Education, Urbanization & Citizen Activism

Parsons The New School for Design rolls out new academic programs that do away with the traditional dichotomy of theory versus practice.

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Education is critical if we are to continue to improve our cities. With this in mind, This Big City’s Joe Peach and Lyndsey Scofield were thrilled to get the opportunity to talk with Aseem Inam, Director of the MA Theories of Urban Practice, and Miguel Robles-Duran, Director of the MS Design and Urban Ecologies, from Parsons The New School for Design. Education, Urbanization & Citizen Activism were just some of the subjects that emerged in conversation.

Joe Peach: Everyone’s talking about cities these days. How do these Masters differ from currently available education options, both at the New School and beyond?

Aseem Inam: There are 2 new Masters programmes at the New School, one is an MS in Design and Urban Ecologies and the other an MA in Theories of Urban Practice.

What’s different about the Urban Practice programme is it actually does away with this traditional dichotomy of theory versus practice. The basic premise is that ways of thinking and ways of doing research are in fact forms of design practice. It’s about what it means to engage and transform the city. It’s a little more research, knowledge and theory based.

Miguel Robles-Duran: There’s a lot of research in both these programs, but in the MS progam there is also a very strong studio component. What we attempting to really redefine the study of urban, which normally has been constructed by a very narrow disciplinary approach. What we’re trying to do here is to question and blur these disciplines along with the social sciences. There is a very strong component of social science, as well as environmental science and spatial practice.

Lyndsey Scofield: Could you elaborate on how these programme areas are tackling cross-disciplinary design? It seems like such an important element of the courses.

AI: Our approach is to not even think primarily about it as urban form or what the city looks like, but what are the key questions and key issues that have to be tackled to shape the city. In the Urban Practice programme, a fundamental question we will ask our students is: How do we actually design urban transformation? It’s not just about making the city prettier or having more green roofs, but also transforming the political and economic structures that shape cities. How are decisions are made and resources allocated? A very simple and powerful example: Why is it that in almost every city in the world, affordable housing is always a huge challenge?

MRD: Perhaps one of the things we are trying to encourage is to not see housing as a separate component of the city, but as an integrated component of the city. What we are actually trying to do is to generate a general understanding of the city, which we have lost because of all these specializations. There’s the Department of Housing, the Department on Environment, and departments of this, that and the other. We have lost touch of how to think ecologically about the city. That’s one of the reasons the course is called Urban Ecologies. Not because we are trying to be green, but because we are trying to rebuild the city as an ecological, dynamic totality. In this case, most of the instruction that is going to happen in the programme is going to be trans-disciplinary, you’re going to have architects, social scientists, and together they are going to form a larger body that tackles the city in various areas.

JP: These courses have been described as part of a wider plan to ‘define the next phase of global design’. How integrated do you think sustainability is in that next phase?

MRD: We’re talking about sustainability within a system we call capitalism. It is inherently unsustainable. There are very big questions about what sustainability means in that system. One of the many topics these programmes will be tackling is alternative property systems that address social over consumer demands. We are moving away from the fad of sustainability meaning green buildings. Actually if we analyse green buildings I think we would find they are not so green as we think they are, especially when we look at labour issues, exploitation of people that develop them etc. We have to start thinking more on a macro level.

AI: Similarly in the Urban Practice programme, as it is a more research-orientated programme, one can step back and ask the really meaningful questions. For example, the city versus nature dichotomy. What if we saw cities as part of nature? How would you see projects and interventions if everything you did was an integral part of nature rather than bringing nature into the city? This is kind of a philosophical discussion, but it leads to much more powerful forms of practice.

LS: One of the things that is clear is that we really have to rethink how our cities are built, and rethink sustainability in a large way. But obviously there are a lot of political issues in actually getting that accomplished and changing these things systematically. Will you also be tackling that idea and preparing students for the realities of the world?

AI: What’s interesting is both Miguel and I come, separately, from years of practice. We’ve done a lot of work all over the world, and one of the things I find we have in common is we know that politics is absolutely the heart and soul of what might seem like design projects because it’s about who makes decisions, who has more power and influence than others to shape cities. Designers typically either run away from or ignore politics and political structures, and that’s impossible if you want to have any impact. You need to understand it, and you need to, A), understand the political structures, why decisions are made in certain ways and not others, B), embrace it, not be afraid of it, and C), probably most importantly, challenge it.

