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Designing a Better Planning Process

Guest Column Eric J. Plosky

MIT has what is generally recognized to be the world's best school of planning - its own Course XI, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Academics and professional planners both praise the department's quality of instruction, the curriculum's breadth and flexibility, and the innovative real-world tie-ins that accompany coursework.

Why, then, is the MIT administration constantly accused of not knowing how to plan its way out of a wet paper bag? A school that successfully trains Peoria-bred liberal-arts majors to be Saharan wastewater managers, one reasons, should certainly be able to formulate its own campus master plan and carry it out with the approval and support of the surrounding community.

Such is, as we know, not the case. To summarize the situation in the politest possible way, the administration could use a couple of lessons from its own planning department. Some coursework in the areas of community participation and consensus-building would be quite helpful. Of the most immediate concern is that MIT needs critical lessons in communication if it is to implement a master plan in cooperation with the student body - rather than over students' objections.

As an example, consider the proposed new undergraduate residence. A panoply of concerns surround this controversial project - where it should be built, whom it should house, how it should be arranged, and so on. But the major problem at present is not the current extent of disagreement. It is that communication is so disorganized and confused that vital messages and opinions are not being heard. Three principal obstacles must be overcome to make possible clear, productive communication between the administration and the students.

The first obstacle is the fact that multiple sources of news from within the administration make the project's details unclear, and leave open the question of what really is going on and who is in charge. President Charles M. Vest, Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow '72, the MIT Planning Office, and others within the administration have all independently provided information about the project. There is no one canonical information source; there should be.

The Residence 2001 web site is a good first step toward centralization, but it is not enough. The administration should designate one person, perhaps Bacow (who, after all, is a veteran DUSP professor), to be the official project representative. All information and publicity material should bear the representative's imprimatur, which should be consistent and easily identifiable with the project. Other administrators will still want to discuss the project, and will still, no doubt, be asked about it, but should defer as much as possible to the representative. If there is only one, clearly identified source of official information, it will greatly aid both in understanding and participation among students.

The second obstacle to be overcome is the unhappy situation at present whereby opposing voices, instead of sparking much-needed debate, are cancelling each other out. The Undergraduate Association says this, the Interfraternity Council says that, the Graduate Student Council says the other, and additional organizations chime in with their own opinions. Often, even an individual group fails to successfully communicate a single message - the UA, for instance, is forever making contradictory announcements and proudly publishing survey statistics, but struggles to clearly and simply say, "The UA thinks X." As a result of all of this babble, the administration hears nothing coherent from the students, and in order to get anything done, must proceed along its own design.

It is easy to suspect that the administration is clever enough to have deliberately engineered its "community participation" in such a way as to produce exactly this kind of incoherent babble among students. The administration could then go ahead with its own plans, ignoring students' complaints, because it could rightly claim that it heard no coherent objections. Whether the administration did actually intend this outcome or not doesn't matter; if student groups do not overcome their own disorganization, that is what will happen.

Therefore, if students and the various student groups do want to participate in the planning process, and do want their opinions to count, they must form one voice. Although groups such as the UA, the GSC, and the IFC have different opinions on the new residence project (and most of the other projects in the Planning Office's wings), they would do well to identify common interests, negotiate a mutually acceptable platform, and declare that platform in chorus. Better still would be to designate a single multi-group representative, or to create an inter-group committee, to promulgate the platform. Student representatives to the residence project's own steering committee might also accomplish that task - again, providing that a single basic platform is agreed upon between groups.

The final major obstacle to overcome, and perhaps the most important one, is the incredible apathy prevalent on campus. The present disarray over the residence project is encouraging apathy on the part of students who might otherwise get involved in the matter, but don't even know where to begin. The only reason the current debate needs to be consolidated, and information centralized, is that most students, whether out of incapability or plain laziness, simply do not know what is going on. Reducing information streams, and making them more manageable, might help to galvanize students who are oblivious to the current confusion but who just might hear - and respond to - one or two loud, clear voices.

Why must these three obstacles be overcome? Why is clear communication between students and the administration vital to the planning process? Because MIT would do better to listen to its students than to ignore them. With the help and insight of students, MIT's plans (for the new residence and for other projects) could be far better; friction between students and administrators could be replaced with cooperation.

Clear communication is a prerequisite for productive community participation and good planning. If we want to have beneficial planning conversations now and in the future, the administration has to manage its information more effectively from a single identifiable source, and students need to refine their current cacophony of objections into one coherent voice.

Eric J. Plosky is a member of the Class of 1999.