Recap | Megacities and Meta-Cities

From left: Anne Guiney, Victoria Marshall and Georgeen Theodore

On the morning of February 23rd, Studio-X opened its doors to a full house of practicing and academic urban designers for a symposium entitled Megacities and Meta-Cities: Sustainable Models for Growing and Shrinking Territories | Global Urban Design Studies and Research in Local Schools. The event was organized by professors Antonella Contin of the Politecnico di Milano, David Grahame Shane of Columbia University and Cooper Union and Giovanni Santamaria of the New York Institute of Technology and Politecnico di Milano.

Urban design is a relatively new discipline. Traditionally understood as a subdiscipline of architecture, landscape architecture or city planning, it has come into its own in the latter half of the 20th century, begging the question of how to teach a new generation of urban designers the tactics and strategies of a discipline that is still finding its feet. The symposium’s structure dedicated the morning to current practices in urban design and the afternoon to highlighting academic programs from the New York City area.

Pedro Ortiz opened up the presentations by laying out his work with the World Bank in Madrid, demonstrating an urban design approach of “Design by Strategic Acupuncture” that uses Madrid’s linear topography and the continuous systems of transportation and housing to interweave major infrastructural hubs such as airports with the smaller metropolitan scale of the block. He ended his presentation with the question of how to integrate environmental goals and principles into the expansion of the city.

While Ortiz began with a top-down approach, shaping the metropolitan scale through regional hubs, Professor Luc Nadal of the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy began with the metropolitan scale in order to shape the region. Showing work that spanned the globe, he demonstrated the potential of bus and bicycle infrastructure to transform city streets completely with limited economic investment.

Professor Antonella Contin closed the morning session with a discussion of identity in architecture and urban design. She described searching the built landscape of Italy for the underlying structure of informal developments evident in layers of cultural identity rather than exclusively in physical or environmental organization. Looking specifically at certain East African cities for the “African City DNA” project, she and her students found a mix of at least three typologies, the Swahili settlement, the Arabic and Muslim traditions built into the fabric, and colonial urban plans such as Ernst May’s Kampala plan of 1947. In light of these distinct layers, Contin asked her students to examine how to balance the needs of a city to be both environmentally and culturally sustainable.

Detail of a slide from Antonella Contin's presentation

The afternoon session, “New York: Eco-Armature Studies | Local Schools,” began with Robert Lane outlining the role of academia in practice through his work with the Regional Plan Association. He was followed by a presentation by Professor Michael Schwarting in which he outlined the history of urban design pedagogy in the U.S. through the lens of three major institutions, Harvard, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. If the morning presentations situated urban design education within the context of the larger issues of current practice, these two presentations situated the university programs within the larger history of the discipline.

Professor Victoria Marshall launched the local school presentations with “Metacity Micro-Practices,” showcasing the new B.S. of Urban Design program at Parsons the New School for Design [profiled on Urban Omnibus last year  -Ed.]. The undergraduate program leverages its privileged location in Manhattan, introducing young students to the tools of the discipline, such as mapping, drawing and diagramming, as well as teaching the analytical and design skills through smaller scale do-it-yourself interventions in the city. The newness of the program, as well as the fact that it is the first undergraduate urban design program in an art and design school in the U.S., allows for a certain amount of exploration and disciplinary redefinition by both the students and the faculty.

Georgeen Theodore, whose research and design work as a principal of the innovative firm Interboro is perhaps better known than her academic work at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT),  led the audience through the Infrastructure Planning program that she heads out of NJIT. If Parsons’s B.S. of Urban Design program harnesses the teaching capacity of New York City, the Infrastructure Planning program uses their site in North East New Jersey as a laboratory for infrastructural investigations. The research-based design program serves multiple student populations, those geared towards design as well as those drawn to policy. But, again, the focus is on using the local conditions (in this case industrialized, infrastructure heavy New Jersey, a state between the city and the suburbs) as a lens through which to view global conditions. Infrastructure is an extraordinarily loose term, encompassing public works, but also the underlying framework on which society depends. The Infrastructure Planning program uses this looseness to study both hard and soft infrastructures, examining how the built environment as well as the man-made systems influence the way people lead their everyday lives.

Detail of a slide from Georgeen Theodore's presentation

The final school presentation, “Shrinking Cities in a Growing Region: Ecology and Infrastructure” by Professor Santamaria, looked at the possibilities for student work in the town of Newburgh, NY, a Mid-Hudson Valley town whose fate is pushed and prodded, but not entirely dictated, by that of New York City. Newburgh’s economic health has gone through radical shifts throughout the twentieth century, nearly emptying out in recent years. The studio projects focused on revitalization, utilizing Dia: Beacon across the river to create linear connections vertically and horizontally. The NYIT students took on a set of vast design challenges by looking at an entire town with a scale more manageable than that of New York City.

The end of a long day came with an open discussion moderated by Anne Guiney, the executive director of the Institute for Urban Design. The afternoon’s presenters took on the questions of success within an academic institution, interdisciplinarity and how the siloed nature of practice is reflected in academia, the scale of urban design, and how to teach students to design effectively at a range of scales. If a practitioner measures success by a project over the course of two or three years, academics measure success by that of their students over the course of 20 years. The presenting instructors must wait to see what kind of work their students produce once they leave the university, how future practitioners utilize the tools that the instructors have given them, both practical and analytical, and how their students reflect their institutional pedagogies as urban designers.

Jessica Cronstein is a designer and writer interested in the point at which the social, cultural and physical growth of a city intersect. She has just completed her M.Arch at Rice University and lives in New York City.