Using boundary objects to make students brokers across disciplines - a dialogue between students and their lecturers on Bartolini’s node-place-model and interdisciplinarity

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Competencies required for steering urban development sustainably are scattered among various disciplines. Most prominently, this has been acknowledged by the growing community of planners in the field of transportation and urban development promoting an integrative approach known as transitoriented development (TOD). Disciplinary traditions including different ways of thinking and doing as well as a strong vertical organisation of public administration form major obstacles for TOD and other interdisciplinary approaches to urban development. The implementation of TOD principles in plans and planning policy is usually dependent on strong actors brokering across disciplinary and departmental boundaries (Thomas and Bertolini, 2017: 145). “Boundary objects” (Wenger 2000) can help sustaining the effort of individuals promoting integrative planning approaches against institutional and disciplinary rigidness. These objects allow practitioners of different disciplines to discuss common challenges without constant guidance of experts in multiple disciplinary fields. The development of boundary objects is therefore crucial in order to support current “brokers” (ibid.) and provide continuity when brokers are unavailable. We believe that the node-place-model (NPM) by Bertolini (1999) can be such a boundary object. We test our hypothesis as part of two design studio courses confronting urban design students with the task of developing their own design brief based on a node-place-analysis – a systematic quantification of both accessibility and activity at transit stations. We conducted the course twice while testing our approach on two scales: a city-wide node-place-analysis of the City of Munich with the goal of designing a small city quarter and a node-place-analysis of the entire metropolitan region of Munich with the goal of developing a spatial strategy for the City of Ingolstadt, a key economic node within the metropolitan region. The paper is of dialogic, discursive nature. The lecturers and the students discuss whether or not the node-place-model enables us to understand better the relationship between transit and urban development and to develop spatial strategies based upon an integrative approach. Our discussion reveals that the node-place-model, despite of or perhaps due to its compelling simplicity, cannot necessarily bridge disciplinary boundaries successfully. The model does not comprise mechanisms about how both domains are qualitatively linked. It simplifies node and place into quantitative variables without providing sufficient guidance on operationalisation. Operationalising the model is often subject to misinterpretation. The schematic quantitative nature of the model incites users to blindly apply calculated results. We therefore reject our hypothesis and conclude that the node-place-model may not be suitable as a boundary object in planning practice. Due to above mentioned shortcoming, it cannot serve as a common tool across disciplinary boundaries. However, both lecturers and students see value in the model as a didactic instrument. It initiates food for thought during a discursive process that may lead students to become brokers across domains. The model forces students to connect and integrate knowledge of multiple domains. It raises awareness for the pitfalls of interdisciplinary issues, but at the same time also enforces a critical stance on simplified quantitative implementations.of multiple domains. It raises awareness for the pitfalls of interdisciplinary issues, but at the same time also enforces a critical stance on simplified quantitative implementations.
Book of proceedings: Annual AESOP Congress, Spaces of Dialog for Places of Dignity, Lisbon, 11-14th July, 2017
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