At first glance, Miguel Robles-Duran’s perspective on the evolution of urban systems and environments is a little surprising. “There are no solutions,” states this assistant professor of urbanism at Parsons School of Design, part of The New School in New York City. “You want to plan and design cities, but history has told us that it’s impossible.”
Robles-Duran’s point, however, is not that planning for cities of the future is futile. Quite the contrary. He, his graduate students and fellow researchers at Parsons are taking a revolutionary approach to improving urban systems that focuses on social ecology, rather than traditional urban design and planning. This approach is taught and practiced in the two graduate programs Design and Urban Ecologies (MS) and Theories of Urban Practice (MA) programs at Parsons School of Design.
Robles-Duran and his fellow faculty members work with community organizations, government agencies and nonprofits — both near the Parsons campus in New York City and around the world — to give students experience tackling real-world issues. The basic premise is that specific types of critical knowledge and creative thinking can redefine cities and urbanization in fundamental ways.
“Ninty-nine percent of what constitutes our cities doesn’t belong to the people who live there,” says Robles-Duran. “We want our students to be able to readdress that imbalance, and to deal with the complexities of the whole. As a result, they graduate with the ability to work anywhere, on any urban issue – whether it’s cultural, environmental or social. Our students become generalists in the best possible sense of the word. They gain a wide understanding of the complex forces at play within urban systems, and learn to problem-solve with ethics in mind.”
Ecologias Urbanas de San Roque, Quito, Ecuador
Each year, students in these graduate programs engage in projects that aim to support local communities and grassroots organizations. One example is the San Roque Thesis Collective, composed of six students from the MS in Design and Urban Ecologies and two students from the MA in Theories of Urban Practice.
The team dedicated a full year to research, theorize, critique and develop urban intervention strategies related to the imminent restructuring of the urban ecology surrounding Mercade San Roque, a traditional food market at the periphery of Quito’s historical center — a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Working alongside the Ministry of Culture of Ecuador, the students were tasked with conducting secondary-source, ethnographic and open fieldwork research to produce a conceptual frame and operative agenda that could realistically support the a diverse range of urban struggles and challenges.
The thesis project will be presented at the Aronson Gallery at Parsons School of Design in Spring 2017.
Advocating for Equity in New York City
Graduate students from these Parsons programs have also actively engaged in conversations and initiatives supporting a more equitable New York City. For example, design and urban ecologies students researched and designed a gazette to raise awareness about the housing crisis in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The gazette, “¡Derecho A La Vivienda!,” contains the history of Bushwick, interviews with Bushwick residents and organizers, an analysis of policy plans and proposals of alternative housing models.
Additionally, in fall 2013, students published a policy recommendation report entitled “Designing for an Equitable New York,” which was the final project of the urban colloquium course, taught by part-time faculty Paul White and Shin Pei-Tsey, and involved visits from numerous urban practitioners working in NYC and beyond.
Visit newschool.edu/parsons/ to learn more about the Design and Urban Ecologies MS and Theories of Urban Practice MA programs at The New School’s Parsons School of Design.