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Academic Impact Design in the Twin Cities

May 11, 2017

By: Bruce N. Wright

In 2010, Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake killing thousands and displacing tens of thousands to countries outside their own, including the United States where they continue to remain on a temporary protected status that legally allows them to live and work here. More recently, Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti’s southwest peninsula in October 2016, killing more than a thousand people and wreaking havoc with villages and farmland.

This many know, but what many do not know is the University of Minnesota College of Design (CDes) swiftly responded to the first disaster, sending design students, faculty, and professionals for a full semester to work and provide aid to victims in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, shortly after the earthquake. This effort is part of CDes’s Public Interest Design program that attracts students and faculty from across the country with significant skills that tackle a wide range of humanitarian issues and needs leaving a lasting impact on communities in the U.S. and around the world.

academic impact design

Coffman Memorial Union is the centerpiece of the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus.

“The University of Minnesota has a long history of serving communities,” says Jim Lutz, AIA, director of the MS in Sustainable Design Program in the College of Design, “its ethos, particularly within its student body, stems from the ingrained humanitarianism of Minnesotans.” Lutz said this strand of social assistance was made evident when Cameron Sinclair, the co-founder and director of Architecture for Humanity, was invited for a teaching residency in public service design in CDes’s School of Architecture. Subsequently, working with Architecture for Humanity, the University of Minnesota was among the first educational institutions to send a design response team to Haiti after the earthquake.

Indeed, academic impact design is highly active in the Twin Cities. The University of Minnesota alone can boast more than a dozen research centers and outreach programs that bring impact design principles to bear on social issues as diverse as natural resources management in urban areas, sustainable building design strategies, public interest design for underserved people or communities, and environmental management thinking in public policy. Macalester College in Saint Paul, has a strong environmental studies program that cross-pollinates international development policy study with science and technology studies. This program, led in part by Dr. Roopali Phadke, professor of environmental studies, focuses on environmental policy and politics. (A more in-depth report on Dr. Phadke’s work will appear in a Feature article to follow.)

Many of these research centers are focusing on and producing what traditional designers would not call design—the physical object or formalist concern with aesthetics—but rather systems for solving social problems, for designing systems and processes that bring about better communities for the social good. As Tom Fisher says in the Fun Palace 007: “These approaches are a well-designed system or process that is also a beautiful thing that people really benefit from.” These designed processes and systems are not “anti-aesthetic” or “anti-formalist” but designed as social investments for a future that is better than what we have now.

Co-operative and Collaborative

What becomes clear when we dig into these research and design centers in the Twin Cities is that all are leveraging the resources of cross-disciplinary programs from very diverse fields and historically unrelated departments of college life They all recognize that social, environmental and cultural issues are too complex to be solved in more traditional, narrowly focused ways. A strong spirit of cooperation and collaboration permeates each group to an unusual degree.

academic impact design

Why Minnesota? Why is academic impact design so lively in the Twin Cities? One theory has it that because the University of Minnesota is in the rare position of being one of the few, if the only American university that is both a State university (academic focus) and a Land Grant university (agricultural-research focus) combined. Most other states have separated these two types—often in different parts of their states. The Minnesota advantage is huge. Its budget is much bigger overall, it is the biggest of the Big Ten universities in student population and number of degree subjects offered, and is located in the largest metropolitan area of the state, giving students the advantage of close-at-hand resources and industries that non-urban colleges cannot easily access.

Design for Community Resilience

“Design for Community Resilience (DCR) is a program/service within the CDes Center for Sustainable Building Research (CSBR) that transforms civic challenges into sustainable opportunities through design,” says Virajita Singh, Senior Research Fellow at the CSBR and director DCR as well as Assistant Vice Provost in the Office for Equity and Diversity at the University. “DCR works with communities across Minnesota to solve pressing problems (issues that encompass social, economic, and environmental factors) through sustainable place-based solutions. Working with communities, local governments, non-profits and other organizations research staff from CSBR and students from the College of Design work to address pressing problems while turning them into opportunities to make sustainable decisions for the community’s, organization’s and the planet’s future.”

The CSBR has a steady stream of project requests, taking on between five to seven projects a year, mostly from the upper northwest of Minnesota, but also from across the state. As word-of-mouth spreads, the number of small communities taking advantage of this service, and its impactful design process, steadily grows. The Design for Community Resilience effort is almost always synched with the cycle of university semesters, as the group that visits a new community works on a five-month basis. Each team is composed of two research assistant (RA) graduate students in architecture, plus a lead faculty advisor and any and all interested local players (town leaders, planning department reps, community leaders) from the community in question being researched. With careful, proven strategies for documenting resources, economic assessments and key social activities, the team begins to identify and share goals and benefits for use by the local planning team.

Six areas of work and research compose the areas of focus for the CSBR:

  1. Energy and Climate Change. Here the CSBR provides tools, expertise, and research to support energy independence, security, and climate neutrality for a community, using design thinking
  2. The Water Cycle. The goal for this section is to understand the water cycle and its relationship to the built environment in the provision, capture, use, reuse and recharging of water in local and regional watersheds and the global water cycle.
  3. Sustainable Materials for a Healthy Environment. The CSBR believes that a regenerative built environment will need a renewable source of materials that create healthy long-lasting environments.
  4. Value and Benefits of Regenerative Designs. Here the team is developing metrics to track the full range of value created by sustainable and regenerative designs.
  5. Equitable Designs to Provide Sustainability For All. The CSBR investigates building solutions to provide sustainability to all communities.
  6. Creating Regenerative and Resilient Communities. The work here hinges on the understanding that communities must not only become regenerative and resilient but also sustainable, and able to respond and adapt to stress and change in a dynamic global environment.
academic impact design

The Minneapolis skyline behind a well trafficked area of the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus along the Mississippi River.

