New Directions and Priorities In the Urban Planning Program

Ed Soja, Assistant Dean

I have decided to use the broad title of Critical Studies in Architecture and Urban Planning to encompass what has recently been called Critical Urbanism or Critical Urban Studies and History; and what is usually described as History, Theory and Criticism in Architecture. I see this area overlapping significantly with our course offerings in planning theory, comparative international studies, and urban and regional political economy. I also see critical spatial theory as its central unifying perspective.

Nearly all of us in the Urban Planning Program, in one way or another, are engaged in critical studies with respect to public policy or in our approaches to teaching the theoretical and conceptual underpinnings of our subfields. Indeed, this critical stance is one of the most important features distinguishing us as leading planning school. Why then should critical studies be raised as an important new direction and priority?

There are several reasons.

1. We do not teach critical theory and methods per se, except perhaps as a sidelight to some of our history and planning theory courses. We tend instead to take individual stances on what and how to critique and teach our students by personal example. Rarely do we make explicit our theory of criticism – or critically examine alternative approaches to our personal favorites. Critical studies in urban planning should be part of our core curriculum as one of GSAUP’s most distinctive specializations.

2. What we do here in GSAUP has increasingly become the focus of attention for critical theorists and philosophers all over the world of architecture, urbanism and spatialities are often seen as the “privileged” languages and most revealing “texts” of contemporary debates in critical theory.  And then these in Los Angeles itself. Surely more needs to be done to consolidate and expand our role in these debates, to make us leaders rather than followers.

3. New approaches to critical studies are becoming increasingly important to making practical and political sense of the seemingly chaotic contemporary world. This is especially pertinent to an Urban Planning Program, which nurtures social movement approaches to change. Our students not only have areas of academic concentration but also organization of social action (communities of resistance?) based on gender, ethnicity, class, sexual development, etc…

How Critical Studies in Architecture and Urban Planning should be developed is difficult to answer, although the urgent need for additional resources, courses, and faculty is clear no matter what path is followed. However, Critical Studies will build on our established leadership and add significantly to new initiatives that combine the interests of the Urban Planning Program to those of the Architecture and Urban Design Program and extend to other departments across the campus.

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