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Professor Aseem Inam’s students were taught comedy alongside urban planning. Photo: TRULAB

In what came across as a non-sequitur at first, author and award-winning urbanist Aseem Inam abruptly said during his recent Transforming Cities/Transforming Urbanism presentation in Toronto, “I have a confession to make: I am a comedian.” He did so deadpan, and the audience was silent. “I know you don’t believe me,” he continued, before landing the punchline evenly: “I take my comedy very seriously.” Cue laughter.

For a presentation at Urban Land Institute’s inaugural Emerging Trends in Real Estate symposium, a two-day event organized by the non-profit’s Toronto chapter, it was an uncharacteristically jocose moment. But Inam, currently director of TRULAB, an online urban design lab, and a visiting planning professor at the University of Toronto, wasn’t just kidding around. He thinks there’s something city planners can learn from comedians. “Comedy improvisation is by far the most powerful form of creative collaboration I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Throughout the event, a recurring theme was the impact technology is having on cities: how it’s changing them now, the ways in which it will rapidly continue doing so, and what urbanists can do to adapt. In such a transitional period, Inam’s logic goes something like this: city planners should be able to think on their feet and work together. What better way to learn these skills than through the baptism of fire that is improvised comedy?

Theory and practice being two different things, Inam tried out his idea on a masters-level class of urban-design students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009 while he was a professor there. The class’ unofficial texts were comic staples “Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation” and “Improv: Scene from Inside Out.” To supplement these, students were taught comedic techniques and took part in exercises, including one called Yes, and…, which Inam, who has performed improv in Hollywood and New York, told BuzzBuzzHome News was “essentially two people going back and forth repeating what the other person said and building on it.”

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Inspired by improv techniques in a class project, students moved away from strict zoning, moving towards more fluid ways of planning neighbourhoods. Photo: TRULAB

As an example, Inam said it would start with one participant making a simple statement, such as, “Josh, that’s a lovely jacket you’re wearing.” Josh would then say, “Yes, that is a lovely jacket I’m wearing, and I bought it at the thrift store.” The first student would then repeat that, and add another detail, and so on. The exercise isn’t just about winging it; it teaches listening skills — important for urban planners working with communities, different levels of government, and each other — and also fosters the ability to take someone’s idea and build on it. “How you put that in practice in urbanism is the intention,” he said of the drill.

Students of his class applied their learning to a project in which they were tasked with reimagining a nine-block area just south of Boston’s Chinatown. What came of it was a proposal for a drastic change to the very idea of zoning, one as fluid as a well executed improv sketch. Forgetting land-use designations like commercial, residential or industrial, students instead focused on human activities such as playing, working and living.

Beyond that approach, Inam’s work with the grad students spawned his own 20-page paper titled “Navigating Ambiguity: Comedy Improvisation as a Tool for Urban Design Pedagogy and Practice,” and since then, he says, others have taken has idea and run with it. “It’s never just cool and creative,” he says of his experiments in urbanism. “It’s also critical in the sense that it’s really digging deeper and saying what’s really going on, and not just a another new cool lab or another new technique.”

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