Karilyn Crockett

Assistant Professor of Urban History, Public Policy & Planning

Hacking Urban Planning

Hacking Urban Planning
urban planning

Karilyn Crockett is an assistant professor of urban history, public policy & planning. Her research focuses on large-scale land use changes in twentieth century American cities and examines the social and geographic implications of structural poverty & racial formations.   

By: Daniel de Wolff

Karilyn Crockett works at the intersection of civic education, economic development, and urban revitalization. Her approach to urban planning and public policy stems from her cross-disciplinary background as a scholar combined with extensive experience as a public servant and policy maker in government. She has served as Boston’s inaugural Chief of Equity, its Director of Economic Policy and Research, and as the city’s Director of Small Business Development. Crockett earned her PhD in American studies at Yale University where she focused on infrastructure history and the social histories of infrastructure embedded in cities. Now, an assistant professor at MIT, she is keenly attuned to the impacts of change in cities and how policy is both affected by and effects change across the urban landscape. 

The courses she teaches, including "Undead Geographies: The afterlife of urban plans,” guide students to understand cities as cultural objects, in a fashion not dissimilar to how one reads or processes the meaning of a book or a mug; tangible artifacts that can be held and understood from multiple perspectives. But how do you read the various intentions held within a city? “A plan is essentially an idea for what should be, whether it's a highway, a house, or a store,” explains Crockett, “but people often have divergent ideas about how to use space. That crash of intentions helps us understand the meaning that's being circulated in cities every day.” 

Crockett challenges her students to consider the history of a place, to question accepted norms and explore new avenues into the creation and production of public policy (how it is formed and the damage it can cause). Questions around public and private space become opportunities to gain insight into how communities are marginalized or minoritized through what she calls the “production of space.” At the same time, race, racial segregation, racial stratification, and gender are revealed as operatives for forming ideas of space.  

According to Crockett, official histories frequently fail to tell the full story of power or political struggle experienced by the people who have lived their lives in that place. Often, the untold stories belong to those who have been brought as laborers or who have come to that place to find work. They are essential to the fabric of the space being considered for development, but are often swept aside, ghosted from the narrative. “I want to tell a fuller story of minoritized populations as a way to think about the future,” says Crockett.

Without a deeper sense of how one thinks about multiple time landscapes, multiple populations, and how they can be included in future forecasts of a city, planners are in danger of setting themselves up to be producers of displacement and dispossession

Urban planners are often guilty of treating the very real future as speculative fiction, something onto which they can perpetually project their ideas. To create a future forecast of a place, a planner clears out space, clears out people to make way for a new blueprint or design. “Without a deeper sense of how one thinks about multiple time landscapes, multiple populations, and how they can be included in future forecasts of a city, planners are in danger of setting themselves up to be producers of displacement and dispossession,” Crockett warns.  

Her first book, People Before Highways: Boston activists, urban planners, and a new movement for city making (UMASS Press, 2018) puts her ideas to work on the page, weaving together archival research and ethnographic fieldwork to analyze the social, political, and environmental significance of a 1960’s social movement that halted the expansion of I-95 into Boston. With the odds stacked against them, grassroots activists and organizers forever altered the physical landscape of the city: instead of a 10-lane highway, space was cleared for new parkland, new public transit, and new educational facilities. “The story serves as a testimony to the power of advocacy, the power of regional social movements, and the power of the people to say ‘no’ while envisioning a positive, actionable, alternative future,” says Crockett. 

These days, much of Crockett’s research falls under an umbrella project she calls “Hacking the Archive.” During her time as Boston’s Director of Economic Policy, she witnessed firsthand critiques of centralized authority, federal spending, and agendas of disinvestment. People were grappling with many of the same issues that inspired the anti-highway movement in the 1960’s. And, looking into the crowd at public forums, she realized that most of the people were in their seventies and eighties, still mobilizing for affordable housing, better jobs, entrepreneurship, and the reform of cities in general. “I was looking for the rest of the crowd. I was looking for the crowd that was 40 years old, 30 years old, 20 years old, but instead saw a generational breakdown. Who was bringing up the rest of the movement?” As envisioned by Crockett, “Hacking the Archive” tackles generational disconnect to find solutions to current community challenges, bringing together archivists, activists, students, residents, and community-based organizations to co-design plans for the future.

The question of sustainability of cities, equity in development of cities, is a life-or-death issue  

This notion of collective effort and partnership extends to the grand challenges we face in our cities writ large. We’re living through the biggest wave of urbanization in history—a trend that looks set to continue. “The question of sustainability of cities, equity in development of cities, is a life-or-death issue,” says Crockett. And it’s foolhardy to believe that that any one group, industry, set of stakeholders, or institution can anticipate or solve the myriad issues at hand.  “We have to get better at understanding the importance of partnership,” says Crockett, “and sustaining those partnerships so that we can deliver across public and private sectors, but also make sure that government and people who are living in these communities are participating in the discussion.”