Spring 2016

The Joys of a Lively Classroom

I started teaching when I was 25 years old. I won’t do the arithmetic, only to say that it was a long time ago! Since then, I’ve taught graduate studios and seminars, as well as large undergraduate lecture courses with hundreds of students and a team of teaching assistants running labs and discussion sections.

The topics included community planning and design; urban history, theory, and political economy; gender in planning and design; urban economics and spatial organization; and sustainable urbanism. My last new preparation was also my last semester before coming to Berkeley — a large general education course, Sustainability Science and Society.

Then I arrived at CED and spent 100% of my time outside the classroom. But after a few years, I was missing it. And so I volunteered to help develop one of CED’s new lower division breadth courses.

As of 2014, all our lower division undergraduates are required to take two of three of these breadth courses, selecting from Design & Activism, Global Cities, and Future Ecologies. These courses are all team taught, by faculty from each CED department, and are meant to lay the broad intellectual foundations upon which the students will build more specialized knowledge. They’ve turned out to be remarkably popular — not just with our own students, but students from across campus — and we expect 150+ students in each of them next year.

Kristina Hill, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, has served as the lead in Future Ecologies since we first piloted the course. Professor of Architecture and Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs Susan Ubbelohde and I round out the picture. Having three disciplinary perspectives on the future ecologies of — and in — cities, enables us to tackle crucial questions from multiple scales, ranging from the building system to urban districts to metropolitan landscapes. It is a challenging course to teach, not the least because we are all so opinionated! But as we raise alternative perspectives, the students get to see environmental design ideas as alive, contested, and always subject to further investigation.

Over time, we have honed the course, reorganizing, adding new materials, and experimenting with various kinds of assignments. This semester, the main assignments are diagrammatic; students are asked to think about a question such as “How could you design a neighborhood to make it a closed loop system?” by crafting meticulous, detailed diagrams to visualize their ideas and guide their narration. We’ve also used social media to engage students and encourage them to express their responses to the assigned readings. Our teaching assistants, Cristina Bejarano (LAEP) and Keith Lee (DCRP), continuously provide thoughtful feedback and hold small group discussions throughout the term.

My own lectures focus on urban morphology and metabolism, life-cycle and materials flows analysis, ecological and carbon footprints, and case studies to help students envision a more circular urban economy.

Like past generations of CED students, our Future Ecologies students are incredibly bright, thoughtful, and creative. As their knowledge expands at warp speed, so does their understanding of the complex contexts faced by environmental designers. It has been an enormous pleasure for me to be back in the classroom — my students inspire as well as energize me to do everything I can to propel CED forward!