Nature in the City

As more people migrate from rural to urban areas, how society manages the nature of urban nature becomes increasingly important. One team of researchers at the University of Minnesota is developing tools to assess the recreational value of parks in new urban ecosystems. Natural Capital Project, directed by Dr. Bonnie Keeler, lead scientist, is exploring how to create communities that are more intelligent, efficient and livable.

Under the umbrella of Natural Capital Project (NatCap), Dr. Keeler describes one recently grant-supported project: “We are trying to determine the mental health benefits of parks to citizens of the Twin Cities, and trying to see if there are any links between nature in cities and mental health, and to the rate of visitations to the parks. Using Twitter, we collect the evidence of visits to each park, look at the different patterns of these visits and then see if there is evidence to predict patterns. We’re measuring 80 attributes for each park: identifying amenities, determining the canopy cover (of any trees in the park), proximity to neighborhoods, and so forth.”

“We are learning through these patterns how to apply these data to any decisions made by the Cities and the planning boards. We compare the data to the mental health of visitors, to see how people benefit, to see if there are any mood benefits or cognition benefits. We’re using brain scans to see if cortisone changes can be observed,” Keeler explains. She continues by stating that, “we ask, ‘What is nature doing for people?’ We are even questioning ‘What is the nature of nature?’ Especially in an urban environment. So, in assessing the key aspects of nature, we are able to form the questions that need to be asked.”

Keeler continues to explain they have invited designers to be part of our team in addition to psychologists, health insurance members, and more, who help make the case to policymakers of what sort of impact nature in cities can provide for the mental health benefits of its citizens. The research team includes partners from many disciplines across the University of Minnesota, the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Stanford University, the Trust for Public Land, Minnesota Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, and others.

Rural vs. Urban? Urban + Rural Instead

All of this talk of nature has bubbled over into many of the research centers mentioned above, as it is impossible to ignore climate and the steady changes it is evincing impact all human activity. This challenge is nowhere more visible than along the edges between rural and urban settlements. Architect Dewey Thorbeck, director of the Center for Rural Design (CRD) at the University of Minnesota, has first hand knowledge of this battle line of development and cultural skirmishes, where many issues of quality of life, health, economics, and politics meet in the halls of government as well as on the streets and backroads. “By 2050 we may have another 2.5 billion people on the planet,” says Thorbeck in a 2016 interview with IDH, “and urban and rural issues must be linked through design thinking and the problem-solving process of design to better shape future urban and rural land uses. This linkage can help integrate human and natural systems to reduce poverty and provide economic, educational, health, and entrepreneurial opportunities for rural citizens while providing similar opportunities for urban citizens.”

“Impact Design could help explain connections between urban and rural design,” continues Thorbeck, “and design thinking could help shape urban and rural futures today without diminishing the opportunity for future generations to shape theirs.” Thorbeck’s CRD is now part of the larger research center housed in the U of M College of Design’s Minnesota Design Center, led by Tom Fisher (see podcast), where both Thorbeck and Fisher see advantages to linking the two approaches to design. “The divide between urban and rural is worldwide and we cannot deal with rapid change and the global challenges of climate change, food security, water resources, renewable energy, and health—human, animal, and environmental—without crossing borders connecting urban and rural futures together.”

academic impact design

The CRD’s work focuses on rural Minnesota as a resource.

As Thorbeck has noted, urban design teaching has a long tradition in architecture schools, but designing for rural communities is a relatively new field and very much needed. “Linking urban and rural design to create solutions to both urban and rural land use is critical for a sustainable future. This linkage is multi-dimensional and designers and the academy must find ways to step out of their silos to work together with communities to develop creative and innovative solutions to resolve urban and rural issues for future sustainability.”

Melding Academic Insight with Public Needs

As we see from the few examples of design-led investigations above, the process of reaching out, of bringing in diverse skills and perspectives that each academic professional or student shares, can contribute to a much greater payback to the communities impacted by the project focused process. The Twin Cities are abundantly filled with research programs focused on academic impact design that break out of traditional, narrowly defined fields of study, embracing other points of view and encouraging community groups to use the tools of design and design thinking for social good. To find the answers each group seeks, they benefit most when participants, without hesitation or fear of stepping on toes, use a collaborative process that includes diverse groups, full leverage of available local resources and the spirit of mutual co-operation. It’s a formula that works again and again, and one that can impact many places and centers across the country beyond the Twin Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.


Bruce N. Wright, AIA, is an architect, writer, and editor with a long standing interest in all issues of design, culture and technology and their impact on society. Wright was editor of the international design journal Fabric Architecture for 16 years, and before that managing editor of Architecture Minnesota, the magazine of AIA Minnesota. His writing on design has appeared in I.D. magazine, Inland Architect, Progressive Architecture, SKYLINE and the AIA Journal, among others. He regularly contributes to Advance Textiles Source, the online journal about new developments in materials and technical textiles published by the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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