History of Master of Civic Design

How Liverpool came to have the MCD: Gordon Stephenson’s part in reforming the planning curriculum

To anyone visiting the University in the late 1940s, Liverpool would have presented a rather depressing picture. Both the University and the city were emerging from the long period of retrenchment caused by the Second World War. The University had come through a difficult period with most departments struggling to maintain a curtailed programme of academic activity with much reduced staffing levels and a limited supply of students. Resources, which had been tight during the war, became even tighter once the war ended. In the immediate post-war period, large numbers of demobilised servicemen swelled the numbers of students with the result that departments were finding it extremely hard to cope.  

The Department of Civic Design was no exception. When Gordon Stephenson took up the Lever Chair at Liverpool in 1948, the Department of Civic Design was at a low ebb. Big changes were urgently needed on all fronts; the key question was where to begin. In Stephenson’s mind the top priority was the curriculum. To a very large extent the planning curriculum in the late 1940s was identical to that put in place when the Department was founded, as the world’s first planning school, in 1909.  Indeed, the same course structure can be seen to have underpinned almost the whole of British planning education at the time.  

Stephenson was concerned that, in the face of the huge reconstruction task in post-war Britain, there would be a critical shortage of trained planners. Moreover, his recent experience in the Ministry of Town and Country Planning had made him acutely aware of the major implications the 1947 Planning Act and other related legislation would have for the teaching of planning technique. 

Stephenson’s close friend and colleague, William Holford, his predecessor as Lever Professor, also played an important role in framing plans for curriculum reform at Liverpool. The two of them worked together closely for long periods in the 1930s and 1940s and kept up a correspondence in which they discussed many aspects of planning and architecture, including planning education. The experience of working in the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning provided both of them with a clear appreciation of how planning was changing and of how the scope of planning education needed to be broadened. At Liverpool, Holford was the first to develop plans for a new curriculum and despite the fact that he was an ‘absentee’ professor during the Second World War, his views nevertheless carried considerable weight with the University.  It meant that Stephenson, as incoming Lever Professor with similar ideas, was almost guaranteed a receptive audience when he started to introduce his own proposals for change. 

Stephenson’s own educational background, including study in Liverpool, at the Sorbonne in Paris and at MIT, meant that he was exceptionally well-equipped to undertake the task of designing and implementing a new curriculum. In the event, by far the greatest influence was his experience as one of the first students taking the new Master of City Planning degree at MIT in the mid-1930s. Stephenson’s close relationship with the head of that school, Frederick Adams, proved to be crucial when it came to transferring American thinking about the planning curriculum to the British context.  

The ushering in of these new ideas – the Stephenson-Holford version of the ‘MIT model’ - required a systematic approach if it was to succeed. With Adams’ assistance, Stephenson planned a fact-finding mission to the States soon after he was appointed to the Liverpool chair in 1948. By good fortune, almost as soon as he had returned to Britain, the opportunity arose to give evidence to the Schuster Committee, the government body set up to consider how the need for more planners might be met. Careful preparation and skilful presentation enabled Stephenson to steer the Committee away from undergraduate planning courses, then starting to emerge in several British universities, towards the bolder idea of creating postgraduate courses open to a wide range of graduates and drawing on the full range of teaching resources to be found in a large university. Here again, Adams was to have an important role, providing personal testimony about the MIT course and the successful adoption of this form of curriculum throughout the top American universities. 

Stephenson stayed at Liverpool just long enough to put his ideas into practice, before resigning from the Lever Chair after six years, in the expectation of moving to MIT as head of the planning school there. The Master of Civic Design (MCD) started in 1950. Initially most of the students were architecture graduates but, after two or three years, the ranks of students were swelled by considerable numbers of social science graduates, very much as Stephenson had intended. It was now possible to see his idea of planning as teamwork fully realised in an educational setting. This experience proved to be important throughout much of his subsequent career and helped frame his own philosophy of planning education. It was this philosophy that came to the fore when, at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Toronto and elsewhere, he was called upon to provide advice on the design of the planning curriculum. 

Stephenson’s ideas were later taken up by a large number of universities in Britain and further afield, although not immediately, and certainly not in their entirety. The fact that planning in Britain during the 1950s was ‘in the doldrums’ meant that the overall growth in student numbers was modest and no new planning schools offering RTPI-recognised courses opened during that decade. The situation had changed dramatically by the mid-1960s. Over the next ten years there was to be unprecedented growth in student numbers on planning courses. A survey in 1970 reported that, of the twelve RTPI-recognised two-year postgraduate programmes operating in 1969-70, as many as eight had been started in the previous four years. Five more were in the process of seeking professional recognition. By the mid-1970s, postgraduate student numbers had mushroomed, supported by large numbers of bursaries and studentships from the (then) Social Science Research Council. The two-year postgraduate model had also been adopted overseas, and by 1973 five courses, in Australia and South Africa, had RTPI recognition.  

Just how many of these postgraduate programmes would have conformed precisely to Stephenson’s ideas is a debateable point. It is hard to imagine, for example, that many programmes would be able to draw on the resources of the whole university as Stephenson managed to do at Liverpool. Indeed, as planning schools became larger, there was an expectation of self-reliance. Instead of drawing upon sociologists, economists, statisticians and engineers from other parts of a university, planning schools began to employ specialists who could teach these aspects of the curriculum ‘in-house.’ And, rather than focusing exclusively on postgraduate education, as Stephenson and Holford had argued, most British planning schools by the 1990s, including Liverpool, were offering both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. No doubt this was partly to achieve economies of scale but it also reflected widespread acceptance in the planning profession at large of the value of a diverse range of qualification routes. 

The two-year full-time postgraduate course proved popular among students, not least because for many of them it expanded the range of job opportunities by opening up the prospect of a rewarding career in planning. Its biggest impact may be seen in the numbers of geography graduates who have come into planning in this way over the last sixty years. Britain, like America, has found a need for generalists capable of undertaking a wide range of planning tasks. While some have continued to argue that this need is best met by those with an undergraduate degree in planning, there can be no doubt that the postgraduate geographer-planner has a distinctive role to play.  Although Stephenson may not have fully anticipated it, sixty years later this is probably the most important legacy of his curriculum reform.

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