History Lessons: Students Learn the Constructs of Good Planning through Hidden Histories


When URSP students Lily Murnen and Will Duggan began researching the historically African-American town of North Brentwood, Md., for one of their first projects in graduate school, they uncovered a name in the archives that was seemingly out of place: Rosenwald.


“It was just peculiar, this Jewish name featured in the early 20th-century history of this African-American community,” said Duggan, “and we were curious.”


Julius Rosenwald, it turned out, was the president of Sears & Roebuck and founder of a number of African-American schools during the Jim Crow era, working with Booker T. Washington on an “uplift” model that provided education where educational resources were in short supply, like North Brentwood. But, as Duggan and Murnen neared the bottom of the Rosenwald rabbit hole, they found other unfamiliar narratives, like North Brentwood’s subscription to the radically different theories of change voiced by Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, which together, informed their notable self-advocacy and forged a strong identity and vision.


Every place has a story; a commonly-told narrative that defines its identity. But in the shadows of that dominant narrative are the stories that don’t get told. For planners, these “hidden histories” can provide a unique understanding and acknowledgment of the complexities of place; how people, decisions and events write a place’s history, and how external factors like politics, national events or social issues can alter and erase. This semester, Assistant Professor Ariel Bierbaum challenged first-year urban planning master’s students to migrate from the dominant narrative prevalent in planning history and find the often-untold stories that have shaped the communities of today.


“Our students are entering a community of practice that has a historical trajectory and whose work is based on tacit knowledge that’s been accumulated over generations,” says Bierbaum. “Twenty years from now, people are going to be looking at what our students have done as part of this community. In this class, my task is to help students understand what has come before them in that trajectory, so they can find themselves and their place as practitioners moving forward.”


Presented by the students through interactive story maps and multimedia, each project offers a story centered in one iconic D.C.- or Baltimore-area community—such as Anacostia, Downtown Silver Spring, the Inner Harbor or Columbia—and delves into how theories of change manifest in each place. It is within these stories, Bierbaum believes, that students can see the complexity, continuity and contradictions of the past compared to the present and develop the “historical and theoretical” muscle necessary for good planning practice.


Donning the hats of historians and theoreticians has, for the students, offered unexpected discoveries. URSP graduate student Luke Benson grew up in Montgomery County, Md., not far from Greenbelt, Md., which he perceived as an idealist, utopian-like community for the working class. Upon further research with classmate Jonathan Katz, he discovered that the community make-up, influenced by the social politics of the time, certainly aimed to be a utopia for the working class, just a selective one.


“One takeaway from this project was understanding how planning decisions may begin with clear intentions, but have these unintended, sometimes enduring consequences,” says Benson. “And these choices have a way of informing the choices of the future.”


“For a lot of us who came into planning, we felt that the environment will be what informs these esthetic cues that create this set of parameters,” said Daniella Costa, who, with Ronnetta Zack-Williams, studied the gangplank communities of Washington, D.C.’s Wharf. “But community doesn’t always fit this normative condition, and each place need to be examined differently.”


By design, the course armed first-year students with essential tools for approaching the planning practice, with careful consideration of the past.


“Planning is not something that happens passively,” said Murnen. “There are unseen actors and power struggles. You need to consider who’s making the decisions and who’s missing from the conversation. I think that focus will be engrained in everything I’m examining from here on out.”


Explore some of the untold stories, shared by planning students this semester, below:


The Washington, D.C. Warf’s “Live-Aboards”

Daniella Acosta and Ronnetta Zack-Williams


Over 100 families make their home on the water—quite literally—in Southwest D.C. as part of the gangplank community; residents who live year-round on boats and houseboats along D.C.’s Anacostia Waterfront. When their way of life was threatened by the redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront in the mid-2000s, the tightknit community executed collective citizen power through its own Advisory Neighborhood Commission, a structure developed in the ‘70s to allow those on the ground a definitive say in the future of their communities. “I worked across the street from the waterfront and saw this development happening, but this was a story we discovered hadn’t been told,” said Acosta. Acosta and Zack-Williams’ examination of D.C.’s live-aboards also explores the perception of place and the definition of “underutilization,” from both residents’ and an outsider’s point of view. Read their study here.


The Evolving Utopian City: Greenbelt

Luke Benson and Jonathan Katz


Of the 4000 applicants to the idealistic city of Greenbelt, Md., in the 1930s and 40s, only 800 were selected. How were those applicants chosen? Greenbelt: Not so Equal examines the historically arduous process of becoming a part of Washington, D.C.’s oldest “New Deal” town, and the socio-economic and segregationist politics that initially shaped it. Luke Benson and Jonathan Katz delve into the specific tools that shaped Greenbelt’s early years – its application forms and committee governance structure – and how this promoted initial exclusionary admittance practices to later efforts for achieving fair housing and integration. Read their study here.


North Brentwood’s Uplift during Jim Crow

Lily Murnen and Will Duggan


The history of the African-American community of North Brentwood is one forged by a high level of community engagement and tenacity during the time of Jim Crow, but as Will Duggan and Lily Murnen discovered, it was influenced by two of the biggest national voices for change: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Taking a page from each of their playbooks, leaders and community stakeholders meshed Washington’s theories of self-help and hard work with DuBois’ theories of civil rights and advocacy to shape the success of North Brentwood. Read their story map here.


-By Maggie Haslam.

Posted on December 19, 2019 by Jelena Dakovic