Urban Planning: Theory & Practice

One of my favorite classes so far at Brandeis has been UWS—a favorite that I’m definitely in the minority for. The University Writing Seminar is a required class that all Brandeis students have to take, and each class has a different theme that students write about. My freshman UWS was called “The Decay of the American City,” and was about exploring urban planning practices in America.

Even though I didn’t really volunteer to take the class, I ended up discovering a whole subject of study that I didn’t know existed. I’d never before given much thought to how urban landscapes are developed, or really investigated the underlying ideas about how we put together the spaces where we live.

This past semester, I took a different class that approached these same ideas from a more literary perspective. “The Novel and the City,” a comparative literature class, explored the development of both novels and cities over the past three centuries. Again, I got to study how cities and societies are formed, and the social concepts that dominate how we construct our physical and social environments.

These two classes—my two favorites so far—have been excellent precursors for my current internship. For my internship this summer, I’ve been spending a lot of time researching urban spaces on the Gulf Coast, specifically in Southeast Texas and South Louisiana, and putting these ideas into practice. From my time at Brandeis, I’m now able to more critically investigate communities, to look at how they’re put together and how people live in them.

The Gulf Coast hosts both people and petrochemical plants, and often they’re uncomfortably situated in close proximity to one another. For example, in the Meadowbrook/Allandale neighborhood of Houston, Texas, there’s Cesar Chavez High School, which is located less than a quarter-mile away from a Texas Petrochemicals refinery, a Goodyear plant, and an Exxon-Mobil chemical facility.  The dire situation is detailed in this excellent Texas Observer article, which says that “a major accident at any of the three plants, by the industry’s own estimates, would injure or kill many Chavez students.”

Looking at this physical space from a critical perspective, we have to ask tough questions about it. For instance, why was this high school built so close to a refinery? Might it have to do with the respective racial and income make-ups of the neighborhood?

When we look at these two maps below, sourced from 2010 Census data for Meadowbrook/Allandale, the situation becomes more distressing.

Meadowbrook/Allandale, and its adjacent neighborhoods, like Manchester and Harrisburg, are living examples of the disparities in how our society treats both the poor and minorities. They’re why films like In the Air need to be made, because any society that treats its citizens so poorly needs to be called out.

My time spent at Brandeis, too, has helped me with my internship in that I got to learn about the subject of urban planning in theory and now I get to see it in practice. I’m excited to help tell the stories of these marginalized communities and to help fight for justice to be done.