Archive for the ‘LA Education’ Category

This winter and spring, I will be posting a series on two projects I’m working on – a public health/neighborhood environment survey that I am very excited about and a studio class that I am teaching. The study area for the research and teaching are roughly the same, so there should be quite a bit of overlap. Together, both efforts allow me a rare opportunity: immersion in a set of related topics and, in this case, they are my favorites!

First a bit on the studio class. The subject, broadly, is urban transformation. By studying our home city, Syracuse, New York, the students and I will be examining forces that have and are transforming Syracuse. I’m casting Syracuse as “Everycity” – a unique place, yes, but with a set of opportunities and challenges that are fairly universal (for sure they are common to medium-sized cities and Rust Belt cities). The students will be studying the city as a whole and then shifting to a neighborhood scale. It is the neighborhood unit/scale where, I think, the lessons learned (including such lessons as how to study a city) are most transferable to other locations (i.e., all cities are composed of an array of neighborhoods). An archival search into historical records will set the stage for spatial analyses using geographic information systems: physical and biological environmental features, demographics, economic conditions, and so forth. And what shall we do with this information? Two things. First, students are charged with “telling a story” about urban transformation in Syracuse through a set of graphic representations depicting trends over time, especially the evolution of urban infrastructure and employment since 1890. This exploration will take half of the semester. The second outcome will be a project with a neighborhood group – yes, a “real” project. We have a small grant to help a neighborhood and its elementary school create a plan for its grounds, including an adjacent public park. The neighborhood might be called “disadvantaged,” so the question of how urban transformation might take place in this setting is one we will be exploring. I call it “shaping the public realm,” the intersection of design and planning. One word for this work? Fun!

The research project is worthy of a post of its own. For now, I will say that it is an interdisciplinary research project (team of 12 – medical researchers, sociologists, public health expert, and landscape architects) funded by a seed grant, by definition exploratory. Our team decided to bridge disciplinary boundaries with a survey research project. I, happily, am the lead. What are we doing? The grant was for diabetes research; our survey is aimed at gathering information for the design of diabetes awareness/prevention programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The central focus: relationship between health and neighborhood conditions, including social cohesion. We are attempting to conduct a simple random survey, in-home and by appointment, in a single neighborhood in Syracuse, the Southwest Neighborhood. Our survey takes 30 minutes, and we are providing a $20 gift card to respondents as an incentive for participation. The best part so far? My field survey team – five neighborhood residents paired with five graduate students, all trained to conduct human subjects research (CITI). Amazing group of people, and they are all loving it! The respondents seem pretty happy so far too. Now to get a random sample of sufficient size! More fun for winter days ahead.

I am lucky, lucky to have my days filled with such satisfying work. My plan is to post regularly over the coming months as the studio work and research project have their own “transformations”/evolutions. Stay tuned.


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Each year, I begin my course on Ecology and Design with quotes from astronauts who have seen Earth from space, and I remind my students of the first time humans were able to get this awe-inspiring view of Earth. After 40 years of Earth imagery, we take this perspective for granted, I’m afraid. The 40th anniversary of the Blue Marble image, shot by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972, is celebrated in a short film by Planetary Collective.

The quotes that I use in my class are the following:

Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home.
- Edgar Mitchell, USA

For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light – our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.
- Ulf Merbold, Federal Republic of Germany

The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.
- Aleksei Leonov, USSR

Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that human kind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.
- Sigmund Jähn, German Democratic Republic

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It’s the holiday season – and I’m sitting in the mall, blogging. Somehow I feel unique… but probably not unique, though, in waiting. In the Architect’s Newspaper, Alan G. Brake writes of the ascendance of landscape architecture. Brake hits on a few themes that fit this blog well – relationships between landscape architects and architects, planners as well as the rise of urbanism as a focus of the profession. Generally, I think landscape architects are too fixated on boosterism – and we love to highlight such praise – but I’m inclined to agree with Brake here. And I hope the profession rises to the opportunities before us. Ascendency, yes.

Landscape architecture’s dynamism, however, also points to certain weaknesses in contemporary architecture and planning. Architecture has been caught in a kind of hangover from the pre-crash years. Much of the profession, not to mention architectural education, is still too obsessed with architecture-as-object. The rise of tactical urbanism is a reaction to this, and also often involves landscape-based projects. Planning seems even more stuck. Too afraid to engage with design—following the failures of much of modernist planning—planners have either buried their noses in policy or retreated into colored-pencil-clichés of urbanism that seem dated. Landscape architects have stepped into that vacuum.

