Spaces of Interaction

Quality, not Quantity: The Case of Bogota, Colombia

Camila Gutierrez Plata (MAUD ’18)

An excerpt from Gutierrez Plata's thesis, "Spaces of Interaction: Quality, not Quantity - The Case of Bogota, Colombia" completed at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2018

The public realm is the space where citizens meet with strangers. It is theoretically, the space where anyone can express their opinion, a space where everyone is free. While this may have been the case several decades ago, as Robert Putnam expressed, contemporary society with its technology, privatization of public space, and various other factors, are decreasing the amount of social capital in its communities. [1] One of the reasons why networks are not formed between citizens, is because they do not meet outside the private sphere, limiting both the amount and also the type of people one interacts with. Public space’s role in societies has diminished, but is recently starting to come back as an essential component of cities. As Marmorstein, Neilsen and Juul point out: “When the inhabitants entrench themselves – as an upshot of the common space being driven away by private interests and self-serving considerations – the society’s cohesive force vanishes and concomitantly its potential to evolve”. [2] Since interactions that used to happen in the public realm now tend to happen in the private sphere, citizens have less and less contact with strangers and Richard Sennett’s ideal city, which should do its best to heal society’s divisions of race, class and ethnicity, just doesn’t exist. [3]

Several designers and mayors, with knowledge from sociologists and anthropologists who have studied the urban and people’s relations in the public realm, have begun to focus their efforts into the production of public space, knowing its important effect on society. Although this refocus is in the right direction, due to the way public spaces are analyzed and designed, their efforts end up creating spaces that do not necessarily improve conditions of the public sphere. As any other subject that has to do with cities and societies, the situation in each is different and therefore so are the approaches to improving urban conditions. In the case of Bogotá, and of most Latin American cities, the general approach has been to increase the amount of public space. Although this is a well-intentioned endeavor (for many lack such space due to a high degree of informal urbanization), it completely ignores the social aspects of how public spaces work. By understanding that public spaces are really ‘Spaces of Interaction’, as a researcher, as a designer, as a planner, or as a city mayor, one will give as much importance to the amount of space as to the quality of the spaces created, a quality measured by how much its physical elements and its context influence and encourage more meaningful interactions between citizens. 

David Seamon’s concept of place-ballet, which happens only in supportive physical environments, depicts many time-space routines (a set of habitual bodily behaviors which extends through a considerable portion of time) and body-ballets (“a set of integrated behaviors which sustain a particular task or aim) fuse together in place, resulting in an environmental vitality that “generates a strong sense of place because of its continual and regular human activity”. [4] The notion of place-ballet is particularly interesting because it is a way of understanding space and time, with the integration of people. Maslow and Steele both acknowledge that sense of belonging and shared symbolic identification are human needs. Shared symbolism can only be achieved if people are in the same space and perceive it not in a similar way, but as a space with symbolic meaning. Public spaces should be these spaces where place-ballet not only happens by chance but is actually fostered, due to the fact that there is a higher chance that there will be more diversity participating in it. By understanding public spaces as spaces for interaction, one can produce that supportive physical environment which Seamon believes is essential for place-ballet to take place.

There are several conditions in the context, both physical and social, that define a space’s potential to generate interactions. These conditions range also in scale (for the location of a space within a city and district is crucial), to the design of the space and the elements within it, as well as with the perception of individuals in the space. In order to create spaces of interaction in the city, it is essential that all scales are taken into account, for no public space will be active if the conditions of its context or its design are not focused on this goal. Bogotá is aware of how important public space is, but what it seems to overlook is that its importance comes from the social dynamics of the space much more than just its existence as a public open area. Changing the frame through which public space is looked at to that of spaces of interaction, Bogotá may manage to continue increasing the amount of public space in a way that has a more positive impact on its society. One way to begin to do so is by changing the way in which spaces are analyzed and the considerations taken to design or redesign public spaces. 

To read this whole thesis further, visit:



  1. Putnam, Robert D. 1995. «Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social    Capital.» Journal of Democracy 65-78.    
  2. Marmorstein, D A, T F Nielsen, y F A Juul. 2011. Public Space: The familiar    into the strange. Copenhagen. 
  3. Sennett, Richard. 2006. «The Open City.» Urban Age. Berlin: London School    of Economics. 1-5. 
  4. Seamon, David. 1980. «Body-Subjet, Time-Space Routines, and Place-   Ballets.» In The Human Experience of Space and Place, edited by    Anne Buttimer y David Seamon, 148-165. London: Croom Helm London.
  5. Maslow, Abraham H. 1954. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper   and Row.
  6. Steele, Fred. 1973. Physical Settings and Organizational Development.    Reading: Addison-Wesley.

The Just City Lab

South Africa Edition

Natasha Hicks, MUP/MDes ’19 and Nerali Patel MUP ‘18

just city 3.jpg

africanpopcultures, •. “Visiting African Barbershops and Hair Salons.” African Popular Cultures, 12 Oct. 2014,

This summer we had the opportunity to travel to South Africa on a whirlwind two-week research trip with the Just City Lab and the lab’s founder, Toni L. Griffin (Professor in Practice of Urban Planning). Our mission was twofold: to take the work of the lab global in a series of programs located in Tshwane, Johannesburg and Cape Town, and to seek design case studies to add to the lab’s database. During our two weeks in South Africa, we participated in over 20 different meetings, ranging from engagements with city planners, designers, organizations, entrepreneurs, professors, students and political leaders. The culmination of our trek left us with three key takeaways that resonate with our actions as planners and designers:


1. The importance of calling injustice, an injustice.

Words matter. Words validate, recognize, and affirm. They also have the power to deny and erase. The diluted jargon used by some designers, planners, students and communities that we met act as a silent violence, an erasure of the trauma and injustices of the apartheid city. The call to choose words wisely evoked reflection on some of the terms that we have adopted, which often inflict unforeseen consequences.

