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‘It Takes a Team to Develop a City’

‘It Takes a Team to Develop a City’

© Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

What is urban planning? What is the ‘stranger effect’ and why do we need a multidisciplinary approach in education? School Head and Associate Professor Kirill Puzanov spoke with the News Service about what students learn and how in the Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

What kind of education should one have to be able to work in urban development management?

I would mention two fundamental principles.

The first is a multidisciplinary approach. A city is a complex phenomenon, which is why urban development requires comprehensive efforts. To understand its innerworkings, it is important to study issues from the perspectives of different scientific disciplines. The closer you look into the matter, the more essential it is to maintain this balance of approaches.

The other key aspect, in my opinion, is a focus on the specifics of the locality. A city’s location is crucial factor in this kind of work: cities in the south of Russia can differ significantly from those in the north. Although many basic processes look the same, I think that regional urban development schools are of fundamental importance as they help us work out a variety of approaches to city problems and their solution strategies.

Kirill Puzanov
© Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

What is the role of the Graduate School of Urbanism (GSU) in the system of Russian education as a centre for urban studies?

From the outset, Aleksander Vysokovsky was seeking to establish our school as a combination of two areas. On the one hand, some members of the professional community wanted to seek out and promote new approaches to urban development. The team was led by the Institute for Urban Economics Foundation, managed by Nadezhda Kosareva. They had gained unique experience in urban development. Oleg Bayevsky, Victoria Antonova, Elena Shomina, Irina Abankina, Grigory Revzin, Alexey Novikov, Sergey Sivaev, and Nikolay Kichiguin—they were a team of experts in various fields, bound together by a single idea. On the other hand, there were young researchers, including Yury Milevsky, Julia Volovik, Gleb Vitkov, Egor Kotov, Sofia Gavrilova, and Fedor Novikov, who knew a lot about similar foreign programmes and looked forward to introducing new educational technologies. Bringing these two teams together has shaped the current structure of GSU as an expert centre in the field of professional practice and urban studies.

We were one of the first to add new words to the Russian educational agenda— urban environment, gentrification, urban communities, systematic approach, multidisciplinarity, etc. Everyone knows these words today.

Moreover, everyone is talking about urban environment now. Our key advantage is our teaching experience and the practical expertise we have gained for the past decade. This enables us to come to certain conclusions based on our knowledge. Reading graduate and term papers of our students, we can see how terms and phenomena come in and out of fashion. For instance, ten years ago many papers were written about the Moscow agglomeration. Everyone was trying to identify its boundaries and understand the logic behind its existence. However, this fashion faded about five years ago. Trends and key words change one another gradually, but one basic process has always accompanied the evolution of GSU: new experts, areas of expertise, and viewpoints become a part of our school all the time. On the one hand, it makes our job more difficult, because it increases the number of counteragents we have to come to an agreement with. On the other hand, we can broaden our knowledge, and we can offer a more comprehensive education.

Can we say that Russia has its own school of urban development?

To begin with, urban studies is not a science. It is more of a way of thinking, a subject field, a source of knowledge, or a school of thought. Moreover, there is no such job as an urbanist. There are urban developers, town planners, and architects. Urban studies is, first and foremost, an interdisciplinary system of coordinates we can use to study and plan a city. This is a venue where people of different qualifications and attitudes can see eye to eye. Therefore, it would not be quite right to speak about urban schools from the point of view of science. This term refers more to a public discourse.

Did you consider international practices when establishing the School?

The school founders, whom I mentioned above, were certainly aware of the world’s best practices, the context of the profession and educational technologies. However, there was also the Russian context—well-developed, but not yet described at the time—that deserved full attention as well. We began by launching a Master’s programme. It was by all means relevant in the context of world practice as it relied on the same international principles. Master’s programmes abroad mostly base their admission decisions on applicants’ resumes rather than on their test scores. Our international colleagues use the multidisciplinary approach as the same base principle. No matter what your professional background is, you can study urban planning and eventually find a good job in this sphere. Of course, each university has its own specifics depending on the courses they teach, local legislative systems, differences in private property institutions, local communities, and local systems such as city gender policy, urban ecology, etc. We neither fall behind nor outpace the others. We keep abreast of the latest developments in urban studies.

What are the GSU programmes like?

We offer three Master’s programmes—‘Urban Development and Spatial Planning’, 'Transport Planning’, and ‘Prototyping Future Cities’—and a Bachelor’s Programme in ‘Urban planning’. The majority of Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes evolve from a single specialist’s programme. In many academic divisions, a Master is seen as a full-fledged expert, while a Bachelor is something short of a Master. It is all quite different in our division. We began with a full-time Master’s programme that we launched a few months after we had opened our School. This year, we are going to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our ‘Urban Development and Spatial Planning’. Ten years ago, we had only one programme and 26 students. Now we have about 200 students.

© HSE University

‘Urban Planning’ was planned as an independent Bachelor’s programme from the very beginning. Moreover, I believe there are two reasons why our Bachelor’s graduates should not continue their studies at our Master’s programmes. Firstly, this is not the way to go if we want to play by the international rules. Pursuing a Master’s degree in the same division is usually seen as a weakness. It looks as if the student couldn’t get out of his or her comfort zone and preferred to follow a well-beaten track. The second reason lies in the fact that our undergraduates have already learned a lot about urban environment, so a Master’s programme would be too repetitive for them. Our graduates with a Bachelor’s degree had better choose more specialized Master’s programmes to improve their professional competencies. Alternatively, a Bachelor may first get a job to get some working experience before trying to pursue a Master’s degree. This would allow for critical reflection and deeper knowledge in spatial planning and urban development tools.

