CAPLA Builds for a Changing Urban World
In "Building a Changing World," the UA College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture's studies of the built environment include how future urban design and planning projects must work hand in hand with surrounding natural environments.

By Nick Prevenas, University Communications
March 27, 2019


Jennifer Moscato said the Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory was a significant source of inspiration for her team's 2018 Liba Wheat Memorial-award-winning project.
Jennifer Moscato said the Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory was a significant source of inspiration for her team's 2018 Liba Wheat Memorial-award-winning project. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

"What does the city of the future look like?"

It's a question that often conjures fantastic imagery that tests the boundaries of a person's imagination. Some see a twisting maze of pneumatic tubes wrapped around flying cars operating on a wireless 3-D grid and clever robots performing household tasks (and other "Jetsons"-inspired imagery). Others see a sweeping landscape of skyscrapers emitting a high-definition neon glow rooted in retrofuturism's aesthetics.

Some see minimalism. Others see endless possibilities. Scholars and artists often approach this question with equal parts awe, optimism and apprehension. The question quickly turns into a Rorschach test for the individual doing the imagining.

Nancy Pollock-Ellwand, dean of the University of Arizona College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, takes a distinctive approach to this question. It is an approach embodied in CAPLA's new strategic plan, "Building a Changing World," and a focus the UA has embraced as one of its grand research challenges.

"At the core of this, we all want a place we can call home," Pollock-Ellwand said. "If you study the history of cities – the reasons why people gather into communities – you will see consistent themes. In spite of the dynamics of city building, a medium which is constantly changing, these innate desires remain the same."

Science fiction's portrayal of "future cities" often relies on hermetically sealed, sterile imagery. Jennifer Moscato, a graduate student studying landscape architecture, argues that these notions are incompatible with what humans have valued since the dawn of civilization.

"It's funny how different I interpret that concept now compared to when I was a kid," Moscato said. "Cities of the future won't be places where people aren't interacting. We won't have our own little pods. In my mind, it's much more diverse and interconnected. Each city, in my mind, is a place with its own personality and its own feel."

"People feel most at home in surroundings that promote safety, prosperity and identity," Pollock-Ellwand added. "Our focus is on the built environment. It's a holistic approach that requires teamwork and collaboration to address multi-faceted issues."

Pollock-Ellwand believes the UA is uniquely positioned to address these complex concerns. In addition to its status as a Tier One research institution, the UA has a strong tradition of interdisciplinary collaboration. Further, the UA is well-positioned in the arid borderland Southwest to address the key issues facing urban centers globally – climate change, water scarcity and geopolitical challenges.

"No university has taken on the challenge to create a fully interdisciplinary and integrated effort for solving the grand challenges of the built environment," Pollock-Ellwand said. "These challenges foreground complex issues which necessarily involve a range of expertise from materials scientists, business specialists, medical investigators, data technicians, economists, policy experts, and environmentalists to architects, lawyers, real estate researchers, fine artists, urban designers, planners, engineers and landscape architects."

In a 2018 interview with Design Intelligence Quarterly, Pollock-Ellwand and UA President Robert C. Robbins elaborated on the UA's particular advantages in this field of study.

"Being located in the U.S. Southwest, within the Sonoran Desert and close to an international border, we are well situated to consider a much broader world community that must become more resilient to climate change, adaptable to cultural movements and responsive to new perspectives that will bring innovation," Robbins said.

Pollock-Ellwand cites the UA's Institute for Place, Wellbeing and Performance as an exemplar of cutting-edge research influencing the design of happier, healthier surroundings.

"It's a terrific example of medical practitioners working with architects, engineers and industry in an interdisciplinary fashion to enact powerful change," Pollock-Ellwand said. "We have a window of opportunity to build something meaningful across our colleges and departments that impacts the overall vision of the university."

As the theories driving the formation of "Building a Changing World" inform CAPLA coursework, Pollock-Ellwand stresses the importance of teaching students flexibility, adaptability and collaborative skills, which are primary predictors of future success in a changing world.

"We talk, for example, about how emphasis on the so-called 'soft skills' of communications, team work and problem solving are vital to the core curriculum of a professional program in design and planning," Pollock-Ellwand said. "The industry is very collaborative. Engineers, designers and planners work alongside developers and financers instead of each field working as individual entities."

One such project that exemplifies these efforts is a 2018 Liba Wheat Memorial-award-winning project that seeks to bring unprecedented hydrologic efficiency to a historic social space.

"Socio Hydrology: A frame for an integrated green infrastructure campus master plan" reimagined a 15-acre stretch along North Second Street on the UA campus to include green infrastructure enhancements, improved pedestrian circulation and urban habitat opportunities.


Moscato, one of the landscape architecture students on the project, worked in a team that included fellow UA students Jon Choi, Cody White, Jack Anderson and Samantha Swartz. It was their intention to develop a project that enhanced the area's natural historical beauty while simultaneously increasing safety and water efficiency in the heavily trafficked, flood-prone area.

The team chose to bring many of the green infrastructure improvements to the forefront of the design in a way that would directly affect and improve the user experience, rather than hiding the functional site improvements behind the scenes. Many of the improvements also include significant benefits to campus visitors, including more shade and a reduction of the urban heat island effect from an increased tree canopy.

"It really was one of those things where the whole added up to be more than the sum of the parts," Moscato said. "The amount of feedback we implemented and the truly collaborative nature of our process – that's why we won, I think."

A former Peace Corps volunteer set to graduate in May, Moscato's research interests lie in environmental education and the effects of urbanization on biodiversity. She says her graduate program has allowed her the unique opportunity to enact significant reforms that could last for generations.

"When you think of the various aspects of urban planning as interconnected, you start to see the benefits overlay on top of each other," Moscato said. "Challenges actually end up becoming advantages. Eco-friendly design aspects that may cost a little more in the short term can end up saving untold sums of money in the long term. It's all in how effectively you can communicate your plan."

Pollock-Ellwand agrees.

"By approaching these issues holistically and not seeing things as polar opposites, truly progressive cities – Vancouver, Sydney and Vienna, for example – talk about environmental protection and aesthetics as key features, not simply in terms of dollars and cents," Pollock-Ellwand said. "What does this environmentally friendly design mean in terms of attracting businesses and new residents, and becoming a creative center? What are the values of things not often put into economic modeling? Cities that have really embraced this approach push the synthesis of these ideas."


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Nick Prevenas

University Communications