I am enjoying the last day of my Independent Activities Period (IAP) – the period after winter break in which all students at MIT can take one of many non-credit or for-credit course offerings at MIT, set up a winter externship, or just do nothing. This amounts to six weeks of bliss! At the end of such a blissful period I can only think of the words of my mother who would sum up the end of such bliss with the words "my free paper has burned" – but I digress. During winter break and IAP I had the opportunity to plug into planning outside of the ivory tower. It was exciting to engage with players involved in development organizations and initiatives that could have significant impact at the neighborhood and city levels in Baltimore and New Orleans.
In Baltimore, I met with an architect whose firm has contributed to many projects in Baltimore and an alum from the MIT Master of City Planning program. I also attended a planning commission public meeting. Through these activities, I gained some insight into Baltimore's accomplishments, opportunities, and challenges. Baltimore released its master plan –Live, Earn, Play, Learn – in November 2006. As its title suggests, the plan is addresses the elements that usually impact every citizen's life in a significant way and the elements that are usually crucial indicators of a city's vitality. Baltimore has an opportunity to attract new residents because of its proximity to Washington, D.C, among other benefits. Baltimore, however, is challenged by its high crime rate and taxes, and its troubled public school system. As a Baltimore resident and budding planner, I will keep my eye on how the city addresses such issues.
Moving from Charm City to Crescent City, New Orleans came onto my radar in the fall semester when I pre-registered for the Revitalizing Urban Main Streets spring course. This class is what we call a practicum – a project (required to graduate) in which students actually work with a client to "synthesize planning solutions" – that is from the MIT DUSP website. So basically, we get to roll up our sleeves and use planning tools within a real client-based project. The class works with Main Street Programs to create a plan to revitalize Main Street Districts through a combination of economic development and urban design. As part of the class, thirteen of my classmates and I, two instructors and a teaching assistant traveled to New Orleans last week to meet the manager of our host Main Street program and tosurvey and document through observation and interviews. All of the work we did – which was no small feat – culminated in a presentation to the Main Street manager and stakeholders on our last day in New Orleans. The commercial district that we will focus on during the semester shows signs of commercial life that can be harnessed into greater vibrancy if all stakeholders and resources are included and incorporated into the planning process. There is a significant need for this commercial district to be revived. In our interviews, we repeatedly heard that the community needs a supermarket and other basic services. I will enjoy this class not only because it provides me the opportunity to strengthen my planning and urban design skills, but also because the work my classmates and I will do could possibly provide a guide for this community to obtain some of the basic services that we all take for granted.
Tomorrow, I will sign up for more courses than I can actually handle so I can shop around and determine my course line up for spring semester. Theory of CityForm? Urban Design Policy Action? Responsive Cities? These are just three of the seven courses that I will register for and it will be very hard to narrow down to thefinal four or five. So, what is a girl to do?