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Shannon Jackson

Remembering that the University is a ‘Place’: On Placemaking and Institutional Leadership in the Arts and Design at a2ru

Placemaking. It’s become something of a buzzword, with more than a little ambiguity about what it means. The phrase was coined to describe cultural, economic, and community processes for sustaining cities where all residents can thrive. At its best, the principles of place-making galvanize novel collaborations amongst public artists, city planners, neighbors, architects, activists, business owners, thought leaders, and civic leaders. Admittedly, it isn’t always clear what it means to ‘make’ a ‘place’—as if a Places aren’t already there. Cultural poet and institutional leader, Roberto Bedoya, countered with the term ‘place-keeping’ to describe the value of maintaining zones of cultural vitality, heritage and equity. He now brings those principles to his role as the first ever Cultural Affairs Manager for the City of Oakland. (Go East Bay.) As it happens, our UC Berkeley faculty and students have been very active in concretizing, critiquing, and redirecting the Placemaking movement. For a deeper dive, check out the archives of ARC’s gatherings on Re-Imagining the Urban and Cross-Sector, as well as the great work of our Global Urban Humanities Initiative, including our special issue of BOOM.

In light of all this robust interest at Berkeley, I was excited that a2ru (Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities) had decided to make Placemaking the theme for its 2017 annual conference. A+D decided to sign up UC-Berkeley as an institutional partner of a2ru, a Mellon-initiated network that features and dynamizes the arts, culture, and design in research universities like ours. I have to say that it was inspiring and ratifying to be amongst higher education leaders from around the country whose mission and goals chime so resonantly with those of our own campus initiative at Berkeley Arts + Design.

We were also lucky to be able to bring a faculty, staff, and student representatives of Berkeley to this November conference. Susan Moffatt, staff director of Global Urban Humanities, joined and brought her critical eye to the discussion of placemaking. Meanwhile, Nicholas de Monchaux (Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media and Professor of Architecture) was thrilled to renew connection with his former mentor, Bill Sherman (head of Open Grounds at the University of Virginia and, , the head of a2ru’s faculty board). Engineering graduate student, Molly Nicholas, represented the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation while also searching out new opportunities for graduate research. (Note to graduate students: check out A+D’s call for graduate student attendance at a2ru’s Emerging Creatives Student Summit—Spectacle and the Creative Experience—in February in New Orleans!) Meanwhile, A+D Communications Manager, Sarah Fullerton, and I circulated throughout the conference -- from panel to working group to think tank to plenary --to learn more about how other universities link the arts, technology, humanities, sciences, and design to propel innovation and education in the research university.

The a2ru conference also provided me with an excuse to set down some thoughts about how Placemaking frames our work at Berkeley Arts + Design.

I led a plenary event at a2ru on Institutional Leadership in Placemaking and Placekeeping, a session that included Steven Tepper, Executive Dean of Arts and Design at Arizona State, Kent Devereux, President of New Hampshire College of the Arts, and Julia Smith of Association of American Universities. View here.:

For me at Berkeley, the challenges and opportunities of bringing Placemaking to universities cut in many directions. On the one hand, we want to feature the work of faculty and students who support and refine Placemaking strategies in different communities. On the other hand, I find it interesting to turn the Placemaking lens back on ourselves. What happens when we remember that the university is itself a Place? Let’s remember that our university is a kind of city – “a city of learning” to quote Berkeley’s first campus architect, John Galen Howard. And as a city, we can take an inventory of its many cultural, economic, political, infrastructural, and community functions. Once that's done how can we leverage those functions differently? What new novel combinations might we devise?

The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “if you want to build a world class city, found a great university, and wait two hundred years.” Now in 2017, we might use the Placemaking discourse to explore the stakes and assumptions of Moynihan’s proposition. How does conceiving the university as a Place help us better understanding all that the university 'makes'? Might it help citizens recognize that it makes—and has the potential to make—more than we always acknowledge? Part of what is a behind my question is the lurking sense that many citizens--maybe even our students, maybe even ourselves-- occasionally turn to fairly reductive spatial metaphors when we talk about the university. Stereotypically, the University’s place is the Ivory Tower. In this metaphor, the university is the place removed from community life -- sometimes a gated community. Whether set high on a hill, bounded by walls, or separated from a wider eco-system by a Palm Drive, this stereotype sees the university as an entity removed from daily life, one that plays gown to someone else’s town. to some eyes, the university is also the slow inert place of bureaucracy; it is the place of insidious institutional authority; to some of my students at Berkeley, the university is “The Man.” So those are fairly reductive images of the Place of the university, and we have to understand what dynamics continue to provoke those associations. But I also think that such stereotypes are pretty lazy. The metaphor of the Ivory Tower is too convenient, too rigid, and an increasingly unimaginative pot shot. It keeps us and our communities from recognizing that the university is many other things as well.

