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Ethics of the Urban

Harvard Graduate School of Design
Cambridge, Massachusetts
March 2–3, 2012

Cities are rapidly changing. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) has turned its attention to this issue with a series of conferences. The first, Ecological Urbanism (2009), considered the urban environment within the more comprehensive framework of economic, environmental, and social concerns. The second, In the Life of Cities (2011), looked at relationships between physical characteristics of cities and the lives they engender. Ethics of the Urban examined ideas of citizenship and civic engagement, memorials and public space, and social and political borders. Although the overall tone was academic, speakers from fields unrelated to design drew people from outside the GSD to discuss topics such as the Occupy movement and the National September 11 Memorial.

The Neighborhoods and Neighborliness panel, for example, brought together sociologists Robert Sampson and Loïc Wacquant with Rahul Mehrotra, chair of the GSD’s Department of Urban Planning and Design, to discuss relationships between civic engagement, social structures, and place-making. Mehrotra’s illustrations of projects from India, where he maintains an active architecture and urban design practice, balanced the more theoretical aspects of the discussion with concrete examples. Artist Village, an innovative mixed-income housing development designed by Charles Correa, incorporates traditional building styles such as low-rise housing units clustered around shared courtyards that host family and community celebrations, and construction methods that allow owners to modify the units over time. The Community Toilets project, designed by Mehrotra’s firm for an Indian NGO, addresses the practical need for infrastructure in informal settlements and slums. It introduces solar panels as well as housing for a caretaker and responds to community concerns about safety. Both projects demonstrate how design of the built environment can improve the degree and quality of social interaction, increase equity, and create long-lasting community change.

The GSD’s attention to the urban, consideration of cultural and social issues, and interest in engaging a diversity of participants is both refreshing and promising. New additions to the faculty, such as panel moderators Neil Brenner and Diane Davis, further demonstrate the school’s commitment to expanding its educational curriculum to include the social dimensions of design. The more that academic institutions such as the GSD engage practitioners, other disciplines, and the community in conversations about the relationship of design and cultural values, the better they will prepare graduates to influence the cities of the future.