What is your background and current role at SUTD?
I have a master’s degree in city and regional planning and worked in the field of city planning for almost a decade, in the US, Singapore, and Bangkok, before leaving the profession to pursue a doctoral degree in history at Cornell University. I now teach in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) cluster at SUTD and have been with the university for about seven years. I am also the Associate Head (Academics) of HASS, so I oversee the development and operation of the undergraduate curriculum. With the Master’s of Urban Science, Policy and Planning (MUSPP) program, I teach the first semester course “Urban Theory I,” which serves as an introduction to some of the fundamental social scientific concepts that are commonly used to conceptualize the city and guide researchers in its analysis.
What is your approach towards studying cities?
My approach to the study of the city is eclectic, in that I don’t operate from a single, specific theoretical framework or disciplinary approach. However, my training as a cultural historian and my interest in the methods and concepts of allied fields, including cultural anthropology and science and technology studies, means that I tend to begin any inquiry into urban issues by looking at the everyday practices and artifacts that people use to navigate and find meaning in urban environments. I also feel strongly that for any study of a city to generate interesting and important knowledge, it must be grounded in first-hand experience of the city in question. That is, researchers should go out to streets, places, transport systems, and so on that make the city. If they can do this – immerse themselves in a place – for an extended period of time, then all the better.
How would you describe the Master’s of Urban Science, Policy and Planning? What makes it interesting or unique?
The MUSPP program at SUTD is unique in the way that it brings together qualitative social sciences, policy studies, and data science in a single, intensive one-year course. This is something perhaps a more ‘traditional’ professional training program does not do. It’s worth noting, too, that SUTD’s urban studies program is not either just planning program or a data science program. It is meant to get students thinking about the various methods that can be applied to the study of urban issues in hopes that students will be able to come up with innovative new ideas about city life. The interdisciplinary approach of the program is justified also by the increasing complexity of urban environments; the professional city planner or the researcher interested in urban issues can only benefit from the ability to draw on methods and concepts from array of disciplines.
What is the core focus of the course that you teach in the Master’s programme?
The course I teach, “Urban Theory I,” focuses on the underlying economic forces that have shaped urbanization over the past two hundred years. It is historical, but also theoretical in that each week I focus on two to three key concepts, or analytical lenses, through which students can draw on to make sense of contemporary urban environments. In the conventional liberal arts mode of teaching, the course focuses on close reading of selected texts, writing long-form essays, and active discussion of ideas found in the texts and that come up in class activities. This approach is tried and true and allows me to really see how students process the information they encounter during the semester. It also provides a nice complement to the other, more ‘practical,’ courses in the first semester of the program.
How can historical and theoretical approaches inform better cities for tomorrow?
It is important to have a basic framework with which to make sense of complex social phenomena. That is, ‘theory,’ broadly construed, is a starting point to help students think about urban issues that they might not have otherwise had the vocabulary or concepts to make sense of in any legible way. However, theory is not something that students should adhere to dogmatically either. Students should not go looking for evidence in support of a predetermined conclusion. Ultimately, the ideas we cover in the theory course are simply a common point of departure that can help us formulate questions about why the city works the way it does. History, too, is important, not because, as the cliché goes, it is doomed to repeat itself, but because thinking historically means we consider temporality in our analysis – we can analyse change over time or delimit longer periods of study. This helps us see how different assemblages of practices, artifacts, and meanings come to be and how they operate in different periods of time, ultimately helping to explain the underlying forces that shape and reshape our built environment.