Critical thinking is central to learning in architecture and design. Can we apply the same principle to urban planning and design practice, and even policy?
Critical feedback is a crucial ingredient for achieving mastery, whether it be a child learning to ride a bicycle, a sportsperson being coached or an apprentice learning on the job. “Deliberate practice” based on feedback from a responsive expert may not be sufficient for success but it remains key to improving performance.
Architectural and design pedagogy similarly place critique from an expert teacher and guide front and centre. Students are introduced to the ‘crit’ system early whereby they present and discuss their interventions to receive oral and visual feedback on designs, i.e. crits, from faculty and peers at regular intervals through the design development process. This training creates a community of democratic practitioners used to self-analysis and reflection.
If it’s good for the individual, does it also work for the group, the organization or society? Organizational researchers certainly recognize the importance of feedback mechanisms to creating and sustaining of learning in organizations. What connection, if at all, does criticism in pedagogy bear to built environment planning and even urban policy?
Participatory planning is increasingly recognized as an important mode for citizens to voice their input in the ideation and execution of projects. However, participation requires a radically open mindset that remains rare.
The difference between academic and practice cultures are salient here. Researchers are used to rigorous and sometimes brutal processes of peer review where every aspect of an argument or proposal is dissected without mercy by “blinded” reviewers. Blind review aims, if not always successfully, to take researcher and reviewer identity out of the equation. Peer review processes themselves are subject to harsh critique, but they foster a culture that welcomes and normalizes criticism. The result of this relentless “crit” culture is a body of knowledge that is tested, if not always practice-ready. Scientific and management fields thus often invest in the consolidation, translation and dissemination of practice insights.
What would it take for practice in urban planning and policy to develop similar ecosystems to vet learning and knowledge emerging from ideation and execution? One precondition is a tried and tested body of existing knowledge, based on both practice and research. Urban scholarship in India from across the social sciences over the last few decades has advanced to the point that precisely such a robust literature does exist. For example, an evidence-based knowledge repository in the forthcoming volume India’s Greenfield Urban Future critically analyses the legacy of new city and urban planning experiments.
The study of urban design, planning and policy also benefits from interdisciplinary engagement. The very nature of urban development demands a high degree of collaboration between administrative, financial, technical and design practitioners and others. Any gaps between theory and practice can lead to expensive mistakes. Developing methodical feedback loops between practitioners right from the feasibility stage will improve both urban policy and project implementation. A classroom that encourages students to wear Edward de Bono’s different ‘thinking-hats’ will go a long way in helping practitioners become more receptive to different perspectives. Equally, broadening the scope of urban planning, design and policy curriculum will prepare students better for the interdisciplinary world of urban development when they graduate.
Starting with the most basic forms of human learning and pedagogy, critical feedback is a key ingredient for growth. As we have argued, re-examining the pejorative view of critical input may improve the resilience of planning and policy outcomes.