For the public, my hunch is that landscape architects offer something that architects typically do not. Parks and gardens have always engaged our Edenic fantasies. In a world under strain these places must also do considerable work, absorbing stormwater, filtering air pollution, and providing refuge in an increasingly urbanized world. Landscape architects are offering redemptive visions for neglected, damaged, and underutilized places. Environmental problems may seem overwhelming and insurmountable. But landscape architects offer solutions to improve our roofs, our blocks, our neighborhoods, a nearby waterway, or the city at large. If that sounds patronizing, it’s not meant to be. In the absence of aggressive federal (let alone global) environmental action to address the myriad of challenges we face, these interventions take on a critical, if piecemeal, significance.

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Last summer, I began this blog with several posts aimed at graduates of landscape architecture programs who have faced difficulty in the tough job market. Some of those posts, like this one and this one, have been among the most popular. When I saw the series of opinion pieces in the New York Times Sunday Review (June 3, 2012) titled “My Brilliant Career,” with the tagline of “it’s worth remembering that careers aren’t built in a straight line, and that sometimes the oddest jobs are the ones that matter most,” I knew I had to read the articles. I especially like the entry by Leonard Mlodinow and the excerpt below.

Many of us wish for the security of a straight line path. When a career proves to be more unpredictable, it can be disconcerting. But the sinuous path often leads to a fulfilling life. And sinuous is an apt descriptor for many landscape architecture careers. Take heart and be inspired by Mlodinow’s words.

When we’re in college, we think about our future as a direct line from now to then, from here to there. You might get an internship at a financial services firm, then become an assistant, and gradually move up until someday you’re the boss. That’s a fine life’s path. But if you look at the careers of many successful people, you’ll find that their route is often far more sinuous. And if you look at happy people, you’ll find even fewer who traveled a straight line.

When I got my first job at Caltech after graduate school, a famous mathematician warned me not to keep working on that theory of infinite dimensions. It’s a bad idea to make a career of your Ph.D. work, he told me. Then, when I began to consider problems in an apparently too different area of physics, he told me: “You can’t keep jumping around. You have to stay in the field you made your name in.” I was 26, and I was supposed to think the boundaries of my career were already sharply defined.

The life that mathematician urged on me would probably have been an equally happy one. But instead of listening to his advice, I have written for television, produced computer games, designed a curriculum for math education and returned to Caltech, to physics research, teaching and writing — this time, nonfiction. I still see that famous mathematician, now an elder statesman, walking around the campus. I haven’t talked to him in a few years, but I hear that when my name comes up, he just mutters and shakes his head. And that’s fine with me.

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Image credit: personaldevelopmentplanning.pbworks.com

A 1992 article titled Wicked Problems in Design Thinking by Richard Buchanan in Design Issues journal is worth a fresh look, and, in fact, it continues to be cited by many authors. [A description and definition of wicked (and super wicked) problems can be found here.] I found the discussion of the communication gap between scientists and designers to be especially interesting.

Members of the scientific community, however, must be puzzled by the types of problems addressed by professional designers and by the patterns of reasoning they employ. While scientists share in the new liberal art of design thinking, they are also masters of specialized subject matters and their related methods, as found in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, the social sciences, or one of the many subfields into which these sciences have been divided. This creates one of the central problems of communication between scientists and designers, because the problems addressed by designers seldom fall solely within the boundaries of any one of these subject matters (pg. 14).

Buchanan then speculates that the heart of the problem is the indeterminate nature of the problems addressed by designers. In other words, design problems are wicked because they are indeterminate.

Design problems are “indeterminate” and “wicked” because design has no special subject matter of its own apart from what a designer perceives it to be. The subject matter of design is potentially universal in scope, because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, the designer must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. This sharply contrasts with the disciplines of science, which are concerned with understanding the principles, laws, rules, or structures that are necessarily embodied in existing subject matters. Such subject matters are undetermined or under-determined, requiring further investigation to make them more fully determinate. But they are not radically indeterminate in a way directly comparable to that of design (pg.16).

Buchanan further explains:

design is fundamentally concerned with the particular, and there is no science of the particular.

In actual practice, the designer begins with what should be called a quasi-subject matter, tenuously existing within the problems and issues of specific circumstances. Out of the specific possibilities of a concrete situation, the designer must conceive a design that will lead to this or that particular product. A quasi-subject matter is not an undetermined subject waiting to be made determinate. It is an indeterminate subject waiting to be made specific and concrete (pg. 17).

