Back to the Future: Human Centered (Re)Design for the Future of Towns & Cities

In the late 1990s, I took a class at Temple University in “American Material Culture.”  Taught by the venerable Prof. Alan Davis, the class was probably the spark that ignited my interest in Design as a field of study.  We read books that examined Coney Island, Sears Catalogs, American homes, and World Fairs as artifacts of intention.  That is, we studied the built environment as conglomeration of texts which, because they had been designed, allowed us to read and infer intention out of them.

At the time, I had grown an interest in Historical Preservation.  Somehow, as a young 20 year old, I’d started getting Preservation Magazine, the publication of The National Trust for Historic Preservation.  That magazine, Prof. Davis’s reading list, and my thesis paper focused on a movement in architectural design and preservation termed “The New Urbanism” led me to develop a sense for city and urban planning that still influences the way I look at small towns and large cities and how we move through those spaces.

Pine Street, Philadelphia, PA: From the National Trust for Historic Preservation

One aspect of my studies that remains with me is the manner in which the automobile changed the shape of American towns and cities.  (And yes, I know I risk simplifying things here…such is the nature of my current medium. If you want more, read my thesis paper.) Small-town America on the East coast and other towns in the nation that grew up around railroads are far different from those towns (see Levittown, for instance) that developed after the advent of mass production of automobiles.  The former displays a strong town center, generally organized around a rail station.  Most all destinations within those towns are within a 1 or 2 mile radius–about the distance a healthy human being can walk in 15 minutes or so.  But towns organized around the automobile generally display little of the coherence and emergent organization of their rail-oriented counterparts.  

Mt. Airy Station, SEPTA Regional Rail Station, Philadelphia PA: From the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Those first towns, often called “first-ring suburbs,” were designed with their denizens at the center.  Whether that design was purposeful or, as I mentioned above, “emergent,” is up for debate.  Regardless, it’s clear that what mattered most was that the scale of the town had to fit the humans who created, lived in, and developed it.  The loss of such a human-centered approach to town planning in the early to mid-20th Century was one of the great failings of the modernists, the automobile moguls, and the planners they influenced.  

Thus, when I find articles describing attempts to (re)create the human scale of American towns, I jump upon them. While I admit that a privileged nostalgia urges my leap, I am aware that modern planners are far more cognizant of the ways in which town planning must provide equitable access to housing, shopping, public transportation, etc. (We can’t all live in the prefabbed, postmodern histories of towns like Disney’s “Celebration, FL.”)

Two articles recently crossed my newsfeed that rekindled my interests in town/urban planning and drove me back to that thesis paper and the work of the New Urbanists. Both articles come from an online newsletter, Alchemist City, in itself a “good thing” that focuses on providing news about urban design reforms around the world. (Click here to join their newsletter.). The first article is about “The Point,” a proposed town in Utah that seeks to be “America’s first 15-minute city” and to drastically cut reliance on automobiles. Here’s a map of the proposed town, built around access to public transportation and numerous bicycle and walking pathways.

From the Alchemist City Newsletter, 1/21/22

The second article, again, also from Alchemist City, is about the plan in Milan, Italy (Italy’s most populous city) to create up to 466 new miles of protected bike lanes. Approved by the Metropolitan City of Milan to the tune of $285 million, the plan places Milan ahead of the much larger city of Paris and it’s 422 miles of proposed bike lanes. (David Byrne is, I’m sure, elated.)

Both of these initiatives are good things. Yes, we can argue that these are special cases, that one is foreign and based within cities that were already “pre-automobile” and “continental” in their design, and that the other is created upon a “clean-slate.” However, they are initiatives that seek to reduce human impact on the environment and to do so in ways that are good for people and business. It’s just that those businesses aren’t your huge multinational automobile conglomerates that seek to drive us into oblivion, whether it be in a gas-guzzler or “clean” electric vehicle.

From the Alchemist City Newsletter, 1/21/22

Finally, and here’s a hint about the next “Do Good Things” newsletter’s topic, both of these initiatives clearly are paying attention to the impact they have beyond the local. That is, these initiatives consider their impact on a much larger geography (the world) and a much larger time frame (designing for the future). Such forward thinking is indicative of people who are concerned about the great good, who understand the necessity for all people to act within the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and who are interested in making the world a better place.

And that’s a good thing.

More Research: article on 15-minute cities
15-minute Cities website:  Apparently, they have an entire website and movement.

The Thrill of Victory, and the Agony of Defeat: Cassidy Lichtman’s “P/ATH” and Sport as a Good Thing

I had the fortune to grow up in the 1970s. (To be more truthful, “fortune” is an empty term. Most all of us idolize our childhoods and hold them as a marker for how others should grow up.) And on Saturdays, on ABC, around 3PM in the afternoon, I was able to tune into ABC’s Wide World of Sports and capture a bit of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” from different sports around the world.

What drew me to this show every Saturday afternoon was the constant “variety of sports” it showcased and the drama of human athletic performance. While I was only ever a soccer player from 5 years old, I enjoyed the competition inherent in all athletics and often dreamt myself a Major League Pitcher, a brick wall of a hockey goaltender, or a wickedly fast table-tennis player.

But I also came for the camaraderie of team sports, for the sportsmanship, for the way competition built character, persistence, and, I suppose, just good human beings. While it was not always this way–arrogance was often on display and poor sportsmanship was clear in numerous occasions–I knew enough to criticize the bad sports and amplify the good sports.

