Publics is the study of human groups and their roles, interactions, and experiences within the built and natural environment. This Domain within the MDes program sets out to support novel approaches to socio-spatial design, planning, implementation and advocacy. Design as a discipline has the potential to provide different communities power structures (public, private, community, institutional, nonprofit), working within regions, cities, and neighborhoods, with the tools and solutions to effectively prepare for, cope with, and anticipate the effects of historic extraction, chronic disinvestment, rapid change, and disaster shocks. The Publics Domain prompts students to research, articulate, and propose restorative, protective, and preemptive forms of transdisciplinary practice and pedagogy.

Issues of interest

Diverse matters of economic and social inequality, climate change, population growth and decline, territorial conflicts, health and violence epidemics, aging civic and mobility infrastructures, and democratic governance are the central conceptual problematics of our time with direct causalities to the built and natural environment. In addition, race, power, and resistance in the city is at a moment of increased urgency, demanding a critical response from design and planning disciplines, given its history of exclusion.

Focus of Study

To understand and intervene in such issues, students in the Publics Domain may consider the built and the live environment, and its relationship, impact, and influence on the economic, social, political, and cultural forces that shape territories. The Domain will further focus on the intersectionality, interdependent interrelationships, and differences among these forces on design processes and outcomes. As a Domain, we will aim to define what constitutes the Public, both spatially and socially—how it becomes legible and desirable, who gets to create and decide, and for whom do we act.  As such, this domain is directed towards those for whom advanced study can serve as preparation for future work in three general areas:

  1. Critical, transdisciplinary design, planning, and management practices working within or for the public and private sector, in various capacities related to public land; public health and environment; public infrastructures; public realm; public benefits, rights and participation; and public investment
  2. Advanced research and teaching in and adjacent to the design and planning disciplines, including the development of pedagogy that advances the integration of and connection between social and design theories and narratives, with spatial conditions of injustice, disparity and inequality
  3. Leadership in political, governmental, NGO, philanthropy and non-profit sectors involving public policy, investment, participation and advocacy

Course Requirements and Offerings

The Publics domain is structured around a curriculum that includes offerings taught by the professors and professors in practice across all three departments of the GSD including architecture, urban planning and design and landscape.  During their residence, students are encouraged to look across these departments, as well as for courses across the University, for their courses in order to foster interdisciplinary pursuits.

All students in the Publics domain will be required to take the proseminar course in the first semester.  Students will also need to complete three additional core courses in the first year from the offering below.  The objectives for core course selection should expose students to the following:

  1. General concepts of governance and participation
  2. General concepts of societal and political conflicts, crisis, contestations that effect the built and natural environment
  3. Forms of practice that engage the multiple and varied forms of publics across GSD disciplines
  4. Representational applications
  5. Research methodologies

SES 5000 Publics Proseminar: Of the Public. In the Public. By the Public, Griffin

Public, as a noun or adjective, is not confined to a single discipline, practice, narrative or theory.  It is instead, a complicated construct that can either dictate the rules and regulations that order our cities, reveal and disclose “fake news” or knowledge about the city , or include or exclude the right to occupy the city. With this in mind, this proseminar seeks to define what constitutes the Public, both spatially and socially – how it becomes legible and desirable, who gets the right to create it and for whom.  Lectures, discussions and debates will interrogate what it means to be public; of the public; in the public; for the public, with the public, or by the public.  Each proposition holds a different implication for design, democracy, processes and populations when overlaid with the compounding issues of our time – economic and social inequality, climate change, population growth and decline, territorial conflicts, health and violence epidemics, aging infrastructures, and eroding trust in democratic governance.  The course will draw from scholars, practitioners and everyday folk to build foundational intelligence and provocative interpretations of social and spatial publics, and their potential to advance the Just City.

Domain Head

Toni L. Griffin, Professor in Practice of Urban Planning

Interview with Toni Griffin: A Spotlight on the MDes Degree Publics Domain

Research Affiliations

Just City Lab @ Harvard Graduate School of Design