There’s very little that differentiates proposals by four distinguished planning and design firms to better connect my university to its immediate neighborhood and the wider city. Why is that, and does it have to be that way?

The question of my title is the one I'm asking myself after attending public presentations by four planning and design firms invited to the University of Denver (DU) as finalists for a project to improve physical and social connections between the campus and neighborhood. All are global firms, and all specialize in master plans for higher education. The finalists were presented to us by our administration as "some of the greatest urban design thinkers on the planet." There’s no reason to dispute that assessment. Thus, this was an interesting opportunity to see what happens when world class design firms pitch to a prospective client. I should note that my perspective is limited. I attended all four hours of public meetings. However, our Urban Studies faculty weren't represented on the firm selection committee, so we didn't have access to formal written proposals or other application materials. 


The lack of compelling design firm differentiators apparent from these public meetings got me wondering about the small, hungry, and potentially more innovative firms that submitted proposals but didn’t make the cut. Perhaps "greatest in the world" isn’t always the best menu from which to choose. But that ship has sailed: the winner of the master plan competition was announced a couple of weeks ago, and in the coming week will start their public meetings to receive campus input.  Interestingly, the chosen firm, in my opinion, is the one whose presentation most implicated the project as an exercise in neoliberal economic development. The firm that seemed most sensitive to issues of context and cultural diversity was among the three that were eliminated. But all four of them reminded me of Margaret Crawford's perceptive comment on James Russell’s provocative analysis of "bogus placemaking":

Placemaking…is a questionable concept in so many ways. One [way]…is by dismissing architects and urban designers. But a more troubling problem is that their techniques lend themselves so easily to what George Lipsitz calls “The White Spatial Imaginary.” Although they nod to “diverse” places, their concepts are clearly addressed to creating “feel good” public spaces without acknowledging the real racism that exists in urban space. Good example: they love Bloomberg’s Broadway chairs and tables but never say a word about his “Stop and Frisk” policy, a way of denying public space to almost unbelievable numbers of minority males…

Crawford's comment might not be strictly applicable to what we’re doing at DU. Thus, I might be guilty of taking a very cheap shot. However, our very few minority faculty members and students, and our fellow citizens in other neighborhoods, are the best judges of that. Certainly, Crawford's comment has a renewed relevance in Trump's America, and for that reason alone might be heeded going forward.  

It's also not too late to consider other metaphors and theories for guiding the campus planning and design effort. For example, if we're interested in framing the university as a site of innovative teaching and learning that’s open to cultural and intellectual diversity, the Corky Gonzales Library in impoverished West Denver is a much better metaphor for our aspirations than the revitalized Union Station, which is reasonably perceived as a monument to downtown Denver’s consumerization and "whiteification." As I mentioned in a previous post, the university is an incubator of critical inquiry, not a surrogate for the Chamber of Commerce. At the very least, we need a thoughtful approach to placemaking that triangulates between the university’s public good vision, the ideas of multiple stakeholders and communities, and a theory of place, design, and architecture that’s responsive to cultural history, diversity, and meaning.