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Why a Harvard Planning Publication

Cities are increasingly becoming the focus of popular discourse in public policy, especially as it relates to climate change adaptation. Yet, even as cities are touted as the physical location for creative, experimental, and progressive regimes, the scope and limitation of their aspirations vary and their implementation uneven. As various levels of governmental actors and institutions pursue sustainable development, scholars have raised the issue of inequity and whether the poor are being left behind in these emerging processes. Often, these difficult and contradictory tensions are what draw many students to the planning profession. Productively engaging with these conversations and articulating new outlets for the field of planning become paramount as the global community continues to face a growing populism that is challenging good governance, alongside social inequities and injustices—exacerbated only further by natural and man-made disasters—that inhibit the full realization of sustainable development in an era where such ambition is no longer wishful thinking, but necessary. To achieve any normative vision of justice, equity, and sustainability, planners must work against a gangrenous economic system in which so few are privileged but so many are left exploited and powerless.

The call for a planning publication at the Harvard Graduate School of Design has gained interest over recent years. With faculty and institutional support, planning students began to consider this idea more vigorously in the fall of 2017. A series of focus groups conducted among planning students concluded that there were both urgent demand and need for a flexible, diverse platform for student engagement on the many ongoing and emerging conversations in the field of planning. Diverging from convention, this publication aspires to be a creative outlet for students interested in planning in any form to contribute scholarship, considering long- and short-form essays; student work; conference highlights; work and internship reflections; photos and photo essays; artwork; and poems.

There is no shortage of literature in the field of urban planning, and many schools have a dedicated publication for planning students. Ideas, perspectives, and reflections on urban planning are saturated across mediums, so any new endeavor risks itself the dilemma of legitimizing its existence; after all, any publication needs to serve some specific goal(s), which may well be addressing existing gaps than struggling to produce something groundbreakingly “new.” However, what is “new” needs to be discovered and, unless written, remains buried.

In a letter to newly admitted students last year, Harvard Graduate School of Design Dean Mohsen Mostafavi warned of the growing, dangerous propaganda that “has found a convenient way to blame the ‘other’ for everything that is wrong with our society. This clever sleight of hand does disservice to the disenfranchised, who have the right to homes, schools, workplaces, public spaces, and livable community.” Such propaganda and its insidious rhetoric have prompted global response across various groups, igniting social protests and movements. Yet, dissent can easily become passive protest and self-righteous ideology when divorced from action. Especially arising from an institution such as Harvard, critiques can easily be passed as “cheap” talk.

Building on student and faculty work and scholarship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and beyond, the Harvard Urban Forum will be a space for dialogue that adds to planning practice. Meanwhile, the interlocutors in Gund Hall who will be contributing to this publication are never far from practice, continually testing their ideas and visions in their daily lives and profession.

This Inaugural Edition is meant to showcase the diversity of thematic and geographical interests at the GSD, showing works from planning, architecture, and design students. It shares a perspective on the thought process behind our projects and engages with topical subjects relating to urban planning. As we continue to grow, we will regularly publish new content. We hope that readers will engage with our materials and authors, and provide feedback along the way.  Akin to the planning process, the Harvard Urban Forum is but the first iteration of a plan. Unexpected outcomes, new discoveries, and mistakes will shape and transform this working project.

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