," Schwartz says. "What I love about mechanical engineering is that you create things that you can hold and build yourself, if you have the tools to do so."

As his studies have progressed, he has focused on two specific areas: engineering for the developing world, and nuclear fusion. During his sophomore year, Schwartz worked on prosthetic devices in the MIT D-Lab and field-tested in Kenya and Ethiopia a pediatric transtibial prosthetic liner he designed.

Schwartz also worked on the MIT Hyperloop Team during his sophomore and junior years, to help design a concept pod for the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition.  

"I was one of the two or three undergraduates on this team, and, because I was surrounded by insanely smart graduate students, I was able to learn so much about the theoretical aspects of design as well as machining, and how to combine those two," Schwartz says. In January 2017, the team won the Safety and Reliability Award and placed third overall.

Though Schwartz enjoyed participating in the team, he began to think even more broadly and wondered, "What is something unbelievably attractive in terms of engineering and has the possibility to change the world if it's successful?"

His answer? Nuclear fusion. "I truly believe that it has the ability to flip the energy industry on its head completely," he says.

Unlike nuclear fission, which involves splitting a uranium-235 atom to generate traditional nuclear power, fusion involves the combination of two atoms, which has the potential to generate much more energy than fission. The process requires extremely high temperatures and careful control: An example of where fusion currently occurs is the sun.

Changing lives for the better

With nuclear fusion research, Schwartz is pursuing his ideal kind of engineering. "The kind of engineering that I want to do is the kind that can change people's lives for the better," Schwartz says. "Not many people think of this massive nuclear fusion reactor as doing that. But, if this system is as successful as I think it can be, then the 2 million people in India or the 40,000 in the United Kingdom who could die each year because of air pollution won't have to anymore."

To get started with research, Schwartz reached out to nuclear fusion companies and asked to work with them. One of those companies responded: Tri Alpha Energy. Schwartz worked as a mechanical design intern at the company the summer before his senior year.

"I got to experience a lot of really complicated technical challenges there," Schwartz says. "Also, everybody at the company cared so much about the outcome of what [nuclear fusion] could do. I thought it was awesome."

The experience left Schwartz with a strong sense of determination: "I know that to be as effective as possible in terms of getting fusion to the top of the list for renewables and replacing fossil fuels, I need to have a technical background." Next semester, Schwartz will perform thesis research at MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center. After graduating, he will study physics with extended research at Imperial College London as a 2018 Marshall Scholar. After, he plans to pursue a PhD.

Resilience and forward thinking

Part of Schwartz's confidence to pursue his goals comes from the encouragement of MIT professors and staff, starting with Abeyaratne from 2.001.

"I like to say that [Abeyaratne] was the first person I met at MIT who believed in my hopes and aspirations. It is fantastic to have a mentor like him," Schwartz says. "I would go into his office hours for his class all the time because [his class] was really hard. … And then after the class, we would just talk about our lives." Likewise, Schwartz appreciates the mentorship he's received from lecturer Jeffrey Moran, who taught 2.006 (Thermal-Fluids Engineering II), which Schwartz remembers as "arguably the hardest class I've ever taken, and [Moran] made it all so clear."

Schwartz also credits Kimberly Benard, assistant dean for distinguished fellowships: "She's been so instrumental in helping me realize what my true hopes and aspirations even are. She's another person who truly believes in me."

But, Schwartz's biggest source of inspiration is the children who gather each summer to attend Camp Kesem, a camp for children whose parents have been affected by cancer. Since his freshman year, Schwartz has worked at the camp each summer as a counselor, along with other MIT students.

"Without a doubt, it's been the most meaningful experience of my life and the one thing that I've ever done that I'm most proud of," Schwartz says. "It's this incredible opportunity to give back to the people who need it most."

"The strongest people I've ever met are my 6- and 7-year-old campers," he continues. "It's pretty admirable what they have to deal with and how resilient they are."

Schwartz spoke about his experiences at Camp Kesem in a November 2017 TEDx talk titled, "Love Gives Resiliency." At the talk, Schwartz remembers, the audience was filled with Camp Kesem campers, parents, and staff: "It was inspiring."

His campers affectionately refer to Schwartz by his camp name, Taz. Another feature has garnered their attention: his beard.

Schwartz grew the beard for fun but decided to keep it for good after a conversation with one of his campers. "I asked one of them, 'What would you do if I came back to camp next year and I shaved?' And he started bawling." Schwartz realized then that the beard was here to stay.

Schwartz won't be letting down his campers, his mentors, or others in his community any time soon: He plans to continue a lifetime of service through his research and activities after he graduates from MIT.

