Award-winning urbanist, project leader, and educator Aseem Inam discusses a graduate program at Parsons The New School for Design that fosters innovative thinking about and experimentation with the design of cities.
Q. The new master of arts program you’ve developed has an unusual name—Theories of Urban Practice. Have you developed your elevator pitch for it?
A. First of all, we call it “theories” because it reflects multiple ways of thinking about urban practice, by which we mean how cities are developed, structured, and restructured. Second, the complexity of the city sometimes gets lost in the one-liners. To put it simply, the kinds of questions we’ll be investigating through the program are who actually designs cities, how, and why.
Q. Is there a misperception about who designs cities?
A. The common perception is that urban designers design cities, but that’s not true. So that’s a little secret. They think they design cities, but it’s much more complicated.
Q. The conventional thinking is wrong?
A. Among practitioners, the typical way of thinking about cities is essentially that they’re architecture, only bigger. So to them, designing a city is like designing a building, at least metaphorically speaking. I’ve worked with people who just think it has to be a beautiful place. That’s wonderful—we all want beautiful places—but it’s just the icing on the cake.
The new MA in Theories of Urban Practice is about digging deeper into understanding how cities actually get designed and built—and by whom.
Q. What’s distinctive or unconventional about Parsons’ approach to urbanism?
A. There are a lot of discussions, or I should say critiques, of the way urbanism is currently practiced. But there are hardly any really effective models. In a lot of graduate programs in urbanism, the theory classes critique the way cities are designed and built, but in the studio they just go back to conventional practices, with a slight nod to social responsibility—they’ll put in a green roof, for example. It’s still the traditional mode of production, the same way of designing and building cities.
In Theories of Urban Practice, we think of theory as a form of practice. Knowing and seeing things in radically different ways takes you in radically different directions.
Q. How is the MA in Theories of Urban Practice different from Parsons’ new MS in Design and Urban Ecologies?
A. Theories of Urban Practice is a primarily a research- and knowledge-based program, while Design and Urban Ecologies is a studio-based program. But both programs critically examine the forces that shape and reshape cities. They both look for points of intervention and develop processes for transforming cities. Even though Theories of Urban Practice isn’t a studio program, our students will have an opportunity to take studio classes, as well as classes in other divisions of The New School. That interdisciplinary approach to problem solving is really important.
Q. How is the new approach to urbanism reflected in the curriculum?
A. In several ways. First of all, the core courses, like the history and theory courses, will not emphasize a canon or “the” canon, which most urban programs do. It’s theories and histories, meaning multiple understandings of how we think about cities—for example, multiple ways of reading about how cities evolve over time.
There’s the conventional top-down Eurocentric approach to history, which is “It all started with the Greeks and then the Romans, and then pretty soon you had the Renaissance.” And everybody else? “We don’t know what they were doing. Oh, yeah, there was something happening in China.” No. Our program aims to give equal voice to non-Western cultures.
Second, we are looking for students who are comfortable challenging basic assumptions. That means, for example, questioning what “sustainable design” means. Obviously sustainability is a big theme now, but hardly anyone is talking about the fact that if you really want to live a sustainable lifestyle, you have to make huge sacrifices. People still want to live a life of consumption. “Oh, I’m driving a hybrid.” Yeah, but you’re still driving around; it still took energy and materials which came from the earth. What happens when the car is junked? Challenging fundamental assumptions may make us uncomfortable, but that’s where you have to go.
Third, we want this curriculum to have an impact. It’s about looking at forms of knowledge that are empowering. It’s not passive. That’s really important. It’s not just jumping on bandwagons, whether it’s globalization or ecological urbanism or sustainability, but figuring out the impact that these ways of theorizing, these forms of knowledge, will have on how you practice. And then ultimately it must have an impact on people’s daily lives. Even when we study the history of cities, we’re figuring out what we can do with that history. Otherwise, it’s all abstract theory. So it’s this connection between theory, practice, and impact.
Q. Can you give me an example from your own work of that connection between theory, practice, and impact?
A. One example is a project I worked on to revitalize Whittier, a city outside of LA. It’s a historic center. The city wanted to attract people and businesses and jobs and housing, to have a vibrant street life. And so the firm I was working for came up with a design based on extensive research and a transparent, democratic design process.
What we found was that the single biggest hurdle was the city manager and his budget. We had a huge debate in my firm over whether we should go beyond our responsibilities as designers and do whatever it took to see the project through. I felt sure that we should, though as you know, you have to have infinite patience when you deal with bureaucrats. To cut a long story short, we actually did his budget for him.
Q. And you made the project happen?
A. Exactly. In this case, it was not enough to do a fantastically well researched, completely participatory, beautifully designed plan. We had to ask: How can we make the design a reality? What knowledge do we need? Of course we weren’t experienced in municipal budgeting. We worked with somebody who was.
Q. You mentioned that a project has to have an impact on people’s daily lives. What was the impact in this case?
A. For the first time, I think, in that city’s history, the people actually had a major voice in the future of the city. Whereas previously it was of course the mayor or city council, city manager—people at the top—whose voices were represented.
Second, because this was such an open, transparent process, people in the community actually got excited about the city. Whittier’s mostly seen as a suburb of LA, so that’s the box. The reaction we saw was “Wow, we can have a really exciting and wonderful future. This place could be pretty amazing.” We created through the process a political constituency for urbanism where there wasn’t one before.
