There are countless orphaned and abandoned children in sub-saharan Africa. Nairobi, Kenya alone, is home to millions of these children. Through an anthropology course, focusing on children in poverty, that I took during my undergraduate studies, I started to learn about the complexities around this unbelievable statistic. For a long time, that’s all it was to me, a statistic, a faceless number written on paper. That was the case for two more years, until I raised enough money to travel there and fund mini restoration projects at an urban orphanage in Nairobi. We, a group of students and professors from my university, had begun to establish ties and communication with this orphanage the summer prior. We built friendships in Nairobi over the next few years we established a non-profit that would build schools and homes for abandoned children. We called our organization Flying Kites. 

Instead of work in the urban settings we were familiar with, we decided to purchase land and build in the rural outskirts of the city. The country-side, provided access to fresh air, clean water and open space, amenities that were simply not possible in the dangerous city. Once establishing our place we constructed our mission. Focusing on education as the key to one’s future, we invested in learning all we could about education in Kenya. We strive to give children the tools they will need – education, imagination, and resolution - to succeed in and contribute to a complex and changing world. We prepare them to impact their societies through our emphasis on compassion, advocacy, and leadership. As one of the designers on the team, I was asked to take leadership in designing portions of our model, funding strategies, program creation, and internal and external communications. 

Description of the student project developed in response to the brief:

I developed, and was part of a team of collaborators, which worked on several design challenges from our buildings to our funding streams, and how they connected. One project specifically, our building campaign, became a fascinating adventure. Our first building project was to design and build a school for the 17 orphaned children of the Flying Kites family. This project fit into the early part of our strategic plan of eventually providing our children, and fifty more in the community, with an International Baccalaureate education. With the proper facilities, we could eventually reach the standards to apply for that caliber of education, and subsequently provide Flying Kites children with a high quality education through high school. Our team collaborated with architects, landscape architects, contractors, grant writers, academic advisors, and funders to build our first school in 2010. We are currently in the finishing construction phases of our library. I was highly involved in working with our grant writer and academic advisors to create a budget for our building plan and a strategy for our capital campaign. We created our capital campaign brochure, which became the face of our future goals. Additionally, we designed other funding streams to maintain our children’s home, pay our staff, and create awareness. 

While I wouldn’t change my experience or any of the lessons I learned along the way, I began to question the whole activity, structure and commonly accepted behaviors of international aid and social entrepreneurship. I now know that Transdisciplinary Design at the The New School is the exact place I should be on this never ending path the make sense of the complexities, such as the unjust distribution of wealth, in this world. Most recently, I find I am extremely grateful for our scholarly study of pragmatism philosophy and the ability to reframe these questions that I have grappled with since my naive eyes were opened some time ago. Since starting my masters at Parsons, I have already started to develop skills which would help with participatory community action and an ethical understanding of the implications of such work. These are topics I was oblivious to or barely scratched the surface of prior to formal design education. I hope to continue questioning notions of equality through my design work and involvement with international development, specifically with orphaned and abandoned children. 

Authorbridget sheerin

In what ways are the Big Dig and India Habitat Centre projects similar and in what ways are they different? Can they even be compared to each other?

India Habitat Centre, a cultural campus-like Centre housing facilities and offices for many housing and habitat related organizations in India and the Central Artery/ Tunnel Project, the “Big Dig“ for short, are physical construction projects so grand in scale that they effectively alter the urbanism of New Delhi and Boston respectively. To expand upon how Wikipedia would define urbanism, “the culture or way of life of city dwellers” and how Webster would define it, “the characteristic way of life of city dwellers”, urbanism can create a lens for understanding how physical spaces and infrastructure impact the intangible; urban culture, existing needs and behavior. These two examples projects, however similar and different they may be, are wonderful case studies to examine urbanism at work and how the practice of building and rebuilding cities provides for certain needs, facilitates cultural endeavors, and can potentially create surprises.

It may at first seem that these projects are very different, however, they are similar in three interesting ways.  Firstly, they both intervene into densely populated urban environments, secondly, they are both highly collaborative projects, and thirdly, they both produce unintended consequences that relate to social behavior.  

