Diane E. Davis was recently named chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University. Hoping to get a glimpse at the direction she plans to take that essential department in the university’s prestigious Graduate School of Design — which counts influencers from Shaun Donovan to Michael Graves among its alums — I asked Davis about her vision for training tomorrow’s urban leaders. We also talked about her background as an urban sociologist, improving design competitions, opportunities that might arise from Habitat III and more.
Congratulations on your appointment as chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design. What’s your first order of business? Is there a particular thing you’d like to accomplish as chair?
One of the things I did before becoming chair was to coordinate an interdisciplinary urbanism seminar, housed in the department of urban planning and design, but functioning as a venue for connecting with faculty across the schools at Harvard. We had associates from sociology, anthropology, history, public health, law, and divinity, all involved in a conversation about urbanism as seen from multiple perspectives. One of my aims as chair is to continue with that kind of interdisciplinary communication.
Although I have been teaching in planning departments for more than 15 years, I have my Ph.D. in urban sociology, so I’m really interested in the relationship between social science and design/planning. At Harvard, and with the interdisciplinary seminar that we have started, I am finding more new synergies. For example, the Harvard School of Public Health just signed an agreement with the Minister of Health in Mexico City. This has given us an opportunity to plan joint events between the design and planning school and public health students, to work on health issues in Mexico City, broadly defined.
How do you commute to work most days?
I actually drive to work. I hate to say it since I am directing a research project on sustainable transport! [laughs] But one of the things I’ve learned looking at cities around the world that have made some headway in sustainable transport innovations — Stockholm, Seoul, Paris, New York, L.A., Mexico City — is how important topography is when it comes to transportation infrastructure. With Boston, I live in Jamaica Plain, an amazing place for all things urban, but to [reach] Cambridge you have to cross the Charles River, and it’s very time-consuming to do that on public transport.
The GSD recently hosted, with the Van Alen Institute, a conversation about design competitions. If you were to rewrite the rules on design competitions, what would be your priority?
At MIT I ran what we originally thought would be advertised as a design competition, although we ended up calling it an ideas competition. The project was called Jerusalem 2050, Visions for a Place for Peace. Our task was to generate a global design competition that would generate planning or design entries focused on the task of creating a more prosperous, sustainable, peaceful Jerusalem. When we began, we had Palestinians and Israelis, political scientists, urban planners, architects, designers, meeting at MIT and thinking more about how to lay out the specifications for what we originally thought would be a design competition.
One of the challenges, however, was that there wasn’t enough consensus in our steering committee about the nature of the space we were designing for. What were the boundaries, for example, of Jerusalem? Who should be involved in designing? People who live there, or outside? This made us think more about being flexible and intellectually creative about laying out a competition that allowed people to give us the parameters for design, not just to use a design competition to solicit responses to someone else’s parameters.
What I am saying here is that often in design competitions, the design objectives are set in a very fixed way, with others laying out the nature of the problem to be solved. In contrast, I think there is scope for learning more about problem identification in planning and design competitions. One of the things I’m constantly telling my students is that they need to think long and hard about the problem they are choosing to solve. Sometimes students come into the program thinking they already know the principal problem, and that their task should just be to find the solution. Sometimes we can jump into action modes too quickly, and planning can, in its worst form, be a solution in search of a problem. Problem identification must be on the top of the agenda for planners and designers.
Another recent GSD forum explored the role of design in building equitable communities. Is there any advice you would offer to urban planners and designers who are actively seeking equitable outcomes with their work? How do you get there?
That’s the holy grail question in planning, isn’t it? But first of all, let’s think a little more critically about which equities we’re looking at — is it class, is it race, income, mobility equities, environmental justice, and so on? There are multiple issues of equity that have to be dealt with, although they all can’t be dealt with equally [through] design or with traditional planning solutions. So I think it’s really important to move beyond the general mantra of thinking about equity and start focusing on particular equity issues that might best match up with design or planning skills or strategies, and vice versa. One has to have an idea of the interconnectivity between various inequities, think strategically about where and how to intervene first, hopefully with the fact that such actions might loosen the Gordian knot of interconnected inequities, and at the same time recognize that there are some problems that planning and design are better able to tackle. In short, it is important to teach students how to leverage design and planning to make the most progress with the most focused interventions, understanding that although many urban problems will remain beyond the reach of our collective toolkit, some are so pressing that they must be addressed in any way we can.
I am discussing with colleagues here the thought of having an event in the spring focused on St. Louis. I grew up in St. Louis, so when everything happened in Ferguson it was literally and figuratively close to home for me. I had long been thinking about working more on that city, and in fact when I wrote my statement for promotion to full professor at MIT, I proposed that I wanted my next project to be a social and spatial history of St. Louis, because I was so intrigued with not just the conventional problems of racial and spatial disparity — but also because St. Louis, like Boston, is one of the cities in the U.S. that has a very small metro area and a very large suburban area, so that creates all sorts of spatial, financial, social, racial tensions.