"For the past four years, I have had so many people believe in what I want to do. [This fall], I was walking past the big dome and I was thinking about that, and, for the first time, I actually believed in myself because all these people have chosen to support me," Schwartz says. "And it was this wonderful feeling of bliss. I worked very hard to get where I am, but I could not have done it without the people who surrounded me. And I think that's a special feeling that I'm very lucky to have."

SHASS Research Fund names 10 recipients for 2018

Posted: 03 Jan 2018 05:35 AM PST

The annual SHASS Research Fund supports MIT research in the humanities, arts, and social sciences that shows promise of making an important contribution to the proposed area of activity. The 10 recipients for 2018 are:

Nikhil Agarwal, assistant professor of economics: The near-universal coverage of dialysis treatments under Medicare, including for people under age 65, is unique in the U.S. health care system. Agarwal plans to use his SHASS research funding to analyze previously collected data to explore whether and how Medicare reimbursement rates affect the quiality of dialysis care and patient outcomes.

Charlotte Brathwaite, assistant professor of music and theater arts: SHASS research funding will support "Forgotten Paradise: Grazettes Sun," a film project by director Brathwaite. Inspired by being united with her estranged brother for the first time, Brathwaite plans to take a small crew on a research trip to the Gold Coast (Ghana, Benin, and Togo) to excavate the jigsaw puzzle of history and memory and to identify locations significant to her own ancestry and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Sarah Brown, director of design for music and theater arts: SHASS research funding will allow Brown to join the production of Gregory Spears' opera, "Fellow Travelers," which dramatizes the lives of Americans whose careers were ended and lives were transformed during the "Lavender Scare," a period in the Cold War when LGBTQ people were expelled from the federal government because of their sexual identities.

Lerna Ekmekcioglu, associate professor of history: Ekmekcioglu's funding will support her ongoing book and digital humanities project, "Feminism in Armenian: An Interpretive Anthology and a Digital Archive." With Melissa Bilal, a visiting scholar with MIT History, Ekmekcioglu traces the development of Armenian feminist thought from the 1860s to the 1960s. It will be the first collection in English on the topic.

Malick Ghachem, associate professor of history: Ghachem's book on the rise of plantation capitalism in Haiti during the 1720s, "The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution," will be translated into French with the support of SHASS research funding, making the work available to Francophone scholars in France and elsewhere in the French-speaking world. Funding will also allow Ghachem to present his research in France upon its publication by Éditions Karthala and the Centre international de recherches sur les esclavages.

Frederick Harris, Jr., director of wind and jazz ensembles for music and theater arts: With the support of SHASS research funding, Harris plans to begin researching the life and musical career of Herb Pomeroy (1930-2007) toward a biography with the working title of "It's the Note You Don't Play: The musical life of Herb Pomeroy." In addition to portraying Pomeroy's personal life, this book will analyze the three major areas of his musicianship: trumpeter, director/conductor, and educator.

Mark Harvey, senior lecturer in music and theater arts: SHASS Research Fund support will enable the recording and production of a new album of original compositions by Harvey, all performed with the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra. The centerpiece will be "Swamp-a-Rama," a composition at turns satirical and serious that responds to the current sociopolitical climate in the United States. 

Sabine Iatridou, professor of linguistics: In Dutch and German, question words such as "what" are identical to existential words such as "something." Why does a single word have these two different meanings? Which meaning came first in the development of the language? What does that tell us about the development of language more generally? Iatridou will explore these questions with the support of SHASS research funding in coordination with colleagues from the University of Amsterdam.

Seth Mnookin, associate professor of comparative media studies/writing: Funding will support a new book focused on the cultural, historical, and scientific underpinnings of how we age, as well as on research efforts designed to extend both lifespan and healthspan. In addition to providing a detailed overview of research that could reframe how we think about aging, the book will offer readers a guide to what age-related issues can be mitigated by changes to lifestyle, medical interventions, or pharmacological interventions — and which paths to avoid.

Ariel White, assistant professor of political science: With an unprecedented amount of material, White and her colleagues will use a textual analysis tool to analyze the language used to report on crime, asking whether and to what extent local media outlets focus mostly on crimes committed by nonwhite suspects. They will also analyze the relationship between reporting trends and actual crime statistics to see whether these publications accurately reflect the level and type of crime.

MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences is home to research that has a global impact, and to graduate programs recognized as among the finest in the world. The school's research portfolio includes international studies, linguistics, economics, poverty alleviation, history, literature, anthropology, digital humanities, philosophy, global studies and languages, music and theater, writing, political science, security studies, women's and gender studies, and comparative media studies. MIT's SHASS research helps alleviate poverty; safeguard elections; steer economies; understand the past and present; assess the impact of new technologies; understand human language; create new forms at the juncture of art and science; and inform policy and cultural mores on issues including justice, healthcare, energy, climate, education, work and manufacturing, inclusion, and economic equity.