In such a metaphoric impasse, I often think we need some “design thinking” to force ourselves to reframe our view of a campus landscape that deserves some imaginative re-recognition. As a quick exercise, let’s take the creative placemaking rubric elaborated by Art Place America’s Executive Director, Jamie Bennett— a rubric focused on residents, on systems, on locality, and on equity. Let’s take those rubrics back to the university and see what they reveal about its functions. Bennett uses the great Jane Jacobs as a guide when he foregrounds “Residents” as an essential focus. Cities must focus first on the people who live there; placemaking has to be guided by their experience of living. What then does it mean to think of the university as a place of residence, as a place for residents? Such a frame exposes our relationships with those who live in an around Berkeley and the East Bay—our own employees as well as all of the neighbors who run businesses, raise children, and volunteer in our community. But that focus also foregrounds the unique situation of being a Place where many residents rotate. The university receives a constant renewal of new residents each year -- often in the 18 to 26 age range – and releases our residents to new Places each year as well. How do we respond creatively and ethically to this flow of residents, helping them to bond to Place even, and perhaps especially, when we know they will leave it?

Another of Bennett’s Jacobs-inspired rubrics focuses on Placemaking as a coordination of systems. Cultural systems, economic systems, social welfare systems, environmental systems all collaborate in more and less productive ways to produce a sense of Place. Once again, the university is such a place of systemic organization; it assembles social and material structures to sustain conditions of labor, housing, health, food, and financing even as it navigates the effects of systems it does not control – systems of public (de) funding, of immigration restriction, and of the wider effects of environmental change. Depending upon how porous its walls or a how high its hills, some universities offer open systems for cultural engagement, providing the artistic and intellectual vitality that bonds community members to a Place and that bonds them to each other. That provision – the right to a thriving cultural life – is of course central to what we see ourselves providing at Berkeley Arts + Design and across our campus landscape. Indeed, when we also think about the specificity of our locality—Bennett’s third rubric—we might notice the depth and openness of Berkeley's cultural engagement with its community. At the launch of our free A+D Mondays events on Public Re Assembly, I tried to suggest some of the many ways that neighbors use our university—whether business owners, school teachers, parents, seniors, and other life-long learners. At Berkeley, our creative outreach also navigates the unique opportunity of being located on the East Bay of the Bay Area, a locale that seems often to function as the conscience of the region.

That last point brings us to a last rubric—the goal of equity in creative placemaking. How do Places cultivate identities as spaces of innovation, as destination spaces, while also keeping a commitment to economic and cultural equity? Thinking about equity means addressing issues of diversity and inclusion, whether issues around gender, age, ability, and the effort to create a world where race and ethnicity are no longer predictive of social advancement. It means removing barriers of discrimination so that such markers are no longer predictive of one’s capacity for human flourishing. If that is a goal of creative placemaking, then there seems no better Place on which to focus than the place of the public university. At Berkeley, one third of our brilliant students are on Pell Grants, and we have the most successful record for advancing citizens from the lowest income strata to the highest income strata of any institution in the nation. Human flourishing is our mission and our business.

When I think about all of these factors and functions of the university, I try to think more about how we can reframe and differently leverage them. Sometimes, I think of the public university as a grand public art project, a social practice projects that exists temporally, materially, and virtually to propel new ways of being in Place together. We can go back to “design thinking” and reflect on how many different ways people use our university. We are a space of innovation, and a space of tradition. We are a space of training and a space of preservation. We are a health provider and a housing provider. We are a landlord and a renter, a debtor and creditor. We are a place that is elite and a place that is populist. Some universities are places of wealth accumulation; some of wealth distribution. At Berkeley, we are socially enmeshed in our community, and our large real estate portfolio means that we are economically enmeshed there too. As the flagship campus of the University of California, Berkeley is, not only one of the oldest educational institutions, but also one of the oldest public institutions in the state. We are a space of heritage, a sanctuary, and an engine of social mobility. We are a public school and a public library; for many families and dog-walkers, we are a public park. Sometimes, yes, we are removed from everyday reality, but in so doing, we offer our students the chance to risk and experiment before leaving our Place for new places of residence. We are a talent scout, a recruiter, and an incubator for a 21st century work force. Many people and experiences are made in the University’s Places, and those people continually re-make UC-Berkeley. As we look ahead to 2018, I hope to surface new associations and functions for this grand public at project at Berkeley. I look forward to refining our practices of Creative Placemaking, even as we commit to keeping UC Berkeley a publicly engaged Place where all can thrive.