As an urban sociologist, I also had been thinking that the historical development of St. Louis told us something about the nation’s larger legacies of racial exclusion. This occurred to me most starkly after I produced a book called Cities and Sovereignty, Identity Politics in Urban Spaces. I started wondering whether the questions usually focused on the world’s most known divided or conflicted cities could be applied to a place like St. Louis. Not everyone knows that the state of Missouri became formally divided between North and South during the Civil War, and St. Louis physically and politically straddled the two divides.
For the past several years I have been researching police corruption and targeted violence in Latin American cities, so when I saw similar things unfolding, first in St. Louis and then in Baltimore, NYC and other places, I started thinking I wanted to take the questions I’d been looking at in Latin American cities and then apply them to American cities. Starting with St. Louis seems to make a lot of sense. So we are hoping to have a big event in the spring at the GSD that brings together experts in design, planning, history, and politics to start a serious discussion about design, race, and inequality.
You’ve done a lot of work on urbanization in the “global south.” What do you think are the most pressing issues facing the global south today?
There are many different “global souths.” I’m always questioning myself when I use that concept, although I do fall into that trap. When I was in graduate school, “cities in the developing world” is what we used to call the cities of Latin America, Asia, and Africa that I now study. But these days cities worldwide are urbanizing rapidly, and in many countries the city has become the site for economic growth and development. So there is a lot more wealth there, but with wealth, however, comes poverty, and this also means that inequality is defining cities in the “developing world” if you will, not just the mere presence of poverty. And inequality is a framework that can be used to study all cities, not just those in the “global south.”
The “global south” as a concept made sense because it was tied to a geography of external intervention and a history of global imbalances of power. But if you look at cities in places like China or South Korea or Mexico or India or Nigeria, it’s hard to think about using this general category to study them all. We should be looking for frameworks that allow us to understand the specificities or heterogeneity among them, not frameworks that impose a homogeneity that might prevent us from understanding the dynamics of change. Just as a qualification, I would say that all of these regions are facing extraordinarily intense urbanization that is bringing huge questions of equity and displacement.
Formalizing and expanding high-rent urban land markets, which many authorities see as important for national economic development, gives a country the opportunity to move out of its so-called global south status. Yet such actions raise questions of displacement, dispossession, and inequality in the cities themselves. Such conditions underscore the importance of thinking about tradeoffs, and should spark more discussion about how to govern these rapidly urbanizing cities with a commitment to justice and equity while still using urban development projects in those cities to grow the local and national economy. These are really important questions for urban planners and designers, and they must be on our scholarly and action agendas.
A second issue that’s more a concern in Latin America, but also in Africa and maybe in India too, is the question of violence. It’s a huge problem in Latin American cities. The issue of urban violence is not very well studied in Latin American cities by planners, and we’re trying to do more of that at the GSD. Once we make more headway on this research, we hope to think comparatively across other parts of the globe. This would allow us to generate more conversation across planners and designers in the global north and global south, because there is spatial exclusion, poverty, inequality, lack of employment in cities everywhere, and that is part of the problem of violence.
What would you like to see come out of Habitat III?
I’m going to give this answer based on my experience in a project in which I’m involved now, funded by Infonavit, which is the National Workers Housing Authority in Mexico, an agency responsible for funding the construction of social housing.
There are lots of issues related to the problems of social housing in Mexico, but one of the issues that I think is really important is to change the way we think about housing as a social good. Housing is not just shelter, housing is also an entry point into structuring the nature and form of the city, and as such a key component of the nature of the urban experience. I think that the years of focusing on housing as just a commodity that people needed who didn’t have shelter, or thinking about houses primarily as building units, has driven a series of problems that now contribute to over-urbanization and sprawl. Builders of social housing are constrained by land and property markets, and if they are driven by the mandate to produce affordable units of a certain standard and style, that usually means that this housing can’t be in accessible places. Stated differently, houses for low-income residents tend to get built in areas where land is cheap, and that usually means the far periphery of a city.
In order to push back against such tendencies, we must rethink the social and spatial function of housing more, and not just its cost or its physical attributes. People can have a great house, but if they have to sit in transport for two or three hours every day to travel from home to work, it’s not good for them or their employers. Or, if they are wrenched out of longstanding social networks and relationships and relocated to brand new houses that isolate them from the friends, family, and daily activities that make their lives meaningful, it is hard to see this as progress. I am eager to restart the conversation about the social functions of housing with an understanding of its spatial correlates, and I would like our profession to innovate ways that the production of low-income housing can be used to generate more equitable city forms while also contributing positively to the social correlates and experiential dimensions of a more vibrant urbanity.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Tom was president, CEO and publisher of Next City from May 2015 until April 2018. Before joining Next City, he directed the Center for Resilient Design at the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Prior to that, he ran the Regional Plan Association’s New Jersey office, and served as a senior adviser on land use for two New Jersey governors. Tom is a licensed professional planner, and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, as well as an adjunct professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he teaches land use planning and infrastructure planning.