Buchanan explains how designers deal with indeterminacy through his theory of “placements” – signs, things, and actions organized by unifying ideas or thoughts.

This is where placements take on special significance as tools of design thinking. They allow the designer to position and reposition the problems and issues at hand. Placements are the tools by which a designer intuitively or deliberately shapes a design situation, identifying the views of all participants, the issues which concern them, and the invention that will serve as a working hypothesis for exploration and development. In this sense, the placements selected by a designer are the same as what determinate subject matters are for the scientist. They are the quasi-subject matter of design thinking, from which the designer fashions a working hypothesis suited to special circumstances.

This helps to explain how design functions as an integrative discipline. By using placements, the designer establishes a principle of relevance for knowledge from the arts and sciences, determining how such knowledge may be useful to design thinking in a particular circumstance without immediately reducing design to one or another of these disciplines (pg. 17-18).

I am particularly interested in essays like this one that explore the relationship between design and the sciences – natural, physical, and social. Landscape architecture academics often find themselves having to prove the value of design thinking in relation to the scientific disciplines that dominate university campuses. Explication of the unique role of design and its relationship to other disciplines aids this process. But, Buchanan’s work is just one perspective. Do any challenges to his stance come to mind? Or thoughts that expand on his work? Feel free to comment by following the link.

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It would seem that conceptual thinking is inseparable from design, but I find that many design students just cannot grasp the idea of abstraction. Can this be taught? Is the capacity for conceptual thought just part of a person’s DNA? In searching online for insights, I found these observations.

1. This definition from the Eleven Seconds blog:

conceptual thinking is simply the ability to effortlessly walk up and down the ladder of abstraction

and the slightly murkier:

 To make their thinking useful, abstract thinkers need to be able to convert something abstract into something concrete, and vice versa.  This ability is what I call conceptual thinking.  A conceptual thinker starts in the concrete, then walks up the hierarchy of abstractions.  At some level they make connections between the abstract representation of the concrete thought and another abstract representation.  If need be, they can then walk that abstract thought back into another, very different concrete thought.  The idea is that a local search (i.e. making connections) in the abstract space is easier than a local search in the concrete space.  And so that person can either communicate more effectively, or solve the problem more effortlessly.

The example given of moving from the concrete to the abstract is seeing the concrete problem as an example of a more generic class or category of problems. Pattern recognition leads to relationships between ideas and eventually back to the concrete.

2. Discussion about conceptual thinking in the world of business tends to focus on the growing need for such thinkers in business (critical for the flexibility and innovation demanded by the global economy) and on the fact that these people are “hard to come by.” (more…)

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Just as the notices reminding me of my expiring subscription to The Chronicle of Higher Education arrive in the mail, the top story in the local newspaper concerns a stinging article in the Chronicle from earlier this month. Robin Wilson’s article, titled “Syracuse’s Slide: As Chancellor Focuses on the ‘Public Good,’ Syracuse’s Reputation Slides,” is mostly hidden behind the subscription wall – unfortunate, especially, for readers of Syracuse Post Standard who attempt to follow the link to the article. The public does have access to the 43 letters to the editor written in response to Wilson’s article.

At issue are high profile initiatives by the university’s chancellor, Nancy Cantor, to actively link the university to the city surrounding it and to diversify the student population. Ms. Wilson’s article quotes several faculty members who voice concern that the university cannot afford these endeavors, that they divert the scholarly mission, that the quality of the students admitted is being compromised, and that a drop in rankings by U.S. News and World Report, from 40 to 62, is a sign that the ship is sinking. The comments section contains several rebuttals from faculty who say that they were interviewed by Ms. Wilson, but had their favorable comments excluded from the resulting article.

The issues raised regarding the role of public engagement in academia have application to praxis in landscape architecture and for landscape architecture academics whose scholarly focus is engagement. Therefore, I will focus on the public engagement side of the controversy and leave the rest of the debate to others (like this article on changing conceptions of university prestige). Here is how Chancellor Cantor’s initiative, Scholarship in Action, is described in the Wilson article.

Syracuse University, she says, “should have an impact on our democracy and do work that addresses pressing issues in the world.” She adds: “It’s not that you stop caring about the fundamentals or quality, you redefine what constitutes quality and exciting scholarly work.”

That’s exactly what Ms. Cantor has done through a campaign she calls Scholarship in Action. It involves moving students, professors, and research off the campus and into the community to work with local officials, nonprofit organizations, and businesses on projects designed to give students hands-on experience and help solve the problems of the city and its people.

How is this controversial? More after the break. (more…)

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