LS: Along these lines, I did notice that one of the first year requirements for the MA in Theories of Urban Practice is focused on activism and political movements. I wanted to hear your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement, how that is bringing up questions of who owns urban space and how we use it?

MRD: This is an incredibly important movement that also continues the story of many other urban movements that have been hugely successful in changing and rupturing city making. In the case of New York, you should be aware that it is the most polarized city in the first world in terms of the difference between rich and poor, and in the top ten across the whole world. You can actually notice quite clearly with property values, not even the middle class can afford anything outside the boundaries. The way we must address this is by proposing, not protesting, which I think has been a dilemma of Occupy Wall Street. Most of the people engaged in it have been developing workshops and alternatives through what we call ‘work groups’, and I think it is incredibly important our students engage with this, challenging them to actually think about a reality that is quite urgent.

AI: I think Occupy Wall Street is very exciting, one of the most exciting things to have happened in a long time. And what’s interesting is that in the University, in academia, a lot of the discussion has been about Zuccotti Park, whether it is public space, private space, what can happen there? I think that’s a very interesting discussion, but I think the more exciting discussion, which Miguel touched on, is what does this mean for the production of cities? How are cities produced, which comes back to one of the fundamental operations of the Urban Practice programme, which is how can you be a powerful practitioner by asking powerful questions? What’s interesting is Occupy Wall Street as a mode of practice, of activism as a mode of practice. What’s fascinating is the people who are at the core of Occupy Wall Street. It’s a large group, obviously, but there are students, artists, designers, people with all kinds of backgrounds. They bring their professional backgrounds, but it’s more about their activism as citizens. That is a fundamental thing about the nature of design practice and urban practice. You don’t just practice from 9 to 5 in your office. You are also a citizen, and how do you practice as a citizen, and towards what end?

LS: Are there other movements you are seeing right now that you think are going to be important transformative movements?

AI: I really think the most exciting work being done in urbanism is not the big cities like Masdar, Abu Dhabi or the so-called ecological cities in China, and it’s not big governments doing top down planning, it’s not even the star architects. The most exciting, cutting-edge work is being done by non-profits and community groups all over the world, and there are a lot of them in New York City. Except they don’t call themselves design organisations or urbanist organisations. There’s a great one that focuses on housing for the poor called Common Ground, there’s another one that is instrumental with bicycle networks and pedestrian spaces called Transportation Alternatives. We want to build very strong ties and give students the experience of working with these organisations, whether in New York or rest of the world.

MRD: The “right to the city” notion is important to these programmes. It’s been the premise for many cities in Latin America and some in Asia, but, without a doubt, in the United States we are way behind in thinking about what cities mean for people, and not for corporations.

JP: You want your students to be agents of change and transform cities. How can readers achieve this in their own lives?

MRD: Try to understand that as a single urbanist you are not going to be able to do much of anything. Go into the city and find partnerships with people from different backgrounds. As an activist, stop waiting for permission. Stop entering competitions. Start to actually address the things you think are critical, because those spaces in the city are those that no one has competitions on. These are the spaces where we should be right now, and this is the perfect generation to ask these questions.

AI: I want to add one more thing I think is quite underestimated, which is how valuable certain types of strategic knowledge are for design practice. I’ll give you two examples from my own practice. We were working with a very small, poor town on the Mexican border on a huge project, 3,000 acres. Like many projects, it was economic development disguised as urban design. We were looking at how the people of this town could benefit from the border economy. There was one piece of research that changed our approach, and that was that the citizens wanted a new downtown. The design completely changed based on our economic analysis, and it radically altered the design in terms of where the new downtown should be located, and allowed us to develop our knowledge of how design can help people do better economically.

Another project near Los Angeles was a much smaller project, much more middle class. It was a very open, democratic design process, but what we realized was the biggest obstacle to this project was not money, not community resistance, not vested interests; it was a bureaucrat. The city manager wielded a lot of power because of his control over the budget, and to make that design happen we had to literally design his municipal budget for him. How would designers design a budget to enable a transformative project to happen? This kind of strategic knowledge and knowing where to get it (in this case, from an excellent economist who was working with us) is absolutely essential. At the end of the day, this is what counts. Ideas are not enough – how do we make them reality?

Editor’s note: This interview originally appeared in This Big City on December 15, 2011

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Tags: new york citypublic transportationurban designbuilt environment

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