Both projects, respond to the specific need for more public peaceful space in an existing densely populated urban area. In Boston the Central Artery elevated highway blocked sunlight for the streets below, cut off entire sections of the city from the downtown, was nearing its safety expiration date and was increasingly becoming unmanageably overcrowded. There was a need to completely reconstruct the highway to repair it, but this was also compounded by the need for a more pedestrian friendly city and to keep the city open for business during the construction period.  In New Delhi, a similarly densely populated urban setting, the India Habitat Centre was able to fulfill the need of space, shared facilities, and infrastructure for institutional and office workspaces for a number of important organizations dealing with habitat and habitat related issues. Additionally, the centre provides a physical space for interaction among people in this field and related fields, as well as creating a public oasis away from the load busy city streets. Here the need was to create a peaceful place for these multidisciplinary interactions to occur away from the chaos of the surrounding city.

Secondly, these projects are similar in that they are both highly based on collaboration and coordination. In Boston , the construction of the Bid Dig required this collaboration among designers, architects, urban planners, construction companies, engineers, government agencies such as the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, community groups, local businesses, and environmental groups.  In New Delhi, for the India Habitat Centre, a high level of collaboration was important for the design and building of the centre, but collaboration was also a focus for the design results for how the centre would function and what would occur within the centre, once completed.  Architects, government agencies whose offices would be held in the Centre, housing organizations of all types, urban planners, and related fields including environmental and regional planning experts call the Centre home and are able to interact and share resources because of a common space for a common goal.

Finally, these projects are similar because, they create positive social consequences including increased safety for the overall city in Boston and a holistic cultural interface for business, government, educational activities and civilians in New Delhi.  For example, Brendan Patrick Hughes writes in about Boston’s Big Dig saying,  “At the heart of the project, and maybe at the heart of all mega projects, is a kind of urban magical thinking, the idea that the creation of order from chaos in the physical city will both reflect and reinforce the order and safety of the city at large.” He also notes, “Between 1990 and 2000 the rate of violent crime in Boston declined by more than 40 percent; homicides declined by nearly 80 percent.” In India social benefits were achieved through the help of the Habitat Centre as well. Oxford University Press reports in “building in the Garden” that “The campus like character and facilities of India Habitat Centre are intended to provide not only an oasis of quiet and greenery in the midst of the traffic of the city, but to stimulate and facilitate many levels of interaction, thereby beginning a process that will merit the description “Post Graduate Urban Campus”, and make the centre a demonstration of the rich potential of urban form in contrast to the chaos and ugliness that ordinarily characterizes institutional areas divided into relatively small individual plots with unresolved parking.”  In both these projects we see the practice of building and rebuilding cities as a function by which a great collaborative consortium of planners and activists can strive to meet urban needs and facilitate cultural endeavors. However, we must be aware of the unintended surprising consequences that occur in large-scale projects such as these. In these two cases, we can see how social contexts in India and geographical contexts in Boston contribute to create possible unexpected consequences. Social structures in India, as were mentioned in the lecture, have reinforced class divides. In a space like the India Habitat Centre, certain exclusivities can seem exaggerated from an outside perspective. In Boston, geographical complications of the city’s landscape, for example, both caused and required creative forms of construction and adaptability for accidents. The prolonged construction process and the inflated cost of the project are just two lessons to learn from this project.

These two projects are an interesting juxtaposition of opposite tactics, in that one builds a fortress to create peace while the other tears down a fortress to create peace. The projects are trying to get at the same goals, peaceful spaces for interaction and collaboration within a city, by altering different factors. In the case of the India Habitat Centre, the structure is a built environment to block out the noise and chaos of the surrounding city in order to benefit the oasis within the structure. While in Boston, the Central Artery/ Tunnel Project relocates the chaos and noise from vehicle traffic to run below the city. While both reinforce the boundaries between pedestrian foot traffic and motor vehicle traffic, they achieve this separation through different processes. I think, that whether we come at this need for a separation or re-enforced boundaries by moving the traffic or moving the people, it is important to understand that, although we need machines to transport us places, we are increasingly pushing them out of our sight, and this may be a possible trend in contemporary urbanism.