When we refer to townships, informal settlements and slums - we imply that they are a transient, temporary, inhuman problems that will soon vanish from our urban landscapes. Rather, generation after generation has sustained them, and thus they are definitely here to stay. While they are “make-shift” to some and “home” for others, in our view they deserve to be legitimized.   It is time to humanize them, and we can start that process very simply by calling them neighborhoods. For us, this is where the Just City Lab’s work really came to life, and where we saw the power of the Just City Index. If we use our words with intention, perhaps our designs will strive to achieve a more humanized outcome.


just city 2.jpg

Furlong, Ashleigh. “Three Years after the Khayelitsha Commission‚ Is There Any Progress?” Times LIVE, Sunday Times,

2. Redefining Resiliency

In searching for design case studies we toured a variety of urban projects. A local guide gave us a tour of Kliptown, the oldest township in Soweto. As we shuffled into a shack, not more than 60 ft2, our guide pointed out: “look at their pots, have you ever seen shinier pots anywhere else? In Kliptown, we may sleep on the floor and sleep 10 to a shack but you’ll never see a pot that isn’t shiny.”

Resiliency is a buzzword that has become diluted by academics, cities, philanthropies and profit seekers. The meaning can often feel opaque. However, in a moment of clarity in Kliptown, resiliency was embodied by an unemployed women carefully washing buckets of laundry at one communal tap shared between hundreds. Resiliency revealed itself through the many hair salons embedded between shacks. Resiliency was defined by Black Pride. Defying the expectations of a hostile world, the self pride we observed in Kliptown demonstrated a deeper understanding of what it means to be resilient  - often not measured or understood by our traditional design metrics - a challenge planners and designers should consider when we so frequently use the phrase “designing for resilience.”


3. Design matters, but who has a seat at the table matters more.

As designers, we champion design as a remarkably powerful tool. However, design itself as an aesthetic endeavor can only achieve so much. During our trip we saw an array of socially driven design projects that had a clear social impact.

just city.jpg

Image Credit: Nerali Patel

Our trek left us with one overarching question: how do planners and designers orchestrate the right team? Design is certainly a catalyst for major change in society, yet designers cannot act alone. Half the battle is really about which individuals have a seat at the table. Having projects and clients that represent not just one actor or agent, but partnerships between all sectors will allow for a plan to belong to a collective in which everyone is invested.


New Definitions to Public Spaces

Appropriation and Re-Appropriation of Private Spaces

Hüma Şahin (MArch II ’19)

Presented at Urban Struggles in Mediterranean Cities: The Right to the City and the Common Space
International UnConference held at Athens, School of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens
May 3 – June 3, 2018



…Publicness is a performative and incremental condition embodied in the hybrid physical-virtual environments of evolving societies. Publicness happens, taking on a performative aspect that is often lost when we focus too heavily on architectural space alone. Public space is always an appropriation of an existing space, a layering of a political space over legal space…

-        Adrian Blackwell, Tar and Clay: Public Space Is the Demonstration of a Paradox in the Physical World, 2017

When architects and urban planners talk about creating democratic spaces, they fall into the trap of immediately talking about the spatial attributes of publicness. But the search for democracy in urban settings is not necessarily about the sole considerations of spatial phenomenona. In actuality, publicness goes beyond ownership and spatial attributes.

When talking about public spaces and democracy, the architectural space is just the tip of an iceberg. Patrick Geddes points out “The hope of the city lies outside of itself.”

Looking through the lens of democracy, the disappearance of the idea of the “public good” under neoliberalism has had concrete effects in the city.  In the early and mid-20thcentury government-funded parks and squares were broadly provided for all citizens as a disciplinary strategy of social management.

Political power often seeks to reorganize urban infrastructures and urban life with an eye on the control of restive populations. (Harvey, 2013) And while these reorganizations are clear in some cases, in other cases some numb the mind while others mesmerize the eyes of the people.


…Geographer Kanishka Goonewardena has made a powerful argument for the ideological nature of the capitalist city, claiming that the fully immersive sensory aesthetics of urban space make it a very powerful ideological tool. We simply cannot deny what we feel, and urban space is experienced with all our senses…

-        Adrian Blackwell, Tar and Clay: Public Space Is the Demonstration of a Paradox in the Physical World, 2017

In this regard, public spaces acted as the opium of the people. With commonly used terms like liveliness, beauty, livability, the effects of the state and market regulated public spaces on the society is covered. As urban theoretician Alvaro Sevilla - Buitrago points out, state driven public spaces, like parks, are suggesting a different form of enclosure in the urban setting. Sevilla mentions that the park, in this case Central Park, is understood as an early stage in the project of imposing new social relations through the enclosure of public conduct and he designates the park as a first effort to “tame the urban commons and prevent the subaltern appropriation of public space.” (Sevilla, 2013)

On the other hand, public spaces have transformed into hubs of consumption. What can be seen in this period, is a restricting of spaces of public authority, from their Keynesian Fordist function as normalizing spaces designed to make all citizens into good capitalist consumers, to a new function of differentiation, in which certain segments of the population are more violently policed by the public authority, while others are lavish pseudo-public spaces, designed to encourage consumption practices. In the end,urban designs under neoliberalism, which claim to have produced more livable “public” spaces, have in fact produced geographies of inequality. (Blackwell, 2017)

The traditional definitions of public spaces are not sufficient to untie the knots in democratically suppressed cities. Rather than seeking the public spaces “assigned” with top-down decisions, one can think of re-appropriating private spaces to form them.


Challenging the urbanistic trend of an “apolitical domesticity”, new ways to define public spaces and publicness can be traced to house environments. This exploration of the house environment would bring “political domesticity” where true publicness is located in the house, the traditional hub of “privateness”. In searching for new ways to define public spaces, this investigation would find new sites for the representation for its people. These sites will be helpful in “spatializating", maintaining, and strengthening public interaction, which would otherwise be floating around the city in a nomadic form.

Moreover, these “hubs of privacy” can be perceived as a different form of cul-de-sacs and as an extension of a powerful non-space that denies any programmatic imposition, the street network.

Rather than seeking state and market driven public spaces which are in most cases manipulative and alienating, masquerading behind beauty masks and not helpful in triggering positive change in the society, re-appropriation of the private spaces should be considered.


1. Blackwell, Adrian. “Tar and Clay: Public Space Is the Demonstration of a Paradox in the Physical World.” Public Space?: Lost and Found, by Gediminas Urbonas et al., SA P Press, MIT School of Architecture Planning, 2017, pp. 19–38.