And what are the GSU Master’s programmes like?

‘Urban Development and Spatial Planning’ was the first programme we launched. It influenced the other programmes we opened later. Anyone keen on urban studies can become a student of this Master’s programme. We teach economists, geographers, architects, sociologists, public and municipal administrators, lawyers, historians, philosophers, mathematicians (to name but a few). They all study together. We do not intend to make an architect out of a sociologist or a manager out of an architect. We want our students to keep their professional identity as it lets them look at the city from different perspectives, learn to be part of a multidisciplinary team, take responsibility and get their ideas across to those who might not speak the same professional jargon, understand the logic behind decisions and other professions. We have a wonderful team of teachers. They are all experts in different fields with solid hands-on experience. They are people who have created the system of urban planning and participated in a number of major city development projects in Russia. The approach we use at the School helps our students understand that they would always need a team to plan and develop a city. They should not be tempted to think ‘I can do the job all alone’ or ‘I am a lone warrior and I know all there is to know about urban development’. It is important to learn to see your own professional limits and be prepared to timely delegate your tasks to your colleagues. This is the responsible approach of a professional.

Is it possible to provide a good level of competencies in various academic specialties when adhering to a multidisciplinary approach?

Although you cannot become an expert in all academic specialties, there is a good chance that you acquire profound knowledge and professional skills in several interrelated areas. Instead of focusing on one particular area, our Master’s students look into urban development by combining practical methods of different academic fields. This would not be possible unless they used a multidisciplinary approach.

We can mention three strengths of the multidisciplinary approach. The first one is the ability to overcome the so-called ‘outsider effect’. On the one hand, you don’t belong a specific academic community. Geographers would say that, as an urban developer, you are not a geographer, and sociologists would say you are not a sociologist. On the other hand, you can use the best practices of one academic field to solve problems in another.

The second strength is the ability to change your major within the urban studies. Both Masters and Bachelors may become disappointed in what they are doing, but the traditional areas of study offer much less room for maneuvering in these kinds of circumstances. It is usually too late to change your major, and you can’t really bring yourself to continue. Changing one’s major in urban planning takes time and effort as well, but it is still much more feasible, because this area of study offers everything: psychology, cognitive geography, data analysis, programming, development, transport, sociology, etc. All these areas are closely interconnected. Although it would take some effort to start a new direction, you’ve got the opportunity. You will never get disappointed with urban development. It will always have something interesting to offer.

The third strength is what we can call ‘city empathy’. You can look at the city from different perspectives, through the eyes of many participants in the city’s life. You should try out different roles—a city dweller, an explorer, an official, a developer, or an urban planner. Each of them has different responsibility and interests.

The GSU Master’s programme is expecting some changes. What changes will be made?

We have already enhanced our Master’s programmes to meet market demands. Yet, those changes were more about the content of our programmes: we revised the courses and added new projects. Next year, we are going to launch a new Master’s programme to be instructed in Russian. It will consolidate the best teaching practices we have had so far. We do not want to change the name of the programme though. ‘Urban Development and Spatial Planning’ proves that we are consistent in the principles that the founder of GSU formulated back in 2011.

© HSE University

The change was formally triggered by the new guidelines for Master’s programmes adopted by the HSE University. To cut a long bureaucratic story short, the guideline will give students more flexibility in choosing subjects to study and projects to work on. Students will have more freedom to form their own educational trajectory. On the other hand, we expect our students to become more committed and responsible.

Next year, the new programme will be centered around the three following academic areas: 'Urban Studies', ‘Urban Planning’, and ‘Transportation Planning’. For more information, please visit us on the upcoming university open day, April 17.

Do you invite scholars and experts from abroad to teach?

As for the two Master’s programmes that are primarily Russian taught, we concentrated more on the topics relevant to our country, which is why we only invite foreign teachers to give one-time lectures, workshops, or intensive classes. ‘Prototyping Future Cities’ is a bit different though. It is taught by an international team of academics from universities of Groningen, Delft, Zurich, Berlin, Barcelona, and experts from leading companies and research centres in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and London.

What does the project-based learning initiative of HSE mean for the Graduate School of Urbanism?

We have been using project-based learning methods since the beginning of our School as we focus on teaching practical skills. In my opinion, the main idea behind project-based learning is that students learn as much as possible about their future profession. This is the principle upon which our Master’s programmes are based. Moreover, we invite real experts with hands-on experience in the field to teach our courses. These courses are aligned with a two-year project workshop, which is the core of our programmes. The workshop is taught by experts who are currently working in urban development. In the first year, students study urban planning in mixed teams. Their goal is to understand logic, look into consequences of the decisions made, and perform critical analysis of the current urban planning agenda or the city administration policy. Students cannot do this remotely. They have to meet and talk to landowners, local residents, and city administrators, conduct field surveys, and collect necessary data. In the second year, students work on a planning documentation project. This is a teamwork too, but it focuses on a larger city area.

Thanks to this approach, our graduates have deeper insight into the city than those who completed traditional urban planning courses. We have been successfully employing project-based learning methods and techniques at our Master’s programmes for a decade.

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