Diane Davis speaks with Next City on chair appointment, role of design in building equitable communities

Diane Davis’s appointment as Chair of the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Department of Urban Planning and Design made news this week.

Next City’s executive director Tom Dallessio spoke with Davis on “the direction she plans to take that essential department,” discussing, among other topics, her first orders of business as chair and the process of seeking equitable outcomes through urban planning and design. In response to the latter, Davis discussed the importance of focusing on particular equity issues that might most appropriately be approached through design and planning skills or strategies.

“One has to have an idea of the interconnectivity between various inequities, think strategically about where and how to intervene first, hopefully with the fact that such actions might unloosen the Gordian knot of interconnected inequities, and at the same time recognize that there are some problems that planning and design are better able to tackle,” Davis told Next City.

“In short, it is important to teach students how to leverage design and planning to make the most progress with the most focused interventions, understanding that although many urban problems will remain beyond the reach of our collective toolkit, some are so pressing they must be addressed in any way we can.”

Davis also spoke on the importance of problem identification as part of the planning and design process.

“One of the things I’m constantly telling my students is that they need to think long and hard about the problem they are choosing to solve,” she said. “Sometimes we can jump into action modes too quickly, and planning can, in its worst form, be a solution in search of a problem.”

Read Davis’s full Next City interview here.

Real Estate Weekly also covered Davis’s chair appointment in its “Who’s News” column.

The GSD announced Davis’s appointment, effective July 1, in May. Davis joined the GSD as professor of urbanism and development in 2012 and was named the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism in November 2014.

Prior to joining the GSD, Davis taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 2001 to 2011, where she served as associate dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning from 2004 to 2007, and as Head of MIT’s Undergraduate Program in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning from 2003 to 2005. She taught at the New School for Social Research from 1995 to 2001, including as Chair of the Department of Sociology at the New School’s Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science.

At the GSD, Davis teaches courses and options studios that examine the role of politics in planning and design, relations between urbanization and development, and socio-spatial practice at the scale of the city. Her research focuses on urban transformations in the global south, particularly the urban social, spatial, and political conflicts that have emerged in response to globalization, informality, and political and economic violence.