Sun Shimeng (2019 Fellow) is a researcher and assistant professor at Tsinghua University’s Department of Urban Planning. Her research interests lie in ancient Chinese cities studies and the conservation planning of historic cities. ACC supported Sun to travel to the US to partake in the Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies (SPURS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There, she exchanged ideas with scholars from around the world while studying conservation planning of historic environments in the US. We are grateful to the Hsin Chong - K.N. Godfrey Yeh Education Fund for their sponsorship of Sun's fellowship.
With the support of ACC, I participated in the 2019-2020 SPURS program. When I arrived at MIT in August 2019, I had great curiosity about how this program could have run successfully for half a century, and how it would help mid-career professionals reflect on their work, particularly someone like myself who already had clear career objectives. Together with 14 other fellows from all over the world, I embarked on this unusual journey late last summer.
Shimeng (fifth left) and other participants at MIT-SPURS program
My first impression of SPURS was its academic focus, combined with an international perspective and a broad spectrum of planning ideas. In the weekly seminars, we immersed ourselves in debates on a wide range of topics: from the global economy to American exceptionalism, from development theory to community engagement, from professional ethics to reflective practice, from racism and sexism to leadership and partnership. The breadth of themes explained the significance of “reflection” as we were encouraged to walk out of our comfort zones. Moreover, we were not only encouraged to reflect on what happened in our own country in terms of specific planning concepts or theory but also privileged to learn what 14 other countries have experienced in relation to the same issue. Geographically, we had three fellows from Europe, one from the Middle East, five from Asia, one from Africa, and five from South America. Professionally, we had five architects and urban planners, five public servants, one journalist, one economist, and two urban academics. We celebrated our differences and diversity in views and methodologies. And it’s exactly the diversity and sometimes the commonality that inspired me to obtain a better comprehension of the world, my country, and myself.
Shimeng's field survey on the National Historical Park in San Francisco
My second impression was the practice-oriented involvement with American society and issues. Practical activities were included in our schedule besides courses. We served dinner for 200 homeless people at the Pine Street Inn shelter; we explored multiple social housing properties built by the non-profit Madison Park Development Corporation; we learned the details of planning collaboration and negotiation at the Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council; we investigated the planning and design of national memorials in Washington, D.C. Open discussions on the American system and issues were encouraged in our daily life: we questioned the U.S. government’s indifference to homeless people during our Maine retreat; we argued on our subway trips about appropriate ways for citizens to express their ideas; we commented on controversial topics raised in the Democratic Party presidential candidate debates in our SPURS common room; and we discussed the mixed American attitudes about race—of both inclusiveness and discrimination—on our way to classes.
We were also encouraged to travel to help enrich our experience in the country. In Boston, at Faneuil Hall, we heard the history of Bostonian’s fight for freedom two hundred years ago; in the bustling night of Las Vegas, we reviewed the classics of “Learning from Las Vegas” through a helicopter window; in the sunset at Hoover Dam, we marvelled at this engineering project planned and constructed in 1930's desert; and at the waterfront in San Francisco, we saw the run-down pier in the Maritime National Historical Park lacking basic maintenance funds. Seeing, hearing, and touching the authentic America helped us understand the shaping and transforming of the U.S. political system and planning system more directly. It also helped us evaluate the pros and cons of these systems on their applicability to other countries.
Shimeng presenting her idea for Maine Retreat Workshop
However, if you think this was the whole story of the year, you are probably wrong. What happened next went beyond everyone’s expectations. In early 2020, the Covid-19 outbreak caused an enormous disruption to our lives. Schools were closed, schedules were cancelled, students were required to go back home. As some fellows had to return to their home country amid the pandemic, SPURS seminars were rapidly switched online to keep everyone connected and engaged. This was perhaps an unprecedented change for the SPURS program to make in its 50+ year history. Nonetheless, the team believed that at this very moment, it remains critical to explore how planning would be affected and how it should respond to this global crisis. The commitment, courage, and flexibility the SPURS program has shown during the crisis is my third impression.
Looking back on the past year, I had a really fruitful time: I reflected on my systems of knowledge, career path, and working methodology; and I found new research interests in the preservation and enjoyment of historic environments in the forms of historic national parks. More importantly, I gained precious friendships with 14 fellows from across the world, and each of them inspired me with their shining humanity. I’m thankful to all of them for their companionship and giving in this unusual year. Thank you to ACC and MIT-SPURS for giving me this invaluable opportunity.
Photos courtesy of Sun Shimeng