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Alumni Profile: Kjersti Monson (MUP/MLA ’03)

Name/year: Kjersti Monson (MUP /MLA '03)

Hometown: Minneapolis, MN

What was your work experience/background before coming to the GSD?

My day job was in book publishing; I worked for HarperCollins in NYC as a book editor. I’ve always loved writing and publication, however I had been actively engaged in public art and design projects since college. I started with teaching assistantships while at school (“Experience of Place”, “3D Art & Design”) and then through apprenticeship to Cliff Garten, a GSD alumnus who is now a successful practitioner in California. I also come from a family of artists, including multiple public artists, and my mother was the Chair of Visual Arts at the Perpich Center for Arts Education (the “Fame” of Minnesota).

What made you decide to pursue planning as a career?

I came to it gradually, through the lens of cultural production. Starting out working on small parks and gardens with a public art component, I knew early on that I was interested in the medium of the built environment, and that I saw the built environment as a place for creative expression and place-making. That’s what led me to applying to the Landscape Architecture program at the GSD. Once I was there, I quickly became interested in the way that our values as a society shape cities on a large scale – our values are written in our plans and built forms. At Harvard, I became interested in the myriad forces that truly shape cities: cultural values, economics, policy, and so on. This trajectory of thought led me to the decision to pursue a degree in planning, and to take on policymaking and economics as part of my creative toolkit.

What made you come to GSD?

I was drawn to the school for many reasons. It is a global hub for dialogue about design and urbanism, meaning that students there have access to incredible professors and thinkers throughout the study period. It is home to an incredible library. It’s recognized as the leading design school in the world. And it promotes the integration of disciplines, being the home of the earliest convening on urban design, and advancing through its degree programs the necessary cross-pollination between design practice and policy/planning.

What is your current position?

Director of Long Range Planning, City of Minneapolis

What areas in planning interest you the most?

  • The importance of a strong policy plan/legislative agenda in addressing the big questions for cities today: climate change and equity.
  • The opportunities to make government more agile and impactful through creative city making; more purposefully guiding city development through the collaboration of planners, artists, and urban designers in community engagement and strategic planning.

Can you summarize the path you have taken since graduation that has led to your current position and how the GSD prepared you for it?

Right after graduation, I spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow just outside of Brussels, Belgium studying the policy origins of public-private partnerships. I was interested in federal disinvestment in cities, and the struggle to maintain infrastructure and parks that we see pervading America still today. That led to a publication. Following that, I moved to Shanghai, China, where I worked with a fellow GSD grad on planning, design, and urban development projects throughout China. During my last year in China, I formed an LLC with two partners and endeavored to develop property in suburban Shanghai. We failed, but the project lives on as a substantial piece of thinking in my career. I left China in 2007 and went to work for EDAW, which became AECOM, in Atlanta. There, I worked as an urban designer on projects around the world, specializing in projects that had an economic or urban development (or urban revitalization) component. Ultimately, I became the Market Sector Leader for Real Estate Strategy for U.S. East, which is the position I held prior to my current role at City of Minneapolis.

When I left AECOM to move to Minneapolis, it was with a desire to shift gears and move into the public sector. I saw enormous potential for the evolution of municipal planning, having served many cities in a consulting role. The GSD helped me to prepare by giving me a global perspective, grounding me in the history/theory of planning and urban design, and providing me the opportunity to combine my interests in policy and design very purposefully through compelling studios that didn’t shy away from real urban challenges, which always have multiple facets – economic aspects, design aspects, political aspects, and so on.

What experiences at Harvard do you look back on as having been most helpful in your career?

Classes such as studio, history and theory, and the real estate course work. The basics.

What advice would you give to current and future Planning students?

See yourself as a creative professional. See your work as cultural production. Engage communities, strive to make meaningful and impactful policy, and above all, be a part of creating places for people.

Current projects?

We are gearing toward our comprehensive plan update. Exciting stuff there and big policy issues to address. We’re investing substantially as a city and as a division in civic technology and I’ll be on a panel at SXSW talking municipal applications of virtual/augmented reality in March 2016. We are also creating a public realm framework plan for downtown. We are building a billion dollar stadium and three new major public spaces downtown. So much is happening – it’s hard to pick just one.