2. Harvey, David. Rebel Cities from the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. Verso, 2013, pp. 117.

3. Sevilla, “Central Park Against he Streets: The Enclosure of Public Space Cultures in Mid-Nineteenth Century New York”, 2013


On Architecture, From Architecture

Translating Academia into Practice

Sudeshna Sen (MAUD '19)


Source: Urban Omnibus. “Teaching Urban Design.” Urban Omnibus, 12 Dec. 2017,

What is the dependency of the discipline of urban design on architecture? Is there a necessity to distinguish urban design from architecture?

For me, this is a vital question that arose as I reflect back on my first year of academia in the discipline and venture into its practice for the summer. It is a culmination of thoughts that manifested after attending a book talk at the MIT Press Bookstore followed by a conversation between Brent Ryan, Alex Krieger and Rahul Mehrotra. The Largest Art, written by Brent D. Ryan, is an effort to redefine the discipline as an art – an art that differentiates it distinctly from other building arts. The book seemed to have focused most of it energy in illuminating aspects which sets urban design apart from architecture – the incompleteness of form and the temporality of interventions.

But before one can venture an answer to such a question, one must understand the foundational dependency these two disciplines share in their intertwined histories. As an academic discipline, urban design was founded at the Graduate School of Design in 1960. The very founding of the discipline was generated around a series of conferences by Jose Luis Sert during the years 1957-1965 to understand the need for and the responsibility of this discipline in the making of contemporary cities.  

In essence as I understand it, the foundation of the discipline of urban design grew out of an attempt to combine the disciplines of architecture, landscape and planning and emphasizing a need for a ‘bridge’ discipline. However, over the years, the attachment between architecture and urban design has only strengthened: urban design interventions are largely considered to be architectural interventions across scales. This dependency seems to have grown out of the need for the discipline of urban design to rely on that of architecture as a visual language and mode of representation.

Cities have been designed long before any formal training in urban design was given. Indeed, the most exemplary urban designs were conceived by engineers, lawyers and socialists. The matters of contestation in the urban realm does not rise simply from spatial incongruencies but from an accumulation of socio-political circumstances. Intervening in the urban requires distinct forms of action arising from the specificity of its geopolitical context. So, the question then arises, how did urban design become so entangled and reliant on the field of architecture to define it? How do we start moving away from architectural design as the solution and start introducing multiple modes of engagement in the learning process? How should we learn urban design and therefore how should we teach it?

Architecture is critical as a visual language and as a methodological tool which helps illuminate scalar and spatial relationships. However, we must not confuse architecture as a representational tool with architecture as a methodological solution to urban design problems. While understanding the need for architecture as a visual language, we must also understand its limitations in communicating essential aspects of urban design projects – among others, these embodying concepts of incompleteness and temporality. Furthermore, since urban design already expresses in-depth knowledge of design thinking processes, its education can and should explore how these processes apply to policy creation, advocacy initiatives, private-public partnerships and community collaborations that are so intrinsic to the forefront of the discipline, issues that recede when urban design is framed as ‘architecture’.

Rather than defining (or re-defining) urban design, maybe we should start by re-evaluating the way we teach it. A methodological academic shift can have huge implications in the way we approach the practice of urban design today. In thinking of urban design as a way of intervening and critiquing the contemporary city, we must acknowledge the complexity that surrounds issues of urbanization. A focus on ‘design’ as the primary skillset has led to the extensive use of architecture as a solution, whereas the applied practice of urban design requires us to be much more versatile in incorporating research and contemporary issues into design, rather than resorting to default modes of ‘architectural design’ interventions.


1. “Teaching Urban Design.” Urban Omnibus, 12 Dec. 2017,

2. Krieger, Alex, and William S. Saunders. Urban Design. 2009.

3. Ryan, Brent D. The Largest Art: a Measured Manifesto for a Plural Urbanism. The MIT Press, 2017.


The Role of Ephemeral Interventions

Overcoming Crisis in Caracas

Karen Mata (MAUD’18)


‘ReFLORESTAndo’ Project: Process to generate economic resources and strengthen social institutions

Given the complex economic and political situation Venezuela is currently facing, it is critical to start questioning the scenarios produced by the duality of crisis and temporality while reflecting about the role of the city in overcoming crisis. This reflection is urgent for two reasons: firstly, because longstanding crises require long periods of recovery, especially when the social and institutional fabric has been damaged, generating a political trauma that has negative impacts on the execution of urban interventions. Secondly, because crisis that persist generate periods of normalization over social behaviors that modify space, institutions, and the focus and scope of urban interventions.

Henri Lefebvre tells us that “there is a politics of space because space is political.” In Venezuela, this has been taken to both extremes. On the one hand, interactions in public space tend to be more conflictive because of various insecurities and the strong division of society in two opposing political groups. On the other hand, and stemming from this tension, some of the last urban interventions seek to depoliticize the purpose of the projects. Between these extremes, it is also well-known that the public space is what defines the character of cities.

In this context, CCSCity450 emerges as a project for the reconstruction of the city, as part of the celebration of the 450 years since Caracas’s foundation and led by architects Aliz Mena, María Isabel Peña, and Franco Micucci. This project aims to create spaces for the discussion about the city, appropriation of space, and the urban memory while proposing alternative models for a possible reconstruction in Caracas.

At the end of last year they called for a competition of temporary urban interventions to tackle the crisis, all within a budget of $2,000.[1] Proposals addresed issues such as enhancing accessibility routes to a hospital, tackling food provision, and addressing the challenge of generating resources and empower existing social institutions within the community[2].

In this context, and given the selected projects to be implemented, it is necessary to think about what gets prioritized and who is benefiting from them. How much public participation is really necessary and pertinent? What are the forms in which people can communicate and collaborate to the other public institutions? This could be a way to tie together solutions for an ongoing crisis that demands immediate responses and plans that allow us to rethink ephemeral interventions as structural project bases. This is different to thinking of them as temporal forms of appropriation that will eventually disappear. This is what we should expect from ephemeral interventions in context like in Venezuela.

During any given crisis, the awareness of the urban realm’s trajectory over time is fundamental, both for finding new paths of opportunity and to lessen the difficulties of living in such a troubled city.  In this sense, ephemeral interventions could have a leading role in the reconstruction of the state. Following an urban plan is essential, but more importantly this process must be visible to its citizens, because only then can it have the power to mold and influence future political projects associated with Venezuela’s reconstruction.

