Urban Planning Mission & History


The mission of the Urban Planning Program is to cultivate planning leaders who are ethical, politically committed, and technically capable when  planning better places.

Students in the program will study:
(1) fundamental economic and political processes that shape the built environment of cities,
(2) ways in which governments, community-based organizations, private sector actors, and political mobilizations produce and influence these processes, and
(3) crafting of collective efforts to improve the quality of life of city residents.

The tensions among market forces, civil society, and the goals of planning are of major concern. Particular attention is given to the importance of expert knowledge and the quest for social justice.

In pursuit of these goals, the Program focuses on the ideas and techniques developed by planners and social activists since the emergence of the planning profession in the early 20th century.

To this, the faculty brings knowledge from the social sciences, architecture and urban design, historic preservation, and the humanities.

Columbia University's urban planning faculty consists of leading national and international scholars who conduct research in the field of planning as well as highly-regarded practicing professionals who connect students to practical issues and perspectives. Recent faculty research has focused on gentrification in Africa-American neighborhoods of New York City, slum dwellers in African cities, minority small business development, office building conversion in Lower Manhattan, informal sector work and gender relations in India, and planning for the World Trade Center rebuilding. The faculty has broad interests that range from water and sanitation in Calcutta and social housing in Germany to affordable housing and the challenges faced by low-wage immigrants in New York City to the re-building of neighborhood economies in New Orleans.

Throughout the curriculum, the emphasis is on real-world problems and how planners can act to improve the lives of urban residents. In doing so, the Program takes the cities of the world as its laboratory. With the program located in New York City, one of the global centers of international commerce and culture and a city experiencing population growth, the faculty looks to the city's planning issues for studios and classroom examples, while students often find their thesis topics there. Still, the problems of cities "whether they be London or Sao Paulo, Las Vegas or Nairobi" -- can only be understood in a global context.
By the end of their time in the Program, students will be competent to analyze issues, develop plans, and advise policymakers on the important issues related to the growth and development of cities. They will do so with the intent of making cities more just, more equitable, and more prosperous.

A Brief History of the Urban Planning Program

Urban Planning at Columbia University dates from 1912 when the then-Director of the School of Architecture made town planning a required course in the architectural curriculum.

By 1935, the School was also offering a planning studio taught by Henry Wright and Werner Hegemann. Wright was one of the founders of the Regional Planning Association of America, a proponent of the ideas of Ebenezer Howard, and (with Clarence Stein) planner of the famous community of Radburn (NJ). Stein and Werner Hegemann, an international critic of architecture and planning, elevated Planning to a specialization within the Master of Architecture program. Titled "Town Planning and Housing Studies," the specialization was in place until the late 1940s when Urban Planning became a division within the School and enrolled its own students.

During the late 1930s, Raymond Unwin, one of England's most famous planners and a key figure in the Garden City movement, was brought to Columbia to lecture on housing and town planning. He and Wright were the first of many illustrative practitioners and scholars who have taught in the program, including Charles Abrams (who is considered by the American Planning Association as one of the "pioneers" of planning), Percival Goodman (another "planning pioneer"), Chester Rapkin, Henry Churchill, Sig Grava, Saskia Sassen, and Susan Fainstein.

By 1950, the School was offering a Master of Science in Planning and Housing and in 1953 added a doctoral program. With its elevation to program status, Urban Planning began to distinguish itself from architecture by offering fewer courses in design and civil engineering and more courses in analytical methods and social analysis. Beginning in the late 1960s, the Program developed a commitment to citizen engagement and, to this day, focuses on America's most vulnerable groups. During these years, an international component was also added to the Program, with faculty and students engaged in alleviating poverty in and planning for developing countries. Today, the planning curriculum has returned to its design roots while retaining its commitment to social justice and to the Global South.

Throughout the decades, the Urban Planning Program has produced a multitude of outstanding practitioners, including Amanda Burden (current head of the New York City Department of City Planning), Michael Skrebutenas (Deputy Commissioner, New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal), and Thomas Wright (Executive Director, Regional Plan Association). Graduates of the doctoral program include Eugenie Birch (professor at the University of Pennsylvania, former member of the NYC City Planning Commission, and recent recipient of the Planning Educator Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning), Richard Florida (famous for his work on the "creative class"), and Jacqueline Leavitt (professor at UCLA and a central figure in the feminist movement within Urban Planning).

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