IAP Offers STL Fellow Opportunity to Study and Learn on a Global Scale

By Max Budovitch, MCP Candidate, STL Fellow

The Independent Activities Period (IAP) over winter break provides MIT students with the opportunity to pursue projects related to their academic interests. The period lasts approximately two months, and many students pursue research or class work overseas.

During IAP 2016-17, I worked in Chicago with refugee populations and conducted research in Israel as part of a spring term class on industrial urbanism in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. This area of urban inquiry focuses on spatial and policy strategies to address the economic and social viability of industrial activities in ‘post-industrial’ cities. The field research for this class was conducted jointly with urban planning students from Tel Aviv University and focused on the port city of Ashdod.

Ashdod is a unique site for research on industrial urbanism because it is home to Israel’s largest port (on the Mediterranean Sea) as well as a sprawling industrial district. Of particular interest to our research is that Ashdod is planned according to the New City typology. Originally invented in Chicago and then deployed globally, New Cities are characterized by wide boulevards separating large tracts of self-contained residential development that feature their own schools, shopping centers, and recreational facilities.

Ashdod is Israel’s sixth largest city, with a population of approximately 200,000, and is located just several kilometers away from the country’s largest metropolitan area centered on Tel Aviv. Its inhabitants jokingly claim it is home to 99 nationalities. (It is home to many, but likely not that many). Given its relative diversity, it is unique for its many national cuisines, including Russian, Moroccan, Libyan, Georgian, Yemeni, and Ukrainian. One can find good Khatchapuri, Shakshuka, Palmeni, and Jachnun all within several kilometers. Ashdod is also known for unique natural landscapes such as its many kilometers of beach, a natural dune, and the Lachish Stream.

Our research focused on the problem of scoping the future development of Ashdod’s industrial areas, which must remain competitive and be home not only to traditional manufacturing but also advanced manufacturing and high-tech firms. This challenge is coupled with that of increasing accessibility between the industrial areas and residential districts and harmonizing the city’s natural assets with immediately adjacent industrial lands. To better understand the issues, we met with city planners, civil service officials, economists, architects, and other relevant stakeholders. We also made several field trips to different industrial and residential areas and conducted impromptu interviews with passersby.

Our ten days on the ground were geared towards presenting several ideas to our local colleagues that would serve as a basis for discussion and future research throughout the semester. We worked each day in a community building adjacent to the municipality, designing schemes and developing our ideas. We presented our proposals at the end of our stay to officials from the city, including the city’s chief planner and the mayor. Proposals included creating a ring of natural features and recreational amenities around the city, rezoning particular industrial quarters for strategic growth, and fostering partnerships between industrial firms and academic institutions for training and research purposes.

The presentations generated lively debate about approaches to industrial development. The purposefully general nature of the presentations left some officials asking for more detail. There was also debate over the general direction of industrial development, specifically how promising the high-tech sector actually is for Ashdod’s future prosperity.

In the coming months, the group of students from MIT will develop international case studies on industrial urbanism, while the group of students from Tel Aviv University will continue to conduct research in Ashdod. My area of research for this project focuses on the preservation of industrial land through zoning ordinances as well as efforts to remediate adjoining natural areas in Chicago. Other colleagues are working on case studies from New York to Singapore.  Our efforts will go toward creating a consolidated presentation to the city on our recommendations for Ashdod’s industrial areas. We are also discussing compiling the outcome of the research into a publication on industrial urbanism focusing on the case of Ashdod.

Immediately after my return to the U.S. from Israel, the president signed an executive order banning all refugee arrivals in the U.S. along with immigration of any type from several countries.  The general public was highly distressed over the order, and large rallies in opposition to the ban took place for several consecutive nights at O’Hare International Airport.

During this time, I worked at a refugee resettlement agency in Chicago, translating for newly arrived refugees. The agency hosted a press conference for local and national media at the height of the crisis, assembling representatives from all resettlement agencies in Chicago as well as a number of refugees, some of whom had arrived as recently as two weeks prior. Following official remarks by the agencies, I translated between a recently arrived family of Syrian refugees and reporters from local papers and the New York Times. The family had spent a year in Egypt before being approved for resettlement in Chicago just several weeks before the ban. They were resettled in a Chicago neighborhood with a mixed Russian and Iraqi population, and explained how welcoming their neighbors of all backgrounds were. They also expressed steadfastness in the face of the president’s order, explaining that building a new life in the U.S. was their goal since leaving Syria, and that they were determined to do so regardless of the political climate.

Another attendee, an older Syrian man who had recently been resettled in Chicago with his wife, spoke of how his daughter and her family, who filed a separate resettlement application and were slated for resettlement on the day the ban took effect, had been detained in an airport in Istanbul and told to go home after they had sold all their belongings in preparation for their flight. He said that the entire family was in shock.

In the days following the press conference, a court suspended the travel ban. The family in Istanbul was rescheduled for travel and was able to unite with their relatives in Chicago.

The IAP period provides an excellent opportunity to pursue areas of interest through relevant work and research. My work during IAP informed the path of my academic work this semester through my research on industrial land in Chicago and my continuing interest in the phenomenon of displacement and the plight of refugee populations.