PLAN 83: Interview
Interview: Eran Ben-Joseph

New Head, Department of Urban Studies and Planning

In January, Eran Ben-Joseph took over as the head of SA+P’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, succeeding Amy Glasmeier who is stepping down after four years in the post to focus on teaching and research.

A professor of landscape architecture and planning, and most recently head of SA+P’s Joint Program in City Design and Development, Ben-Joseph brings extensive experience as a city planner, urban designer and landscape architect in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the US and has led multi-disciplinary projects in Singapore, Barcelona, Santiago, Tokyo and Washington DC.

He is the author of numerous articles, monographs and book chapters and has authored or co-authored five books including Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities, The Code of the City, RENEW Town and Regulating Place. His most recent book, ReThinking a Lot, exploring the history and potential future of the parking lot, was enthusiastically received by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Slate, NPR, Smithsonian, the BBC and many, many more.

He is the recipient of the Wade Award for his work on Representation of Places – a collaborative project with the Media Lab – and the Milka Bliznakov Prize for his historical work on Pioneering Women of Landscape Architecture. His current research focuses on the role of the built environment in the travel behavior of older adults, as well as its role in causing and/or exacerbating obesity, and the development of a model for community and housing design that strives for zero net energy, carbon neutrality and reduced ecological impacts.

He holds a BA in landscape architecture and a PhD in environmental planning and urban design, both from UC/Berkeley, and a Master of Agriculture and Landscape Architecture from Chiba National University of Japan. In addition to MIT, he has taught at Virginia Tech, UC/Berkeley and The Technion.

Near the end of the term last fall, editor Scott Campbell got together with him for a chat about some of his work and his new challenges as department head.

You grew up in Israel, isn’t that right?

That’s right.

I’m told that the landscape effort there has just been jaw-dropping and I’m wondering… Did that have anything to do with your choice to pursue landscape architecture?

Israel does have a beautiful landscape, but while growing up there I also saw its destruction. It’s a very dense, small country, which went through rapid urbanization. I saw a lot of it being changed not necessarily for the better. So I think I was searching for a profession that would somehow allow me to get the skills and abilities to work with environmental and natural systems and incorporate them into large scale planning and the built environment.

You’ve had a lot of practical experience with all of that.

I have, yes. After I finished my undergraduate degree at Berkeley, I went back to Israel and worked for a landscape office for about two and a half years and very quickly, because of circumstances in the office, I was responsible for planning large-scale projects. Later on, while I was studying in Japan, I also worked part-time in the office of architect Kisho Korokawa, one of the disciples of Kenzo Tange, the founder of the Metabolism movement. It was during Japan’s economic boom, so we did a lot of massive public projects such as urban streams restoration, regional parks and the design of new towns.

You also had your own firm for a while?
After Japan, I returned to Israel and established a firm with an old friend of mine who I worked with in my first job. We did environmental planning, landscape architecture and large-scale housing projects. We were quite fortunate because both of us were project managers in the older firm so we had good relations with many housing developers. Plus, about a year after we opened our firm, the Soviet Union collapsed and Israel had over a million immigrants coming in within a period of one or two years. Add that to the existing population of about four million. You can imagine the impact on the planning and design fields.

I didn’t realize that.

The whole country just went berserk in terms of housing and developments. And the Ministry of Housing decided that in order to manage all this new development, every project had to have a multidisciplinary team that included landscape architects, environmental planners, architects, engineers and so on.

Well, that was pretty handy for you.

Yes, we were getting many phone calls from developers, architects and engineers who wanted us to be part of their team. So very quickly, we went from two of us to almost 15 people in the office. We designed and planned large new towns, suburban housing, infill developments, parks, streets, everything.

You won an award for your research on women in landscape architecture. What drew you to that topic?

I was always intrigued with the history of landscape architecture, the fact that city planning grew out of landscape architecture –

Wait. What?

Yes. In the United States, unlike in Europe, urban planning as a profession grew out of the Progressive Era and the field of landscape architecture. If you look at the people we talk of today as the founding fathers of the profession – such as Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., John Nolen and Henry Wright – most of them were landscape architects.

Would you say that the fields of urban planning and landscape architecture are growing back together a bit?

I think so, yes. In the last ten years, or even 15 years, there’s resurgence of interest in physical planning and design within urban planning. MIT was lucky because that tradition was always kept alive here. We have the Kevin Lynch legacy – the legacy of what was called, at the time, environmental design – which has always been a strong part of the urban planning program at MIT. That component was never lost. So when there was a resurgence of interest in the physical planning side of the field, MIT was well positioned to attract the students who were interested in that.

OK, let’s get back to your research on women in landscape architecture. What was it that led you to that?

