Infrastructure planning on a megaregional scale

A Weitzman School research studio focusing on megaregions brings an interdisciplinary practice to both academia and infrastructure planning.

For many, the Amtrak trip from Philadelphia to Baltimore is routine. But for Weitzman students in a studio studying the future of this transit corridor under the threat of sea level rise, the trip became an object of study, forcing them to see it in a new way.

For Fritz Steiner, dean and Paley Professor at the Weitzman School—the studio’s co-instructor—the most striking thing was just how close the water is. “You’re here and the water’s there, and I-95’s over there, and you realize this is all underwater.”

Zoe Kerrich and students in a gallery.
Students including Zoe Kerrich (far left) presented their proposals to community members and other guest critics at the final review. (Image: Eric Sucar)

In the next decade alone, Amtrak faces at least $220 million in losses due to the effects of climate change. The Northeast Corridor rail line is, at points, only a few feet above sea level, and water level rise and flooding events have already begun.

Power/Practice/Place: Responding to Vulnerability, Philly to Baltimore is the latest and final in a series of research studios focusing on megaregions, a scale of study that foregrounds the infrastructural and environmental connections between metropolitan areas.

As an interdisciplinary research studio, the course brought together six Master of City Planning and three Master of Landscape Architecture students. Dean Steiner’s co-instructor was Rebecca Popowsky, a lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture and research associate at OLIN. Coming into the course, she was focused on radical collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and breaking down the barriers between academia and practice.

“The future of design practice is a future of complexity and blurring of boundaries,” says Popowsky. “Students are learning to enter into very large scale and massively complex scenarios that are, by their nature, going to be interdisciplinary. We wanted to get students to work together across disciplines and to engage with practitioners and people outside of the academy.”

After the mid-review, students were asked to self-organize into a multidisciplinary design practice, framing projects to work on for the rest of the semester: One studied the state of regional rail infrastructure in the corridor, another studied the threat to marshes throughout the region. Students also considered infrastructure landscapes that were less in the public eye but still vulnerable to flooding. According to Zoe Kerrich, legacy industrial sites, widespread throughout the region and the greater Rust Belt, represent a huge challenge as municipalities saddled with hazardous waste no longer have the money to properly remediate the danger to citizens.

Work by students in the studio is featured in the 2023 Year End Show, which includes a virtual gallery as well as an in-person exhibition on view through June 14.

This story is by Laney Myers. Read more at Weitzman News.