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An introduction course that builds on the students' experiences

The skyline of Santiago de Chile
Santiago de Chile, one of the cities represented in the course. Photo: Horst Engelmann, Pixabay
Published Jun 22, 2022

During an intense two-month introduction course, the students in the interdisciplinary master’s programme Sustainable Urban Planning and Design make the Lounge their home at KTH. They meet fellow students with experience from different disciplines and of varied backgrounds. And precisely the reflection on the own experience and the meeting with others is an essential part of the education.

Each year some 800 to 900 applications are made to the master’s programme and about 90 eventually end up arriving in the fall to start the first year. The students have previously studied architecture, environmental studies, and urban planning. In addition to their different educational backgrounds, they are also from cities all over the world and bring with them crucial and sometimes starkly different experiences.

“We have students from exciting cities all over the world here, from Borlänge to Södermalm, Karachi, Durban, Chicago, Boston, Santiago de Chile, Kairo, Kochi and Shanghai,” explains Henrik Ernstson, associate professor in Urban Sustainability Studies, who makes his debut as the convenor of the course.

“The range surprised me when I first began to teach in the course – but it’s also a great asset. By incorporating the student’s own experiences in the classroom they get to see how cities and urbanization can be quite different, helping to challenge sometimes taken-for-granted ideas that cities are like, say London, New York and Stockholm. Many of our students are from the global South where urbanisation is fast but also distinctly diverse, with experiences of informal systems and markets. That fosters ways of thinking differently about solutions to urban problems with accessibility to water, energy and transport. Our classroom, in its best moments, become a buzzing beehive of challenging how one thinks about cities.“

Meetings between disciplines and backgrounds

The introduction course starts with two intense group assignments. The first is about architectural presentations and design of the urban space and in the other, the students get to work with planning and planning tools, how to describe urban challenges and possible ways forward with text and images and how to present. The student groups are put together interdisciplinary and during the assignments, they train to reflect on how the interdisciplinary work functions. An important part of the master’s programme is to challenge your own disciplinary experiences and find ways to work and see a larger whole when it comes to urban and regional challenges.

After the course’s group assignments have started, Henrik Ernstson’s parallel course moment, which is about introducing different perspectives on sustainable development, begins. The pedagogic aim is to supply the students with tools that they can use to critically reflect on the concept of sustainability. 

“Sustainability has become a deeply problematic expression since many use it, from large corporations to people in general,” says Henrik Ernstson. “There is a risk that the expression doesn’t mean anything. With my colleagues, we give the students critical social scientific tools to engage urban sustainability, what I call political-ecological tools. It is among other things about seeing how the city is formed through wider historical and geographical processes, rather than only focusing on the buildings and roads that make up its physical infrastructure.”

Critical reflection on sustainability and problems

The students also get to familiarize themselves with feminist perspectives on the public space and they encounter feminist theories on urban environments. The final course moment is a reflective essay, which is handed in at the end of the course. In it, the students get to critically reflect on the concept of sustainability with help from the literature that is discussed in seminars but also reflect on the work in the group assignments.  

“The students in the course are wise and intellectually mature already when they arrive here. And although it is easy to become disheartened regarding sustainability issues with deepened environmental problems and growing social class divides, it is important to create a space to reflect on that feeling, allowing it to take space and be articulated, to find a language for it. Here at KTH, one is often looking for a solution. In this first course of the programme, we also want to give the students tools to formulate a critical image of the nature of things which in turn becomes a prerequisite for asking in-depth questions, having conversations with each other to mould a reflective and responsible practice for the professions we train. To quickly produce a solution can too easily lead to using solutions that are at hand without scrutinizing the problem enough.”

With the Lounge as a base and the world as the object of study

The introduction course, and much of the master’s programme, is conducted in the Lounge, a room at Teknikringen 10b, which becomes both a lecture hall and a study room where the students will spend much time during their two years in SUPD. The Lounge can be partitioned with folding walls and the materials that the groups produce during the course can remain in the Lounge, as in a studio environment. Last year they built city models in lego and clay. Posters from presentations can also be left hanging on the walls. This turns the Lounge into a quite special place on campus for our students and plays a role in creating a cohort where they get to know each other over disciplinary boundaries, and where their own experience of urban and regional change become valuable. Henrik Ernstson means that the Lounge here also serves as a physical place for thinking theory: 

“In ancient Greece, there was a role called theorein, a person assigned to observe the costumes, rites and religions of other places, to then return home to give an account that could be understood. That activity is the base for theory building—being able to see something in a different light requires dislocation. But it also shows that theories are place-dependent, which is something that opens up for a much more inclusive idea of urban theory production. If Paris, London, or Los Angeles have been the models for theoretical thinking about cities in the twentieth century, we now also have to include Karachi, Lagos, and Kampala, and many other necessary cities from where to think about cities and urbanization in the twenty-first century. This more inclusive view of urban theory makes the experiences from different cities, that our students carry with them, more visible and important. And it encourages them to learn from others in the course,” Henrik Ernstson concludes.

Diversity among the teachers as well

There is a multitude of experiences and perspectives among the teachers as well. Another thing that is special about the course is that it is a collaboration between the Department of Sustainable Development, Environmental Science and Engineering, the Department of Architecture and the Division of Urban and Regional Studies. Part of creating the course has been about how the collaboration between three departments should work. The teacher group now has valuable routines and tools that Henrik Ernstson believes others at KTH could learn from.

Henrik Ernstson is an urban environmental scholar who had gathered several different perspectives before coming to KTH. After an engineering degree in applied physics from Linköping University and a doctorate in systems ecology and natural resource governance from Stockholm University, he has spent a lot of time at foreign universities, among them ten years at an urban research institute in Cape Town, postdoctoral studies at Stanford in California and most recently at the geography department in Manchester. 

“I try to explode the idea that the city is its built-up structures. Instead I have learnt to think in terms of how processes and flows over geographical and historical scales constantly produce and reproduce the city. Understanding a city and its use of resources, social and ecological dynamics and its power relations and class divides can partly be traced to the relation between the city and its hinterland that produces goods. For instance, the industrial city Manchester grew explosively with its base in cotton production that was based on the work of enslaved people in the Caribbean and Southern USA, where instead plantation towns were shaped. The capital and profits from enslaved labour that was carried over the Atlantic had material and cultural imprints in Manchester, as well as in Southern US cities. Now Skellefteå is a ”battery-boom-city” to enable emission-free cities through the entry of electric cars into the city space. But this technical development also creates water conflicts in the salt deserts of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, where lithium for producing batteries is extracted. If we use this geographical-historical perspective on cities, we can see how other kinds of commodities, not least oil, coal and minerals, weave together a daunting scale of urbanization that some has called 'planetary urbanisation'. In the two-year master’s programme, we give the students tools to develop critical perspectives, to write, design, express, comprehend and tackle problems that aren’t easy to solve – but complicated and often contested. We equip the students to become important urban thinkers and doers of the twenty-first century.”

Text: Johan C Thorburn

This is the 33rd article in the School of Architecture and the Built Environment  's new series of articles on selected research, education or collaboration initiatives from each department. You can find the previous articles here:  Archive

Belongs to: School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE)
Last changed: Jun 22, 2022