I believe these two projects can be compared for their somewhat radical attempt to transform a city’s urbanism toward a more peaceful and green place. Again, “a cities’s urbanism” refers to how the physical spaces in a city and its infrastructure impact the intangible; urban culture, existing needs and behavior of the city dwellers. “Subsequent generations will hail this as a groundbreaking piece of urban design,” says photographer and author Peter Vanderwarker, whose book The Big Dig: Reshaping an American City is an exhaustive photographic record of the project. “You’ve liberated 100 acres of land in the middle of one of the most historic cities in the United States. You’ve removed cars and pollution from the surface.”

However similar and different they may be, they are wonderful case studies to examine the practice of building and rebuilding cities in a way that provides for certain needs and facilitates cultural endeavors. What became increasingly more interesting as the research and writing on this topic progressed was the idea that this is a possible trend in urbanism. It seems to be a very human reaction to want to separate more and more from vehicle traffic and chaos. With populations becoming predominantly urbanized, this may be important to note in designing emerging cities.

Authorbridget sheerin

Urbanism is the study of how dwellers in towns and cities interact with their environment. Urbanism focuses on the geography, economy, politics and social characteristics of the urban environment, as well as the effects on, and caused by, the built environment.


Theory of Urbanism

Urbanism Theory Writers of the late 20th C.

modern urbanism writings

Through a pragmatic perspective, focused on action, this page will explain urbanism as action itself, how it changes over time, how it creates consequences, and how it is political: involving and affecting many people and/or democratic. “The pragmatic approach to urbanism promotes action above reflection.” Namkyu Chun, 2012, Pragmatism.

Currently many , architects, planners, and sociologists (like Louis Wirth) investigate the way people live in densely populated urban areas from many perspectives including a sociological perspective. In an essay[1] discussing Wirth’s Urbanism as a Way of Life, Michele Girelli states; '[Wirth] argues for the necessity to consider the city 'as a social entity'. 'Urban' is defined as the place, where a specific mode of living and behave take place in contraposition to a rural mode of living. Multiple points of view on the city, by the different disciplines have been proposed but a sociological approach [opposed to an urban planning approach, for example] might call the attention to different types of relations between them. To arrive to an adequate conception of 'urbanism as a mode of life' Wirth says it is necessary to stop 'identify[ing] urbanism with the physical entity of the city' , go 'beyond an arbitrary boundary line' and consider how 'technological developments in transportation and communication have enormously extended the urban mode of living beyond the confines of the city itself.' [2]

Witold Rybczynski, an architect, professor, author and critic supports Wirth’s ideas of the urban way of life as freed from the boundaries of city limits. Urban habits and mindsets, for example, leak out from cities, urban centers, and urbanized areas into more suburban and rural areas due in part to the ease of cultural diffusion in the twenty first century. [3]

In contemporary urbanism, also known as urban design in many parts of the world, there are as many different ways of framing the practice as there are cities in the world. According to American architect and planner Jonathan Barnett the approach of defining all the different ‘urbanisms’ in the world is an endless one. In his essay ‘A Short Guide to 60 of the Newest Urbanisms’[4] he acknowledges a list of sixty, but sees it as not particularly useful, because it is just about dividing up a field that strives for a comprehensive approach. In this page, such a division is not being made, though, in order to give a clear view, one has to look with a certain perspective.


Mainstream vs. Alternative Urbanism

In the book "Cities and Design," Paul Knox refers to one of many trends in contemporary urbanism as the ‘aestheticization of everyday life’. [5]Another author, Alex Krieger, studies urbanism theory in order to provide insight into how urban practitioners work. He identifies ten spheres in which urbanism takes place in practice. The ten are: the bridge connecting planning and architecture, a form-based category of public policy, the architecture of the city, urban design as restorative urbanism, urban design as an art of place- making, urban design as smart growth, the infrastructure of the city, urban design as landscape urbanism, urban design as visionary urbanism, and urban design as community advocacy or doing no harm. Krieger concludes by stating that urban design is less a technical discipline than a mind-set based on a commitment to cities. [6]

In Three Urbanisms and the Public Realm by Douglas Kelbaugh of the University of Michigan, writes about three urbanisms on the cutting edge of theoretical and professional activity in Western cities. These three paradigms include New Urbanism, Everyday Urbanism, and Post- Urbanism. He examines their overlaps and oppositions, methodologies and modalities, strengths and weaknesses, in the hope of sketching the outline of a more integrated position.[7]