To overcome a crisis is to rethink what the future could be, it is to discover and focus on the future we want, based on our own difficulties. That way the difficulties or byproducts of the crisis will be allowed to be incorporated into the process of recovery, which consist on proposing alternative models to foster development initiatives that go beyond a public space that is just a mirror image of other realities.

This text was written as part of the Taller Ciudad Venezuela (Venezuela City Workshop) about the urban situation in Venezuela for an event organized by Venezuelan undergraduate students called Plan País (Country Plan) held in Boston University on March 30th and 31st. The session was moderated by Ignacio Cardona (DDes 19), with Andreina Seijas (DDes 20) as note taker. This is the first time that a session about the role of cities in the reconstruction Venezuela was introduced. It is an event that has taken place for more than eight years where groups of undergraduate students meet to study the future of the country.


[1] Because of inflation now that budget is less than half of what it was when the winners were announced.

[2] This last is a winner proposal called ReFLORESTAndo, by Rodrigo Guerra (MAUD’17) and Karen Mata (MAUD’18) in collaboration with Patricia Álvarez (MDES’18), Pablo Escudero (MDES’18) and Rudy Weissenberg (MDES’18).


Do Good by Doing Well

Design in the Humanitarian Field

Zhuo Pang (MAUD '18)

zhuo pang 1.jpg

IBTASEM playground in Lebanon                     
Source: Catalytic Action

This time last year, I was reading a book called “Design like you give a damn: architectural responses to humanitarian crises[1].” by Architecture for Humanity (AFH).   It was interesting to find out that although the phrase “humanitarian architect” was repeatedly used in the book, the title framed it as “architectural responses to humanitarian crises”, perhaps in response to the debate that all architects wish to do good and that separating humanitarian architects from the others may form further barriers.

To me, the difference between what is humanitarian or not lies in the context of practice rather than the goal of practitioners. Architectural practice in the humanitarian field has only begun to be noticed in the last two decades, especially after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. In the context of intensified natural disasters, forced displacement and consistent global poverty, the crisis has been protracted and the boundary between temporary and permanent, between humanitarian and development, have been blurred. In the old days when people were only going to be displaced temporarily, a simple shelter (often in the form of a tent or an isobox) would suffice; it was engineers rather than architects who provided solutions. The most important evaluation criteria were efficiency and financial feasibility.

Nowadays when the average time of displacement of refugees are 17 years (according to UNHCR), temporary solutions are not enough.

The physical environment impacts people’s mindsets. Sharing a room with 7 strangers deprives any right to privacy; living in endlessly repeating isoboxes deprives people of identity.  Surviving in “minimalism” without amenities deprives the sense of community. In a word, people suffering from humanitarian crises are exactly those who aspire for normalcy, for all the simple things they could do before everything was disrupted. And this is where designers and planners can contribute.


This is not an easy path because of the almost intrinsic challenges in humanitarian practice.  I want to point out a few based on my observation:

The challenge of building in conflict areas

Humanitarian design often happens in areas without official government, committed clients, competent contractors or a formal tenure system. At the same time, humanitarian players on the ground often have their own agendas and are responsible to specific donors. Repetition of work is typical and pilot solutions get implemented everywhere.  This brings many difficulties in terms of partnership, implementation and maintenance.

The challenge of forming community

Many design efforts celebrate the idea of “creating a sense of community” through place-making; however, in the humanitarian field, people can come from very different income and ethnic groups, all packed into high density environments. Without mutual trust, community is simply non-existent.

The challenge between temporary and permanent

In the spectrum of temporary, transient, and permanent, architects are more comfortable dealing with the latter; however, it is not rare to see  purportedly transient housing become permanent in practice. Conversely, people may not welcome permanent architecture because they do not perceive this place as their final destination, and any permanent gestures are perceived by people as consolidation of their current condition.


Challenges remain. Successful humanitarian practices typically begin as successful architectural practices . As Shigeru Ban put it, “you need to be a good architect in the first place.” As cliché as it may sound, a good intention, an adaptive mindset and professionalism shall do the work.


  1. Architecture for Humanity (Organization). 2006. Design like you give a damn: architectural responses to humanitarian crises. New York: Metropolis Books.

The Risk of Privately Owned Public Digital Place

Urban Planning Principles Should Be Applied to the Digital Realm

Mariah Valerie Barber (MUP '19)


As a Master in Urban Planning student at the GSD I frequently wonder why our discipline pays so little attention to digital space. What occurs in digital space is rapidly changing the layout of cities, management capacity, how people organize, movement within it and how urban dwellers interact and socialize with one another. Users of applications, search engines, and social media platforms create digital data trails which have capacity, especially when spatialized to inform us in the decision-making process about how these people move around, what spaces are frequently visited - what is or is not working. In terms of infrastructure, should we as planners advocate that people have access to the same opportunities to exist in digital spaces? I argue that digital space should benefit from some planning, zoning, and place-based policy initiatives in both the physical and digital public realms.

Digital space could benefit from the guiding principles of planning as a discipline. Digital space and the UX design practices that create it use many of the same principles of navigability that have been essentially standardized within the field. Many planners utilize urban sociology methodologies and theories to justify their proposals. In fact, neuroimaging of the brain has shown that the same areas of the brain that are employed while an individual navigates physical space are active in navigating digital platform or general web browsing. Similarly, within digital space there are different cultures, norms, and manners of social conduct that can be visible.


Notions of Publicly Owned Public Space Vs. Privately-Owned Private Space in the Digital Realm

When thinking about the rules that govern digital space, I think of differences between  publicly owned, publicly managed and a privately owned, pseudo public space, and how the rights of the urban dweller and the manager of these spaces differs. In the US it assumed that when someone is in a privately owned public space they are subject to the rules of conduct as determined by the individual owner or entity, whose end goal in providing the space in the first place is to generate profit or provide the space as a type of amelioration of the social costs that went into developing other elements of their property.  They determine hours of operation, the physical design, and surveillance.

