Drew Tucker: In the Fall of 2012, over thirty prospective graduate students traveled across the globe to take part in an incredible experiment. Many had just months earlier finished their undergraduate degrees in a myriad of different disciplines: geography, philosophy, film production, urban planning, architecture, design, and fine arts; others were more experienced professionals, already in the field, and feeling some tension between what they had imagined their personal practice would be, and the reality of that work on the ground. What they all had in common was a desire to study in a city like no other, New York City; a city that Aseem Inam explains by saying, “no extrapolation can be made, it is an anomaly.” Also, these students were on their way to become the first cohorts of Parsons the New School for Designs two new groundbreaking urban programs; the Theories of Urban Practice and Design & Urban Ecologies programs. These programs, housed in the School of Design Strategies, would attempt something completely new to academia in the United States, the simultaneous unveiling of two programs, both transdisciplinary in make-up, and focused on actual real world interventions in the urban environment. While each program has its own benefits and methodologies, students from each group quickly formed a network of camaraderie and co-production that drove their research, and deliverables to new heights.
A series of urban investigations into the city of New York allowed us to begin to understand the complex political economic, social, and cultural ecology into which we were becoming integrated. Our investigations included site based forensics on the acquisition of property for immigrant populations and their political organizing efforts; the history of urban homesteading and its possible re-imagining as a fair and affordable housing strategy; strategies for measuring current and future forced displacement due to gentrification; urban gardening as an anti-recidivism urban resilience strategy; cooper square and expanding community land trusts; reconceptualizing the history of the commons; street vendors as diffused architectural solutions in times of crisis, and many, many more. Each of these projects was physically situated in one or more boroughs in New York City, and each one worked directly with an on the ground community group to produce an actual real world urban transformation. We quickly learned that the designer does not have the luxury to just critique but instead must “ask powerful questions” of the frictions within the city. This implicates and positions them as actors in a process of participation and risk; not simply as observers. They openly engage as embedded agents of social processes, giving legitimacy to these interventions.
Over the two year engagement, something interesting happened. We stopped being geographers, architects, and designers; we stopped being academics. We stopped wanting to be urbanists. Our theories and practices became fluid, constantly developing, site based methodologies. We began to work from coexistence with one another toward a co-production of urban praxis. We learned that conflict can be agonistic rather than antagonistic. In the end, we stopped trying to fit ourselves into static categories, rigid methodologies, and combative political ideologies. Instead we created convivial tools towards civil engagement. We developed participatory methods of cogeneration. Our ethic became collective, democratic action, toward the realization of a common liberatory urban good. We began to act as the sans-culottes an “irresistible force...a strategic alliance that recognized a common “revolutionary project” as we worked collectively to participate in La Cite. DT