Examples of alternative urbanism have recently been collected in two New York exhibitions: The Museum of Modern Art’s Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement and the Cooper Hewitt-produced Design with the Other 90%: CITIES at the United Nations which 'highlighted an array of projects, practices, designers, and organizations that are seemingly appearing and operating outside the usual mainstream avenues of delivery.' states the University College London’s Development Planning Blog. The exhibits displayed a variety of design interventions in cities, urban planning, infrastructure and many aspects of life in rapidly growing urban areas all over the world. The book or catalogue of the exhibition at the UN cited many examples of participatory design in urban areas, designing inclusive cities, specific resource systems and transportation initiatives. For example, Cynthia E. Smith, curator of Socially Responsible Design, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, conducted an interview with Gabriela Sorda, Co-coordinator, Secretariat of Community Action, Faculty of Architecture, Design, and Urbanism at the University of Buenos Aries. They discussed how to create an Urbanism Manual that addressed the real issues with urban planning and the growth of cities, particularly informal settlements. This was needed because they found there was no literature written about a strategic urban plan for informal settlements, as opposed to the formal training on constructing in a planned context.


^ Michele Girelli, “Urbanism as a way of life” (paper written for course Designing Urban Transformation, New York, New York, January 31, 2012).

^ Wirth, Louis. 1938. Urbanism as a Way of Life. The American Journal of Sociology, volume 44, number 1: pages 1-24. July.

^ [1]

^ Jonathan Barnett, “A Short Guide to 60 of the Newest Urbanisms,” Planning volume 77 (2011-4) 19-21

^ Knox, Paul, 2010, Cities and Design, page 10.

^ Krieger, Alex, 2009, Urban Design, page 113.

^ Kelbaugh, Douglas, 2009, Three Urbanisms and the Public Realm

Authorbridget sheerin

Based on quotes by pragmatists Rorty and Reesen, we focus on the idea of “creative political act” as a lens for viewing the connection between people’s actions and what occurs in cities, specifically highlighting circumstances of urbanism (transformation).   “Creative political acts” are actions taken by a group of people, (political), to make something new, (creative), which can be an idea, a policy, or something as tangible as a sewage system. These actions are neither right or wrong, but rather they are the stories of humans acting from their understanding and perspective of “what is good, and worthwhile to do” for themselves, their loved ones, their culture, their nation, or any number of other scales.

Pragmatism supports that our choices of actions reflect the philosophy that we hold true. Kai Nielsen uses a little “p” in philosophy to express the action of philosophical thought that all humans take part in. He explains that philosophy can mean simply what Wilfred Sellars called “an attempt to see how things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term.” This is not Philosphy, which subscribes to a form of philosophical tradition, especially dualistic approaches to the world.  Ones’ philosophy, as it transforms and changes over time, cyclically influences ones actions, and by utilizing the tools of human communication (language and action) to transfer information to others, you have politics. Politics, as we defined it in class, is “a process by which a group of people make collective decisions”. Political acts happen all the time; they are amplified in urban settings partly due to the close proximity of people to one another and to common places.

Historically, urban settings are centers for great political movements usually supporting extreme ideals of some kind.  But the pragmatists, specifically Richard Rorty, allude to the idea that moral choices of different, subtle, sophisticated, and complex moral actions exist within any given situation. These given situations come in a wide range of scales and present the opportunity for creative political action that is not based on dualism or “the best choice”. Rather, actions and reactions can come from the plethora of options of “goods”.

While urban life provides many opportunities, both for the innovative use of physical space and cultural developments, it also brings with it a need to negotiate complex issues such as resource use and safe waste disposal. This is where, and why, design needs to enter the conversation. Design can be utilized to create solutions that aid in the negotiation between opportunities and issues.  Design, if used democratically and in a participatory manner, has the ability to democratically consider scales the way one single entity could not.

So, I understand design (speculating, planning, and creating “what could be”) and urbanism (the transformation of spaces, attitudes and culture within a city) to be a “creative political act” in that the very nature of this kind of transformation or change inherently empowers many. The fact that actions taken by collective groups of people in agreement have been driving forces of urbanism, makes design and urbanism a “creative political act”.

Authorbridget sheerin