In turning back to digital space, users are subjected to the rules as determined by the platforms or applications that provide the “infrastructure” of digital spaces. Often, these spaces are privately owned by companies, the vast majority of which are providing the space in order to profit from it, which in the digital world equates to individual’s data. Wwhen it comes to digital space, the fact that the same standard’s regarding privately owned public physical space apply as a status quo is not only absurd, but extremely precarious.

Unlike physical “public spaces” the digital is not restricted by factors such as which neighborhood it is located within and the physical limits of hosting only a certain amount of people at a given time. While I think that many planning solutions could easily be applicable to the digital realm, assuming that because a digital space is privately managed the individual should be subjected to the rules of the private jurisdiction is problematic in terms of the high user populations and the fact that digital space combines, fuses, and mixes with commonly agreed upon notions of the public and private in ways that until recently we have never fully experienced.  

In thinking of the digital public realm, theoretical models such of those of Hannah Ardent, Habermas, and Sennet can easily be applied. As Hannah Ardent distinguished in her political theory work, “The Public Realm and Public Self,” there lies a nexus between an individual when alone and in a public space, or the “space of appearance.” Additionally, the importance of public space for people to organize, gather, and protest has long been studied in western political urban sociology. Such spaces have been historically linked to many revolutions and political shifts. Such capacity is frequently associated with digital space. The term “social media justice worrier” or phenomena such as the social media organizing that led to the Arab Spring offer examples of such similarities between the digital and the physical public while also providing nuance.


Planning Digital Space

Digital space should be planned along standards that mix models of theory and practice while taking into account the interfusing of private and public that occur within it. I am eager to explore ideas of local governments playing more of an active role in governing digital space. Scalability is obviously an issue, with such platforms it can’t be ignored that digital space should be fit for local contexts.

For example, China’s political relationship with information, data, and censorship have, as a nation, essentially planned digital space to fit the rules and policies of their “real-life” counterparts.  Rather than allow Facebook, Amazon, Uber to dominate the nation, they made sure to block them from entering and instead encouraged domestic versions of similar technology. The way in which that captured and localized wealth created by such platforms, tailored the platforms to the culture of China, and maintained many of the principles that are governing China today. Regardless of the controversy surrounding its control and monitoring, this can be viewed as an impressive endeavor.


For Now

In the short term, I believe there could be huge benefits for local governments to digitally plan space as it applies to capital capture. One example is requiring apps such as Uber, Lyft, and Via to pay city taxes when users access their digital services from within the physical boundaries of their jurisdictions.  

In thinking about the dialogue regarding platforms and technology in the United States, it is seemingly almost always about “disruption”. How people move around or interact with others has often been in ways that are largely positive. However, the role of government has been significantly weakened in the process. Although only few cities have been able to do so, this may represent the beginning of digital planning practices.   


  1. Benfield, Kaid. “The Important Difference Between a Public Space and a ‘Common.’” CityLab. Accessed April 9, 2018.
  2. Dossa, Shiraz. The Public Realm and the Public Self: The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989.
  3. The Public Realm and the Public Self: The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989.
  4. Garrett, Bradley L. “The Privatisation of Cities’ Public Spaces Is Escalating. It Is Time to Take a Stand.” the Guardian, August 4, 2015.
  5. Granville, Kevin. “Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: What You Need to Know as Fallout Widens.” The New York Times, March 19, 2018, sec. Technology.
  6. “Harvey_condition_postmodern.Pdf.” Accessed March 3, 2018.
  7. Hu, Winnie. “When Calling an Uber Can Pay Off for Cities and States.” The New York Times, February 18, 2018, sec. N.Y. / Region.
  9. “ISL-6_Plans_and_Situated_Actions.Pdf.” Accessed March 3, 2018.
  10. McConnell, Paul. “Urban Planning and Digital Experiences.” Paul McConnell (blog), October 5, 2016.
  11. Shenker, Jack. “Revealed: The Insidious Creep of Pseudo-Public Space in London.” The Guardian, July 24, 2017, sec. Cities.

  12. “Sociology Beyond Societies - Google Search.” Accessed March 3, 2018.

  13. “SPLINTERING URBANISM Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition - Stephen Graham.Pdf.” Accessed March 3, 2018.,%20Technological%20Mobilities%20and%20the%20Urban%20Condition%20(3302)/SPLINTERING%20URBANISM_%20networked%20infrastructures,%20technological%20mobilities%20and%20the%20urban%20condition%20-%20Stephen%20Graham.pdf.

  14. “Urban Cyberspace Policy Initiative in Manchester.Pdf | Cyberspace | Internet Forum.” Scribd. Accessed March 3, 2018.

  15. Yepes, Veronica. “The Mexican Path Toward Having Smart Cities.” Infrastructure Mexico (blog), November 2, 2017.


Against Hybridity

A Return to Separation

Rob Meyerson (MAUD '18)


Image by John Gollings. Phillip Island House, by Denton Corker Marshall

The idea of limits is crucial to contemporary life.  Limits bring order and understanding to space, they provide a frame for which to enter and exit.  How else do we feel the excitement of moving through the chaos of one environment and into the sanctuary of our private rooms?  Thresholds, portals and entrances provide the rhythm for our experiences and encounters on a daily basis. 

It is within this ideology I would argue that an urban-architectural project could exist. There is a tendency to celebrate the generic nature of the expansions of many contemporary cities.  Sprawl and urbanization have been a result of many factors and forces, and the outcome a new form of territory.  This new form of territory has blurred the boundary between the traditional center and the periphery, to a state where we really have no definition of the city anymore.  

In defining the city, or at least the idea of a city, we may be able to argue for the return of true urban design projects.  These are projects which have value in either being part of, or against the city.  The projects that sit on the fence are precisely that – they give up something to be a part of something else. Projects that stand for something take on a ratbag attitude, somewhat naively but at least they stand strongly in favor of something.  To be clear, this is not an argument against the explosion of urbanization, but simply an approach to claim one side or the other.

What would a project look like that argued for the return of the definition of the city?  One answer could be that of limits.  In other words, the new project could have no real interest in style or facade, but be purely concerned in defining itself against what it is not.  It is a project that sets up boundaries between itself and the rest, which states clearly its political intention without blending in to the rest of the city.  The urge to blend, to mix or to become hybrid has diluted the power of the urban-architectural project to make a statement.  Once the ability for urban projects to comment on their position in the city is lost, they may no longer be urban at all.


