Nearly half a century ago, the residents of Davis Square, a neighborhood just a few subway stops away from MIT, got what they had long been waiting for. A subway station had finally been built in Davis Square, a neighborhood that has historically had poor transit service. On the surface, everything seemed great. The working-class residents of Somerville, who could not afford to live closer to Boston, could now use the subway to reach the rest of the city. Unfortunately, this success story did not last for long.
Today, Davis Square is no longer known for the working-class population that used to live there. The neighborhood is now known for its “postgrad hipsters wearing pork pie hats in search of craft beers” (Bierman, 2009). In other words, the neighborhood has gentrified. After the subway station was built in 1984, Davis Square became a very popular place to live. This increased demand for housing in the area and gradually displaced the city’s blue-collar residents. While the initial problem of a lack of transit options was solved, the solution meant that virtually nobody who originally wanted a subway station could use it because they could no longer afford to live there. As someone who is curious about these types of problems, I interviewed Ezra Glenn, a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) at MIT to learn about what city planners do to build communities that serve their residents effectively.
Glenn has always loved cities, but as a student he didn’t know that he wanted to study them. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in anthropology, and didn’t enter the field of urban planning until a few years after he had finished his graduate degree. However, his motivations were clear. “I think I was looking for opportunities to explain problems in the world,” he explains. As Glenn grew up, he observed problems around him that were often caused by people who misunderstood each other, rather than by people who deliberately tried to be evil. Anthropology became his way to explore those issues, and urban planning was a natural progression of this curiosity. After Glenn finished his Master’s degree, he became a senior planner in Somerville, which marked the beginning of his transition into urban planning.
The example of Davis Square is emblematic of the problems that city planners face daily. In advocating for a new subway station, the planners of Somerville acted on the wishes of their constituents, but ended up helping to drastically alter the city’s demographics. Similar problems exist in other cities across the country. In a series of interviews conducted by The New York Times, reporters found that many families priced out of their apartments in recent years had been forced to take residence in homeless shelters or move back in with parents, with a “lucky few” able to find public housing (Yee, 2015). However, many recent studies have argued in favor of the positive effects that gentrification can have on a community, including decreased levels of violence and better options for public education (Cortright, 2015). This tradeoff reflects the ongoing debate about gentrification across America, and highlights the challenges that urban planners like Glenn face when making decisions for their communities.
Not only is the job challenging, but being an urban planner can be stressful. As Glenn puts it, “you always have to worry about politics. If the mayor gets voted out, you don’t know if you’re staying. It’s also just stressful to never have enough [resources] to do all of the things you know you need to do.” This problem is made worse by the fact that major projects in urban planning can take decades to unfold, which makes it difficult to persuade mayors to pursue them. Glenn notes that most mayors operate on a cycle where they pursue short-term projects that make them look good in time for the next election, which makes long-term city planning more difficult. All of this prompted Glenn’s move into academia: “What I tell people is that MIT is just as exciting as city government, but way less stressful.”
As a professor, Glenn now focuses on ways he can help other city planners. One of the main problems he sees in local city governments is planners who think they know what people want based on their intuition. In reality, he argues “we have a long history of experts being well intentioned, but out of touch with real people.” Rather than imposing their own ideas on others, Glenn argues that city planners should be proactive when looking to address the needs of their constituents. “If there’s a church, if the senior center has bingo, if there’s a farmer’s market, show up at those places. Ideally, you want to have an engaged city planning department that pulls rather than waits.” Since these gatherings tend to center around a sense of community, Glenn believes that planners would learn a lot from going to these events and interacting with the people who live in and are invested in their neighborhoods.
On the topic of academia, Glenn expressed a sentiment common among professors of urban studies at MIT: “I think too often, especially at MIT, there’s this belief that if there’s not electrons or test tubes, then it’s not science.” DUSP has been looking for new ways to engage students in the major, and recently introduced a new interdisciplinary major, “Urban Science and Planning with Computer Science.” Given the popularity of computer science at MIT, the department hopes to draw more students to urban studies, as computer models facilitate the exploration of many problems facing cities. For example, federal and municipal governments have already begun using models to predict the threat posed by rising sea levels (Crawford, 2019). Researchers from MIT and other universities have also developed models to study other problems such as traffic patterns, air pollution levels, and more (Hu, 2014).
This large number of variables demonstrates how complicated cities can be. To help people understand how these variables interact at a higher level, Glenn turned to the appearance of urban planning in a popular video game, SimCity. A couple of years ago, the developers of SimCity, an open-ended video game about urban planning, came to DUSP to showcase new versions of the game and collect feedback from the professors. Glenn admitted that it was fun, but emphasized the game’s role as a learning tool. “I think what’s nice about games like SimCity is they encourage you to think about the complexities of a system, including the complexities you can’t really see. […] For example, you might not have enough money to pay for public services, so you raise the tax rate, and suddenly the businesses start going out of business.”
Glenn believes that games like SimCity are a great way for people to understand the difficulties of urban planning at a high level, but urges people to participate if they’re interested in the future of their own communities. Glenn pointed out that while many boards and commissions hold public meetings, few people actually attend them. “It’s actually surprisingly easy to get involved when you want to,” he says. Due to the immediacy of today’s problems, it can often be difficult to think holistically about solutions to problems that may be decades away. Despite this, Glenn believes that it’s up to us to be engaged in our communities, by speaking up and getting involved wherever we are.
Bierman, N. (2009, July 10). On tiles, a story of gentrification. The Boston Globe. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from http://archive.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2009/07/10/project_chronicles_davis_square_over_30_years/
Cortright, J. (2015, October 31). In Defense of Gentrification. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/in-defense-of-gentrification/413425/
Crawford, S. (2019, July 18). Computer Models, Epic Floods, and the Fate of Coastal Cities. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from https://www.wired.com/story/epic-floods-and-the-fate-of-coastal-cities/
Glenn, E. Personal interview with author. 25 Oct 2018.
Hoffman, T. (2017, September 05). SimCity BuildIt(for iPad). Retrieved November 5, 2018, from http://pcmag.com/review/355920/simcity-buildit-for-ipad
Hu, W., Wang, H., & Yan, L. (2014). An actual urban traffic simulation model for predicting and avoiding traffic congestion. 17th International IEEE Conference on Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITSC). doi:10.1109/itsc.2014.6958119
Trulia. (2018). Real Estate Data for Davis Square. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://trulia.com/real_estate/Davis_Square-Somerville/16192/market-trends/
Yee, V. (2015, November 27). Gentrification in a Brooklyn Neighborhood Forces Residents to Move On. The New York Times. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/nyregion/gentrification-in-a-brooklyn-neighborhood-forces-residents-to-move-on.html