MIT Dissertation on Planning Support Systems and Return to Michigan

I have a couple personal announcements I thought I should make here. On May 22nd I successfully defended my dissertation, and last week I graduated from the PhD program at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning. The complete 271-page document will be available on MIT’s DSpace in several months, and I will post here again when it is available. A short abstract is included below below, and researchers interested in viewing it now can contact me for a copy.

In September, I will be starting a position as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. This fall I’ll teach the introduction to geographic information systems (GIS) class, and in addition to contributing to the core planning classes I plan to develop classes on collaborative planning and new participatory tools for planning. On the research front I plan to build on the dissertation research, and also I have several exciting journal articles underway. I’m thrilled to be joining Michigan’s excellent planning department, as well as return to the university where I earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 2004, and met my now-spouse Libby Benton. As I transition to Michigan this summer and plan my research and teaching agenda for the next few years, I’m happy to hear from potential collaborators in Michigan and beyond.

Planning Support Systems for Spatial Planning Through Social Learning

Submitted to the Department of Urban Studies and Planning on May 28, 2013 in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Urban and Regional Planning

Dissertation Committee:

  • Joseph Ferreira, Jr. Professor of Urban Planning and Operations Research (chair)
  • Annette M. Kim, Associate Professor of Urban Planning
  • Brent D. Ryan, Associate Professor of Urban Design and Public Policy


This dissertation examines new professional practices in urban planning that utilize new types of spatial planning support systems (PSS) based on geographic information systems (GIS) software. Through a mixed-methods research design, the dissertation investigates the role of these new technologies in planning workshops, processes, and as metropolitan infrastructures. In particular, PSS are viewed as supporting social learning in spatial planning processes. The study includes cases in Boston, Kansas City, and Austin.

The findings indicate high levels of social learning, broadly confirming the collaborative planning theory literature. Participants at planning workshops that incorporated embodied computing interaction designs reported higher levels of two forms of learning drawn from Argyris and Schönʼs theory of organizational learning: single and double loop learning. Single loop learning is measured as reported learning. Double loop learning, characterized by deliberation about goals and values, is measured with a novel summative scale. These workshops utilized PSS to contribute indicators to the discussion through the use of paper maps for input and human operators for output. A regression analysis reveals that the PSS contributed to learning by encouraging imagination, engagement, and alignment.

Participantsʼ perceived identities as planners, personality characteristics, and frequency of meeting attendance were also related to the learning outcomes. However, less learning was observed at workshops with many detailed maps and limited time for discussion, and exercises lacking PSS feedback. The development of PSS infrastructure is investigated by conducting a qualitative analysis of focus groups of professional planners, and a case where a PSS was planned but not implemented.

The dissertation draws on the research literatures on learning, PSS and urban computer models, and planning theory. The research design is influenced by a sociotechnical perspective and design research paradigms from several fields. The dissertation argues social learning is required to achieve many normative goals in planning, such as institutional change and urban sustainability. The relationship between planning processes and outcomes, and implications of information technology trends for PSS and spatial planning are discussed.

> Dissertation will be posted to DSpace fall 2013.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Frankly, I’m not sure. Recently I’ve decided to focus on graduate school, and now my faculty career, so I am leaving it up for historical interest and not blogging actively. In a few years I might reinvigorate it again.

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