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MIT Better World

By Michael Blanding


11.312 Engaging Community: Models and Methods for Designers and Planners


Ceasar McDowell, Professor of the Practice of Community Development, Department of Urban Studies and Planning

From the Catalog

As professionals, designers and planners often find themselves struggling to find the “right” way to engage with residents of a community. In practice, designers and planners may use multiple models and methods, even in a single project. This course will review a range of models for engaging communities, from a client-consultant relationship to advocacy, community organizing, consensus building, capacity building, and knowledge building and the ways these different models have been used in design and planning practice and community building. We will examine these engagement techniques within the broader frame of planning as a tool for strengthening democracy.

McDowell: “As planners, we have a real focus on making a difference in the world, in particular for communities that are really struggling. For a lot of students, questions of identity and voice come up with them when they think about entering places they are not necessarily from, and we wanted to make sure they had a space for thinking about their own practice.”


Founded in 2009 with professor of landscape architecture and planning Anne Whiston Spirn.


A small, intimate seminar of 9 students meets around a table in 9-450B each Wednesday from 2–5 pm. During the first half of the class, students interview a guest speaker about his or her tools and techniques. The second half of class is open for discussion.

McDowell: “We are trying more than anything to get at the rewards and struggles the guest speaker has experienced in working with communities and engaging communities in planning processes.”

Sample Guest Speaker

Katarzyna Balug, cofounder, Department of Play, which builds “momentary and irresistible fictional worlds” in public spaces for communal exploration of civic issues and policies.

McDowell: “Everything Katarzyna does is prototyping to get people into the mindset of experimentation. Rather than the planner driving change, it lets the driver be the fact that people are finding a space to use their imagination and interact with others.”

From the Reading List

  • Kenneth Bailey, Lori Lobenstine, and Kiara Nagel, “Spatial Justice: A Frame for Reclaiming Our Rights to Be, Thrive, Express, and Connect”
  • Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, Chapter 1, “The Word Parrhesia,” and Chapter 4, “Public Life”
  • Michael Jacoby Brown, Building Powerful Community Organizations: A Personal Guide to Creating Groups that Can Solve Problems and Change the World

McDowell: “How the city is constructed has embedded in it messages about social justice—understanding how we use that space can have real implications for fairness and equality.”

Practical Elements

Working in groups, students will design and present an engagement plan for a citywide project. Each team will develop guidelines for engaging with the community in one of the following areas: framing, creating possibilities, setting limitations, or coming to agreement.

McDowell: “In order to make these guidelines more robust, each student will find someone they consider ‘other’ than themselves, and through extensive interviews will build a written portrait describing that person. These portraits will then be used to ‘interrogate’ the plan, asking how it will work for these particular people.”


To make students more comfortable working with communities, particularly communities very different from their own, and help them develop a deeper understanding of their community planning needs.

McDowell: “Students who come to MIT have an incredible opportunity and privilege to shape the world; and yet, the world does not do a good job of enabling the broader public to engage with folks who are determining what the city should look like. The kind of people MIT is putting out into the world have to help take on that burden, and ask: how do we open up more space for the demographically complex public to be active participants in shaping the places in which they live, work, and play?”