At some point I started to notice that when women were mentioned in the history of the profession, they often had an MIT degree. And being at MIT, I was curious. So I got a small grant and tried to uncover what had happened. And I found out that from 1900 to 1909, there was a landscape program at MIT within the Department of Architecture. It was the first and only program to admit both women and men, which was unheard of at the time. I thought it was interesting in terms of the history of women in the design and city planning professions.

Let me ask you about your new position as department head. The Department of Urban Studies and Planning has been named the best planning department in the nation for several years running. How do you hope to improve on that game?

Well, to maintain our position as number one is both a burden and a privilege. We are expected to be leaders and chart new directions for the field. While I think being ranked as the best program is important, it’s not everything. I think that we need to continue to do what we do, and do what we do best, while at the same time push for innovation, embrace change and take risks. I think we have to make sure that the faculty has the freedom and tools to explore and do new things and to feel comfortable in pushing the envelope. There are a lot of good things in the department that we can continue to build on. We’ve done well by hiring four junior faculty last year but we’ve got to continue to build the next generation of our faculty and also to build our diversity to make sure that the faculty reflects the make-up of our student body. We’ve also done very well in the last few years at increasing the volume of funded research. Look at the $25 million grant that our faculty received from USAID to develop and evaluate the impacts of technologies intended to alleviate poverty.

That $25 million is actually for a consortium, right? It’s not all for us.

No, there are many other collaborators at MIT and elsewhere. But it’s still a huge, huge research project for us.

What do you think you bring to the table as department head?

I see myself as someone who bridges practice and research. Half of my career has been in professional practice and half in academia, researching, writing, teaching and reflecting on practice. I also believe that I may be the first department head who has a background in landscape architecture as well as planning. So one thing that I hope is to have a much closer relationship and integration with practice, and with our sister Department of Architecture, as well as with the Media Lab. Coming from a design background, I’m positioned to help mesh our interests in planning policies and physical design, and to join forces with others at SA+P on important issues we will be facing. Issues related to informal and formal housing, expansion of mega cities, depleting natural resources, crumbling infrastructure. Many in our school are interested in investigating and solving these problems. We could easily form interdisciplinary think tanks, or tracks, across our school, and across the Institute, that deal with these and other relevant topics. It will help us define our Intellectual discourse while exploring spaces between disciplinary boundaries.

You said you wanted to make sure that the faculty felt comfortable ‘pushing the envelope’. What kind of risks are you hoping that they’ll take on?

I think that one of my responsibilities as a department head is to be a steward and an enabler so that faculty and students are encouraged to push their work into new directions. We have to create an environment that gives the faculty freedom and the ability to explore. MIT has a wonderful entrepreneurial culture that we should embrace. And as many entrepreneurs will tell you, we should not necessarily try to always control for the outcome of our exploration. Great discoveries and successes are often built from failures and unconventional partnerships. For example, I love the fact that some on the faculty are working with large companies such as Exxon Mobil or Toyota. Some might say we shouldn’t work with those large corporations. But I believe that there’s no reason not to figure out a way to work with them and tap their capabilities.

That fits in with your eclectic background, doesn’t it – to explore in all directions.

In private practice I had to work with developers and contractors. I quickly learned that I could preach and scream until I was blue in the face but until I learned to work with them, and understand their positions, change was not going to happen.

Can you give an example of that?

Part of my early work was on privately managed, gated communities. In the urban planning field, everything was very negative about gated communities, right? And there are a lot of negatives. Yet about one in six Americans lives in such a community. So I tried to find out what are the interesting things, the good things that are associated with these places. What I found out was that developers were often building private communities to achieve greater density, efficiency or even for protecting environmental resources. And what was surprising was that they could not achieve that by building regular developments. That’s a lesson to be learned.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the department, and the field in general?

There are plenty. The obvious ones may be climate change, rapidly aging population, world-wide global migration to cities and the growing stress on natural systems. Other challenges, especially in the US, have to do with shifting demographic and social and cultural changes. Issues such as inclusionary housing, jobs and health care will have a tremendous impact on the way we will govern, operate and plan our cities. They will also have an impact on our profession and how we teach it to the next generation of planners and designers.

What do you say to graduates when they leave and go out into the profession?

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and not worry too much. Urban planning is an extremely versatile profession. What I find when I talk to our alumni is that they often thought they were going to do one thing when they graduated, then a few years later they found themselves doing something totally different. For example I have met urban designers who have become real estate developers of affordable housing. They never really studied real estate, but they found a niche there. I think that in that sense, everything for our graduates is open, all the way from jobs in the private sector to working in public agencies to being employed by nonprofit organizations. It’s a much wider range of opportunity than what exists for graduates of architecture or landscape architecture programs.

That’s a pretty good ad for the planning department.

It is.