  1. Rowe, Peter G and Kan, Har Ye, Macau and Its Borders, in Common Frameworks: Rethinking the Developmental City in China, Harvard Design Studies, 2016 pp 132-145

Language, Audience, Values

A Provocation for Designers to Refocus

Austin Ward (MAUD '19)

Image 02.jpg

Image Source: Washington, D.C., February 2017. [Ted Eytan]

In the concluding remarks of Michael Murphy & Alan Ricks paper Beyond Shelter: Architecture and Human Dignity the authors make a definitive plea that the profession of architecture needs to re-focus its values and practices in order to address the current and future needs of the societies it serves. They argue that if not, we will lose our agency as designers. If we take seriously this plea, how and where do we begin to make strides in re-focusing these efforts? Here are three places to start.



Far too often, our language as designers is inaccessible, irresponsibly insular, and more concerned about constructing a language of own aesthetic. Here I mean this visually, then we use verbal and written language in support of our aesthetic agendas. We debate work using language and syntax that is largely academic in nature and use platforms for communication of work and ideas that are primarily sourced by designers for other designers, becoming trapped in disciplinary jargon as so many other professions do. We must ask ourselves, is this a responsible or even productive practice? If language is principally about communication, and we only ever communicate to ourselves as an audience, how are we ever to be effective in understanding or addressing the current and future needs of the communities in which we work?

We would do well as designers, and as students of our respective disciplines to develop new practices of language, to communicate with a broader audience as a way to understand and respond to their most critical needs. Language becomes the bridge by which we as designers can exchange and relate ideas to a diverse and broad collective. We must use language as a means to communicate our ideas outward, not just inwardly to ourselves.



Who is our audience? To put it in a different way than for whom do we design, the question is an easy one to ask, but perhaps one of the more difficult to answer. Urban design for me, even more so than architecture, situates itself as a design of the public realm. As champions of projects of-and-for the people, the greatest challenge is that we are never designing for a single individual or group. There is always a friction a tension of a greater diverse collective in our work, and I don’t see this as a negative. I see this diversity as being the source of great exchange and possibility. However, what I believe therefore results in our practice is that this complexity leads to complacency and broad generality in our practice, and in our language.  

We generalize ideas and language as a broad brush, over-simplification of complex problems rather than pressing into the tensions and challenges to give language and resolution to more  nuanced readings and solutions for our cities and their citizens. We as urban designers cannot become complacent in accepting broad generalities and in proliferating them as universal ideals globally. There is too much at stake. We must be able to use our agency as designers in reading the city, the communities, the places in which we work, leveraging the skills we possess, in order to construct and articulate new narratives through design in support of the people and locales in which we practice.



I believe this all leads to values, and this is perhaps where we have the most work to do. I was recently in a studio review in which a critic asked this very question. “What are you bringing to this, what set of values are driving you?” At the time, the question seemed so natural and central to defining the work, but I later realized how abnormal that question was in the context of the academy.  We often are more concerned with big ideas than big values. What if this were reversed? What if we as urban designers focused more on listening to our communities and forming values in the stewardship of those communities as a way to generate new ideas, rather than the reverse?

Developing values as designers allows us to see clearly the audience of our work, and to articulate through language, the problems and potential solutions to the multitude of challenges we face. This work is no small task, but the earlier we start this practice, the better equipped we are to serve our cities and their citizens.  


  1. Murphy, Michael, and Ricks, Alan,. “Beyond Shelter: Architecture and Human Dignity,” In The Journal of Architecture, Vol. 18.1, 2013, pp. 111 – 114.
  2. De Carlo, Giancarlo,. “An Architecture of Participation,” In Perspecta, Vol. 17 1980, pp. 74-79.

Conservation and Temporality in the City

Preserve or Perverse?

Hayden White (MAUD '18)


Image by Hayden White

Let me take a moment to contextualise the terms of preservation and temporality, and position them as an apparatus that contains both the best and the worst of humanity. Within the historical lineage of events leading to our dominance over the planet, we began to draw and reproduce the environment around us, a form of communication and recording, albeit primitive in nature. We then began to form sounds and words, associating meaning to those noises and thus allowing a transference of knowledge. When beings were able to transfer and accumulate knowledge on a societal scale they discovered history. Generations of hunters and thinkers  were able to transfer wisdom down generations that may have otherwise stopped at the grave. Our eldest ancestors stumbled upon the first form of preservation by marrying language and the recording of it. Temporality was encountered at the dawn of agriculture, when man became non-nomadic and first encountered the brutality of seasons. That seasonal registration of time forced society to plan and prepare to store goods for oncoming winters. Society discovered time and its passing.

In architecture the term preservation is used for the “aesthetic, historic, scientific or social value” (Mehotra, emergent urbanism in Mumbai, Pg 221),  something that provides for generations, and is defined by its “authenticity, ancientness, and beauty” (Koolhaas, Pg 2). However, conservation typically favours the structure and aesthetic of a thing or building. If we are to believe Victor Hugo’s attestation to the king of France that architecture does indeed contain the literature and cultural history of the city, then we might believe that preservation of buildings is in some way a modern preservation of knowledge - but we don’t. The internet allows for an epidemic in storage and dissemination of knowledge that is unbounded. Hugo thought that the history and culture of the city was imbedded in its architecture, and although we might believe that the structure of the city once reflected the movement of people, or even an age – such as Edinburgh’s transition from old town to enlightened new town – we cannot help but find that city building of past decades did not reflect societal temporalities, but rather framed  and even  attempted to mould them. One might recall Paris’s widening of its streets in order to prevent the establishment of blockades.

