The Unusual Year, the Unusual US experience


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 enabled 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), where she exchanged ideas with scholars across the world while studying conservation planning of historic environments in the US. We are grateful to the sponsorship of Sun's fellowship from the Hsin Chong - K.N. Godfrey Yeh Education Fund.

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.

Sun Shimeng (5th left) and other participants at MIT-SPURS program (Photo courtesy of Shimeng)Shimeng (fifth left) and other participants at MIT-SPURS program 

My first impression of SPURS was its academic focus, combined with international perspective with a broad spectrum of planning ideas. In the weekly seminars, we immersed ourselves in debates on a wide range of topics: from global economy to American exceptionalism, from development theory to community engagement, from professional ethics to reflective practice, from racism to sexism, from leadership to partnership. The breadth of themes well explained the significance of “reflection” as we’re always 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 centuries have experienced related to the same issue. Geographically, we have 3 fellows from Europe, 1 from the Middle East, 5 from Asia, 1 from Africa, and 5 from South America. Professionally, we have 5 architects and urban planners, 5 public servants, 1 journalist, 1 economist, and 2 urban academics. We celebrate 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 (second left) preparing dinner with her SPURS fellowsShimeng'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 in a 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 in the Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council; we investigated the planning and design of national memorials in Washington DC. Open discussions on the American system and issues were encouraged in our daily life: we questioned the US 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 the controversial topics raised in the Democratic Party presidential candidate debates in our SPURS common room; 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 about the country: in Boston 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 1930s’ 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 US 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 (Photo courtesy of Sun Shimeng)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 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 is perhaps an unprecedented change the SPURS program had to make in its 50+ years history. Nonetheless, the team believes 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 knowledge system, 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 friendship with 14 fellows 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.

Photo courtesy of Sun Shimeng