Illustration by Tennyson showing Humpty-Dumpty talking to a baffled Alice in “Through the Looking Glass”.
Idiosyncrasy, Scope, Evolving Paradigms and Internationalization
‘Urbanism’ is not an English word, but at TU Delft we use it to express a particular understanding of a discipline that is concerned with the organization and the design of human activity over a territory. In continental Europe and in Latin America, ‘Urbanism’ can describe various types of understandings and professional qualifications with an emphasis on the design of the built environment.
In the Netherlands, there is a particular understanding of the discipline, which is not always easily communicable to outsiders, partly because practices have become so ingrained that they have become ‘invisible’, and partly because those practices are the result of very specific societal practices which do not translate easily into other contexts. What Urbanism comprises in the Netherlands is not easily explained: there is a strong element of urban and regional design mixed with planning components, with tints of engineering, landscape architecture, sociology, political science, history, spatial economy and now even computer modelling.
When the daily board of the department of Urbanism of the TU Delft decided to implement a new methodology programme in its two-year Masters programme, we were faced with some big challenges. Within our department there is a large variety of ideas and opinions about what an education in Urbanism should entail and what the relations between research and education ought to be. Four main issues arose. First, as we explained, there is a particular understanding of the discipline and the activities and actions connected to it in the Netherlands (idiosyncrasy). Second, the scope of the discipline is very wide and different communities of practice have different understandings of the questions to be addressed (scope). The third issue concerns the dynamic nature of urban studies and practices today. The existence of new spatial challenges, new tools to understand them and new practices to tackle them means that the scope of the discipline is dynamic and in permanent evolution. Therefore, traditional and sometimes somewhat simplistic understandings of urban development and the practices involved are being challenged and new research and practice paradigms are arising (evolving paradigms). The fourth issue concerns an education in an increasingly internationalized environment, where understandings about the nature of the discipline are bound to differ (internationalization).
These four issues are interconnected and they have a huge impact on the nature of the questions being asked in an academic environment and the answers being delivered (the ontological question), the methods employed to answer those questions (the methodological question) and the discourses being built around questions, answers and methods (the epistemological question). The department of Urbanism consists a variety of chairs. All chairs form their own small communities of practice. The MSc Urbanism curriculum is taught by staff members from all chairs. Different communities of practice often have very different worldviews.
A worldview is basically a set of beliefs that one holds about the nature of the world and one’s place in it (Biggs, Buchler and Rocco, 2009). In philosophy of science, a worldview determines how one sees the world and the questions one asks about this world. In short, in academia different worldviews determine different research questions and the activities one would undertake to answer them. These different activities form different paradigms of inquiry (also called logics of enquiry).
These different paradigms of inquiry must be articulated if Urbanism wants to claim its place as a specific discipline and not a collection of disparate disciplines next to each other. In short, knowledge in Urbanism must be articulated across disciplines and across communities of practice in order to avoid what we call “the Humpty Dumpty dilemma”, that is, a situation where knowledge is being produced and validated by one’s own peers, without outside scrutiny. In this scenario, knowledge becomes highly idiosyncratic and “words mean exactly what one wants them to mean”, without regard for inter or cross-disciplinarity.
See the whole article written by Roberto Rocco and Remon Rooij and published in ATLANTIS HERE.