Thus, we must ask ourselves, what are we preserving? A picture? Some stone? An idea? Oppression? In Rem Koolhaas’s lecture transcript Preservation is Overtaking Us, he describes the emergence of conservation being at a time where anaesthesia, photography, and the blueprint were invented. However, I would argue that conservation does no more than capture an object in time (photography), placing it in a state of suspended animation (anaesthetic). The object is preserved in the city as an artifice of the ancient, suspended within an evolving apparatus of movement and dynamism that no longer has need for it. The true form of preservation, stemming from its roots as storage of information for learning would be to capture it digitally – projects by the UK team ScanLAB capture landscapes and buildings three-dimensionally for use as flythrough tools for learning and analysing. However, Koolhaas pushes an entirely different agenda, honing in on his ideal for an architectural abstinence; architecture that has neither purpose nor intention. From any other perspective than architectural theory, one could not define a more abominable carbuncle for the city as a reflection of the ego. From a strictly ecological viewpoint the preservation of objects and aesthetic values in states of cryogenesis is as useful as hammering nails into a river and asking it to stay put. All that can be accomplished is the mild disruption to the processes surrounding it.


  1. Rem Koolhaas, “Preservation is Overtaking Us,” Future Anterior, GSAPP, Columbia University, Volume 1, n. 2 (Fall, 2004), Pg 1–4.
  2. Rahul Mehrotra, “Constructing Cultural Significance – Looking at Bombay’s Historic Fort Area”, Future Anterior, GSAPP, Columbia University, Volume 1, n. 2, Fall 2004, Pg 24-31.
  3. Rahul Mehrotra, “Negotiating the Static and Kinetic Cities,” in Andreas Huyssen (ed.), In other cities, other worlds: urban imaginaries in a globalizing age, Duke University (2008), Pg 205-221
  4. Rahul Mehrotra, “Post-Planning in Mumbai,” In the Life of Cities: Parallel Narratives of the Urban ed. Mohsen Mostafavi (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2012), Pg 334–344.

Urban Censorship

The Enclosure of Non-Capitalist Uses of Public Space

Billy Schaefer (MAUD '18)


Image by Allen Ying

The increasing privatization of public space has become one of the leading topics of debate in contemporary cities. The adoption of neoliberal economic policies has left many city governments with shrinking budgets, and even global finance centers such as New York have found themselves strapped for cash. Austerity measures meant to reduce public spending have been compensated for by an increased dependency on the private market to provide civic amenities that residents have come to expect. Many have welcomed this new era of public-private partnerships, some going as far as advocating for the complete privatization of all public spaces. Proponents argue that the private market offers the optimal framework for the provision of services, and that left to its own devices, will lead to more efficiently run public spaces while also allowing for innovative approaches that can produce exciting and novel situations. Their detractors argue that the private market will, by the very nature of capitalism, inevitably exclude more vulnerable social groups (without political or financial power) from these spaces, leading to increased inequality in how different people experience their city.

However, both sides of this argument miss how inclusionary practices regarding public space can be used not just to facilitate equal opportunity, but also to encourage equalizing outcomes. Alvaro Sevilla-Buitrago’s 2013 analysis Central Park Against the Streets counterintuitively suggests that one of the most iconic ‘commons’ in the world was in fact conceived as one of its greatest enclosures. “The case of Central Park shows that institutional orderings of space can incorporate subtle, often unnoticed strategies of dispossession without privatization, using certain assemblages of public space to eradicate the practices underpinning autonomous appropriations thereof.” Rather than simply exclude increasingly unruly working-class visitors from their park, Vaux and Olmstead aimed to transform their behavior so that they would become worthy patrons of this elite urban amenity through assimilation. For behavioral transformation to occur at the scale they envisioned, the park had to be free of charge and as inclusive as possible, with plentiful access points that lured users in from the surrounding streets.

Today, the desire to dictate the terms on which expression occurs in public spaces is most clearly illustrated when we examine how municipalities treat some of these more extreme appropriations of their city. After what Sevilla calls “the extinction of the everyday cultures of autonomous street use,” non-violent illegal activities such as street skateboarding and graffiti writing remain as some of the last, lingering, unauthorized uses of the public realm. While these activities arguably spawned from dissatisfied youths in the city, municipal governments have again turned to enclosure as a means to quell this rebellious behavior. Instead of imposing fines or even jail sentences for these offences, especially prevalent during the ‘broken-windows’ era of policing, a more sophisticated approach has since been adopted that replicates these activities, albeit in controlled environments. Skateparks are becoming more prevalent than ever, providing safe designated spaces for skateboarding. While almost universally praised by city officials and many skaters themselves, these paternalistic spaces have the double-edged effect of preventing full interaction with the city for the skateboarders. Furthermore, by moving the skaters off of the streets and into designated parks, the urban experience for city dwellers is further sterilized.

Similarly, illegal graffiti has been increasingly stamped out while legally permitted murals and ‘street art’ take over. Small expressions of disaffected youth have given way to more easily digestible ‘safe’ images, now seen to increase property values in a neighborhood rather than blighting it. The same planners and designers that will invite internationally renowned street artists to brighten up their newly commissioned ‘arts district’ will simultaneously punish their own constituents for trying to do the same. Unsurprisingly, these sanctioned murals tend to offer combinations of pop imagery and colorful platitudes such as LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL or ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE, rather than addressing rampant social inequity, depression or dissatisfaction.

Public spaces have rarely been neutral grounds for diverse classes to come together; instead they are highly contested and are renegotiated daily. As former professional skateboarder Ocean Howell suggests in his 2001 essay The Poetics of Security, these unsanctioned appropriations “challenge observers to examine their preconceptions of what or who a city is for” and reintroduce conflict to increasingly sterile urban environments. Municipal governments have aligned their interests too closely with those of the private sector in homogenizing cultural and consumption patterns. We need to more closely examine the motives behind public spaces and be more open and flexible to different types of appropriation to ensure healthy, sustainable cities in the future.


  1. Howell, Ocean. The Poetics of Security: Skateboarding, Urban Design, and the New Public Space, published online at uploads/2013/02/Howell_2001_Poetics-of-Security_NoPix.pdf , 2001.
  2. Sevilla-Buitrago, Alvaro. Central Park against the streets: the enclosure of public spacecultures in mid-nineteenth century New York, Social & Cultural Geography 15, 2, 2014, pp 151-171

Narrative: Captive or Captivating

Should We Have a Narrative for Urban Design?

Teddy Kofman (MAUD '18)


Image by Daphen Binder and Teddy Kofman

In preparation for a class presentation about New Urbanism, it was suggested to me to watch a conversation, moderated and organized by Alex Krieger. This confrontation of two distinct ideologies and architectural schools of thought took place in Piper auditorium in 1999. Andres Duany, the co-author and propagator of the New Urbanism movement debated Rem Koolhaas, for whom the city is where the globe is held captive.

