Action Research for Open Public Realms

"The best way to understand something is to try and change it."
—Kurt Lewin

Action researchers work with partner communities to define problems, generate knowledge, and apply learning in ways that are at once contextual, participatory, and change-oriented. They challenge prevailing divides between theory and action, researcher and subject, science and policy, and process and outcome. Methodologically agnostic, action research can encompass quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods as well as multilateral conversations that search for and try out new ways of thinking and intervention—so long as they are deemed appropriate to the situation problematized by participants. Ranging from reformist to radical in their goals, action research approaches share a commitment to democratizing knowledge, learning, and control over change processes.

In this project-based course, students will critically examine the meanings and possibilities of open public realms with Boston-area, place-based organizations affiliated with the Place Leadership Network (PLN), a joint initiative between the Boston Foundation and the Community Design and Learning Initiative at the Harvard GSD. Including main streets, parks conservancies, business improvement districts, and CDCs, the partner organizations share decades of experience managing and stewarding public spaces in the Boston region while operating at diverse scales, located in different geographies, and representing different constituents. Through joint data gathering and analysis, deliberative dialogue with partner organizations, and reflective praxis of action research, students will explore strategies for promoting inclusive, democratic, and vibrant public spaces in an urban and regional context of racialized, classed, and gendered im/mobility and access.