Gordon Stephenson's Reform of the Planning Curriculum: How Liverpool Came to Have the MCD

By Batey, Peter | The Town Planning Review, March 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Gordon Stephenson's Reform of the Planning Curriculum: How Liverpool Came to Have the MCD


Batey, Peter, The Town Planning Review


After World War II, Gordon Stephenson was attracted back to Liverpool, his alma mater, to serve as the fourth Lever Professor of Civic Design. His impact in just six years (1948-53) was profound. One of his greatest accomplishments was in curriculum reform and in the introduction of a radically new planning programme based around a two-year, taught postgraduate degree, the Master of Civic Design (MCD), open to well-qualified graduates in almost any subject. In this article, the focus is on a detailed examination of the curriculum reform: in particular, the vision of a postgraduate model of planning education and the manner in which this was created at Liverpool. It examines the particular roles played by Stephenson, and his friend and colleague William Holford, in initiating and implementing the changes, as well as the wider impact of the Liverpool reforms on planning education elsewhere in Britain and beyond.

Born into a Liverpool family in 1908, Gordon Stephenson was one of an outstanding cohort of students studying under Charles Reilly at the Liverpool School of Architecture in the late 1920s. With Reilly's encouragement and support, Stephenson won major scholarships and prizes that opened up opportunities for him to study and work in Paris and in the United States, laying the foundations for a highly successful international academic and professional career.

Stephenson returned to Liverpool in 1948 as the fourth Lever Professor of Civic Design, after relinquishing a senior post in the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. He faced challenges on all fronts: staffing, curriculum, accommodation and the editing and production of the Department's journal. In addressing these issues he, to all intents and purposes, succeeded in re-founding the Department of Civic Design. In a period of just six years as head of department, he was able to design and construct a new building, the first of its kind (see Figure 1); recruit new staff; completely re-design the curriculum; and re-launch the Town Planning Review (TPR).

Stephenson's major accomplishment, as far as the curriculum was concerned, was the introduction of a radically new planning programme based around a two-year, taught postgraduate degree, the Master of Civic Design, open to wellqualified graduates in almost any subject. In this article the focus is on a detailed examination of the curriculum reform. The paper is organised in six main sections. It begins by considering the difficult conditions faced by the Liverpool planning school in the late 1940s: the urgent need to reform a curriculum that had not changed significantly for 40 years. In the second section, Holford's efforts to pave the way for change in the period leading up to Stephenson's appointment as Lever Professor are considered. The third section deals with Stephenson's own education as a planner, in Liverpool, Paris and Cambridge, Massachusetts. This educational background is shown to have strongly influenced Stephenson's proposals for a new planning curriculum, the subject of section four. That section also considers Stephenson's involvement in the deliberations of the Schuster Committee, which had been given the task of reviewing the whole question of the qualifications of planners, and the way he subsequently went about implementing his far-reaching curriculum reforms at Liverpool. The fifth section analyses Stephenson's philosophy as a planning educator and in the final, concluding, section consideration is given to the wider impact of the Liverpool reforms on planning education elsewhere in Britain and beyond.

Planning education at Liverpool in the late 1940s: reform long overdue

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. In much of the city, widespread bomb damage had still to be cleared. …

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