The conversation is captivating. Both speakers have parallel world views on professional operation: while Koolhaas chooses to “reflect, understand and manifest the culture of our time” in his architecture, Duany is looking towards its reform. Duany argued that people desired the suburb, and New Urbanism was an attempt to make it better and “fix” its inherent problems. In response Koolhaas questioned the cultural and social implications of Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s movement. “The relentless commitment to changing things,” Koolhaas retorted, “is unbearable in terms of the immaturity of the profession as it is currently constituted.”

The relevance of this conversation has not subsided in the 19 years that have passed since, yet it is hard to imagine it happening today. It stems, in my view, from a lack of a dominant contemporary narrative in urban design or architecture.  It is not that pertinent issues relating to design are not discussed and addressed. The influence of technology on design, the integration of ecological infrastructure, walkability, housing and equality, to name a few, are all ‘of our time’. Rather, these issues are dealt with in isolation and as a result do not aggregate to become a larger framework of operation; there is no clear sense of direction of where this is all going. Having a narrative, some would even say ideology, could mean having a path or goal which can be achieved through design. While it has formal consequences, a narrative is not solely formal. It can provide a broad holistic reasoning and purpose to our work as designers. It may offer an alternative to following the most current technological advancement or responding to the recent ecological crises, important as they are. On the other hand, a collective narrative could be considered dogmatic and confining. Can a single ideology adequately capture the broad and complex nature of design?

New Urbanists have defined their own narrative and are following it, but for the rest of us, what is our story? While we constantly try to come to terms with the natural environment and technology, what is the vision we put forth for the spatial environment we would like to live in, and the culture it both represents and generates? It seems like we are operating in a multiplicity of individual narratives, which cross paths at moments while implementing the latest trend. Design trends come and go, and as influential and important as they may be, they don’t yet come together to become a movement. As architects and urban designers, we don’t have a collective professional vision to align with, or to push against. Will the lack of narrative, or the search for one, define our time? Have we reached a mature state as a profession in which we don’t need a narrative, or is this simply a loss of direction? Whose role is it to define our narrative? And most importantly, do we need one?


Link to the conversation:


What is Urban Design?

Contention to Consensus

Evan Shieh (MAUD '19)


At the beginning of our curriculum here in urban design at the GSD, we were asked as a collective group to voice our personal understandings of what constitutes its framework as a pedagogical discipline. Many answered with matters of scale, seeing urban design as negotiating a scalar gap between architecture and urban planning. Others answered with issues of the public, seeing urban design as serving the collective communal inhabitants of the city or state. My initial answer was one of mentality, where a project becomes urban when the designers & parties involved adopt attitudes that conceptualize the project in its broader urban context.

However, by core semester’s end, it has become clear to me that urban design is in fact not about scales, not only about the public, and only partially about mindset. Scale-wise, architecture can (and should) absolutely be urban. Sculptural objects like monuments (or “counter-monuments” a la Daniel Bluestone) can be urban landmarks that orient the greater grids of the city (as it does in cities like D.C.) or serve as immediate scalar grounds for urban activities like protests and rallies. Small scale interventions can be as urban as large city planning projects (like the Big Dig), and urban design can even transcend the city toward regional megaprojects (like the CA High-Speed-Rail) or even blur national boundaries (as in the case of the Philippines call centers functioning on the time zones of the States). 

In addition, urban design is not only about serving the public good, but must negotiate between private forces and public governance structures. Urban design must work in the intersecting zone between the incentives of private market-driven capitalism versus more socially oriented ideals regarding the administration of a more Just city. This is true for all forms of governance & economic structures, not only in democratic republics (like the US) but even in more complex models of authoritarian developmentalism that have driven the rapid urban growth of cities in the East. 

What I’ve come to believe now is that urban design begins with a matter of discerning and critiquing the contemporary issues surrounding our cities today. Throughout the academic discourse at our time here in the UD program, the constant theme of contention in contemporary society has pervaded the plethora of readings, viewpoints, and lecturers we have encountered. These issues lie in the role of community advocacy groups for the administration of justice in the city, the role of historic preservation in accelerating (or mitigating) gentrification in the city, or the complicated paradigms between informal settlements and more regulatory planning apparatus’ that force us to confront the notion of “whose city is it anyways?”, among others. These myriads of issues all involve competing yet equally valid perspectives that entail contention and controversy in the city today. What is crucial is our role as designers (and our critiques of these issues) within the larger back and forth pendulum swing of these contemporary issues of contentions.

The importance of our role as designers leads me to another crucial understanding of urban design, which is that while it begins with a critique of contentions, its ends with an intervention in the physical space of the city. One cannot overstate the importance of physically intervening in the urban condition, acts of interventions that accompany and go beyond intangible law or policy reform matters. To design is to intervene in these contemporary issues, and these interventions hold the capacity to project alternative and better futures aimed at changing existing contentions into preferred solutions of consensus. This is why I declared earlier that urban design is only partially about adopting a certain attitudinal mindset in conceptualizing a project in the broader urban context. Our discipline is both a form of intangible knowledge of a current urban condition in a particular moment in time, and simultaneously a proposition for how that condition may be shaped and sculpted in the evolution of the future metropolis. 

In this way, urban design can be understood truly as a bridge discipline, not only between political bodies, community members, advocacy groups, private and public entities, but also between the intangible issues of society and the tangible, physical design of the city. Therefore, urban design can be understood as a cog in the ‘solution’: the city needs both good design and accompanying policy reforms and governance mechanisms that will enable good design to become successfully integrated into the evolution and use of the city long-term. Coupled with both in hand, great accomplishments can be had in the contemporary metropolis today. To that end, while urban design might be understood as the history of contention and strife in the city, it should also be understood as a confluence of harmonistic endeavors that bring together multiple competing interests to impact a holistic positive change in the broader urban context.

In essence, I propose that urban design can be defined as the bridging of ‘tangible’ physical interventions with ‘less-tangible’ contemporary issues of the city, critiquing their contention, intervening in their dialogues, and (if successful) is integrated by the collective public in a way that improves the broader livelihood of the city and beyond.