You Can’t Get Everything From a Book

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To those who think that all that scientists do is sit in ivory towers and write up theories: try living a day in the life of an MA student of Urban Management and Development (UMD) at the IHS (Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies). These students try to use their knowledge in making for a more sustainable city.

TEXT: Loes Singeling-van der Voort
PHOTO: © Claudia Broekhoff


MA students Maja Mercina (32, from Slovenia) and Joan Lyons (23, from the U.S.) were in for a surprise when they went to the Feijenoord neighbourhood for a workshop Action Planning. In the course of this workshop they had to identify – and develop a solving strategy – for an urban problem. ‘But in talking to people we realised we didn’t want to change that much,’ says Maja. ‘We wanted to promote the neighbourhood as it was, with its curious mix of people of all backgrounds.’

Action Planning, taught by Carolina Lunetta, and the more in-depth specialisation course Urban Strategies and Planning (USP) – taught by Els Keunen – are classes designed to bring the UMD students in touch with the city. ‘Urban planning isn’t just about theoretical plan, but also about the process. How do you involve stakeholders, how do you develop ideas in collaboration?’ explains Lunetta. ‘Students learn the theories in class, and then get to apply those theories in the city itself – they get to make the connection between practice and theory.’

Students were at times surprised at what they learned during their more practical classes. For example: Feijenoord doesn’t have a very good reputation, but the students found that the people of the neighbourhood were open and welcoming, and that a sense of belonging kept them together. In Joan’s group, the discovery was made that a lot of women migrants have trouble with finding ways of participating in society. ‘That’s why our goal was to set up a self-managing interest group that would give the women the chance to organise their own programmes, ones that were relevant to their own environments.’

Another thing that the students noticed during the USP specialisation course, which held the theme of ‘Food and the City’, was that there wasn’t a good connection between locally produced food and the people themselves. Joan: ‘So much of Dutch food is exported. But at the same time there’s people who don’t have access to quality food.’ Maja: ‘We often talk about how good locally produced food is, or how good organic food is, but not everyone can afford that locally produced food.’

At the end of the specialisation students came up with a list of actions that the local government can take to minimise food waste and improve access to food. They presented their work at a congress – organised by the students themselves – where they’d invited several concerned parties. Joan: ‘We learned how to get in touch with stakeholders, what it means to set up a plan and how to keep it relevant for everyone involved.’

While the question remains of whether the students’ plans will actually be realised, Joan and Maja have learned a lot. Joan, for example, is currently taking an MA class where she’s applying certain aspects of USP specialisation. Maja: ‘We’ve learned so much and have expanded our network by going out into the world. It’s a very important part of the specialisation. You can’t get everything from a book.’

  • Who: Carolina Lunetta, Maja Mercina, Els Keunen & Joan Lyons.

  • ‘It’s wonderful that students get out of the classroom and meet people from different backgrounds. The work they do is good publicity for the neighbourhood.’