And the third impact was, of course, what the city hired us for, which was increasing economic revenue, attracting more customers to local businesses, having streets which you actually enjoy walking down, having beautiful parks—those kinds of concrete impacts and quality-of-life issues.
Q. How will graduates of the master’s program affect the way cities are built, shaped, and reshaped?
A. In a few ways. Some will work in conventional positions in conventional organizations: urban design departments of cities, city planning departments, design firms—urban design, architecture, planning firms—and nonprofit organizations. To those conventional jobs in conventional organizations they will bring a fresh perspective, a deeper understanding. So, for example, they won’t think of designing cities as we do in the studio, where you make a couple of nice drawings and models and you present them and voilà! That’s not even scratching the surface. They’ll figure out what it takes to make that a reality, which is much more challenging.
The second type of job they might get now is in unconventional organizations, nonprofits, and collaboratives. These opportunities are the result of a growing interest in unconventional approaches to urbanism. An excellent example in Brooklyn is the Center for Urban Pedagogy, which engages with the city in many ways. Another example in New York is the Project for Public Spaces, which focuses exclusively on the design and building of public spaces all over the country.
The third outcome that we want to support and nurture is students’ developing their own modes of practice—new and more powerful modes of practice. An example might be flexible modes of practice like a one- or two-person office that collaborates on projects. Depending on the needs of a project, the office can suddenly become a team of 20 or, for a small project, a team of two. So it’s very adaptive, very flexible, very nimble, in a constantly changing world.
Another mode of practice that we want to support is the formation of global networks—real collaboration with people in Lagos, for example, or Mexico City or Manila. Not the old model, in which “experts” from the United Nations, the World Bank, or corporate firms approach projects believing they know all the answers, even if they make some superficial gestures toward local “partnerships,” but much more of a two-way collaboration.
Q. Is the point to be culturally sensitive and get to know about communities?
A. That’s a good question, because this issue has been talked for a long time, for decades. “We must be sensitive to cultures. We must work with local people,” but that’s still a patronizing and condescending attitude, if I may say so. The attitude is still “We’re here to work with you poor people. Tell us what you want, but we’re still the experts with our degrees from wherever.”
We’re advocating much more of a true partnership. I think it would be fantastic for people from complex, challenging cities like Rio or Karachi, who have done highly innovative work, to come here and work with New York designers on New York projects. Again, make it a truly two-way thing. Real innovation comes from that. That’s when you begin to see your own city through fresh eyes. When we say “urban practice,” that’s the kind of practice we want to encourage.
Q. What kind of students are you looking for in the MA program?
A. We are looking for students who not only think about cities but care about them. We want students who are well rounded—who are open to a broader idea of design and are interested in learning how the process of design can be used to strengthen democracy. We want students who will think of design as a way of fundamentally transforming cities.
Q. How will graduates demonstrate their capabilities to potential employers? Will they have a portfolio?
A. In the program, students will produce a body of original and creative work based on critical thinking and rigorous research. We will emphasize the development of effective writing skills. Its one of the most powerful—and neglected—skills for urbanists, which is really about being able to think, analyze, propose, and implement effectively. Students will also work on a wide range of projects. When they graduate, employers will be attracted by their versatility and ability to dig into issues in a much more profound way than is commonly expected. Students will also benefit from the global networks of The New School and Parsons, especially the urban studies faculty.
Q. What kind of reaction have you gotten as you travel around and discuss the development of this program?
A. It’s been fantastic. The three types of people I’ve been talking with are potential students, faculty at other universities, and professionals. What’s been really interesting is the response from professionals. They’re very excited about the program because of its emphasis on digging deeper and going beyond the same old, same old. A lot of them are not sure where it will lead, but that’s normal with cities. It’s not like we’re designing a product like the new iPad. Transforming the city takes decades, centuries. It’s very complex, and there’s a lot of uncertainty. If you want to be an urbanist, you had better be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.
They’re excited that we’re giving people skills that will allow them to understand that uncertainty and ambiguity. We’re helping people understand how things happen. We’re making them aware of points of intervention and helping them understand how they can make real change happen.
About Aseem Inam
Aseem Inam is an associate professor of urbanism, the program director of the MA in Theories of Urban Practice at Parsons The New School for Design, and a fellow at the Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT. Dr. Inam is the author of Planning for the Unplanned: Recovering from Crises in Megacities, a comparative analysis of city rebuilding in Los Angeles, Mexico City, and New York. His paper “Meaningful Urban Design,” received a national award from the SOM Foundation and was published in the Journal of Urban Design. His scholarly work has also been published in the journals Cities and Planning Practice and Research and received awards from the California Planning Foundation and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Dr. Inam previously taught at MIT, where he received the Excellence in Teaching Award; UCLA; and the University of Michigan, where he received the Outstanding Faculty Award three times. He was the founding architect in charge of the Aga Khan Development Network’s rural habitat development program in Gujarat, India. Most recently, he led urban design and planning projects in California, the Caribbean, Idaho, and New Mexico with the award-winning firm Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists. Dr. Inam has also worked on projects in Canada, Morocco, and the former Yugoslavia.
Dr. Inam received a master’s degree in architecture from the former Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, a master’s degree in urban design from Washington University in St. Louis, and a PhD in planning from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He currently serves on the editorial board of ArchitectureBoston, a leading architecture and urban design magazine.