While ABC’s Wide World of Sports closed its doors in 1998 and bowed to the accession of cable news programs, It lived on through its iconic opening and the unforgettable phrasings and delivery of McKay’s “Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat.”

But sports didn’t die with ABC WWS. As a the second edition of this Do Good Things Newsletter clearly points out, the character-building qualities of amateur and professional sports are in tact, though, at least at the professional level, they are seemingly a rarer occurrence.

Which brings me to today’s “Good Thing”: P/ATH–Progress through Athletics. A small organization with deep roots and connections in the world of professional and amateur sports, P/ATH’s sees itself this way:

“Our potential lives in both the athlete and the person.

We are a home for the athletes and coaches who want to train both. 

Who want to become better teammates, better leaders and better humans.”

P/ATH was founded by Cassidy Lichtman, a former member of the USA Volleyball Women’s National Team. She was a two-time All-American and an Academic All-American at Stanford before joining Team USA and playing professionally around the world.

Their method is simple, use the draw and experience of professional athletes from around the world to teach lessons about sportsmanship, service, teamwork, etc.

Videos on these aspects of participation in sports are the cornerstone for the teaching. (see image above.). In just over 10 minutes a week, coaches of school and local league teams can expose their players to such topics as “how to build mindset skills, what goes into great team cultures, how to break out of the boxes we get put in and how the most valuable life lessons  we learn in sports can transfer off the field.”

What P/ATH does so well is recognize the humanizing forces of participation in sports and build, out of that immediate draw, a platform for using sport to grow human character in something more than a haphazard way.

If you are a coach or know a coach, I urge you to send them to P/ATH’s website and check out just how easy it can be to build team culture and communication through a patterned, high-quality library of videos.

Sport is an inherently good thing. Of this I have no doubt. But with P/ATH, sport becomes a much more powerful vehicle for purpose-driven learning and doing good things in the world.

As a startup run largely out of her own pocket, P/ATH is reliant on the good will and good nature of those who believe in its mission. If you do, please consider donating to the good work of P/ATH by clicking here:

NOVA Lab in the News

A few years ago I took a summer class in Project Based Learning at a local educational clearinghouse. The woman who was running it was a vibrant, talkative, brash character from Missouri. Among the many pithy statements she brought to the class from”The Show Me State” was this one: “Teachers are dying of humble.”

Which is to say, “We don’t talk enough about the great things we’re doing because apparently we need to appear as selfless, bottomless givers who sacrifice and live for the students. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that everything I do is done to try to make my class more learner centered. And it’s hard. But that endeavor? If I don’t talk about it, if I don’t “brag” about it, who will know? So this “public servant humility,” this “dying of humnble…?” Yeah, I don’t play that game.

So if you can stomach me for 50 minutes or so, and you’re interested in the genesis and evolution of a class like NOVA lab, well…here’ you go.

This interview was hosted by Hazel Mason of the Modern Learners and their Change School initiative. Hazel does a great job of drawing out some of the really salient and critical outcomes of the class.

If you’re interested in starting a class like this, I’m more than willing, as you’ll see and hear in this video, to talk about it.

Project Wayfinder: A Good Thing

If there is one tune we play more often than all the others in NOVA Lab, it begins with the two questions that drive everything we do both in and out of the classroom. (See image at right.)

This song’s refrain is composed of the final two lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” I am, after all, co-creator of “a space for inspiration, aspiration, respiration, and creation.

Aside from all being questions, these phrasings have one other thing in common. They all are existential in nature. They ask us to consider things beyond our own immediate desires…to reach beyond mere material satisfactions and search for meaning and purpose. Make no mistake, I believe education is a public good and it needs to help students focus on such questions in deeper and more sustained ways if we are to even consider reaching the 22nd century.

Which is why when I first read about Purpose-Based Learning in the fall of 2017, and, in particular, the work of Patrick Cook-Deegan and his team at Project Wayfinder, I knew I had to bring it into our classroom. What the Wayfinder team has developed is one of the most inherently “good” curricula I have seen in 28 years in the classroom.

Wayfinder’s High School curriculum is a series of lessons that probe four key aspects of learners’ socio-emotional growth–”My Self,” “My Community,” “My Concerns,” and “My Actions.” In essence, to borrow from the work of Christian Talbot and Annie Maekela, Wayfinder engages students in the pursuit of answers to four eternal questions: “Who am I?, Who are we? What matters to me? What am I going to do about it?”

But it is not this focus on existential question that makes Wayfinder such a good learning experience. It is the fact that they are founded upon helping students develop purposeful work. In doing so, Wayfinder teaches students to design their lives with purpose and with the realization that there is more to education–and life–than achieving the highest GPA and attending the “best” college.

And while I have written about this before, Wayfinder recognizes an inherent truth about education best stated by Prof. William Cronon in his essay, “Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education”:

“In the act of making us free, it [a liberal education] also binds us to the communities that gave us our freedom in the first place; it makes us responsible to those communities in ways that limit our freedom. In the end, it turns out that liberty is not about thinking or saying or doing whatever we want. It is about exercising our freedom in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves…Liberal education nurtures human freedom in the service of human community.”

I have shaped my life as a teacher around Prof. Cronon’s words. Nothing I’ve read before or since better encapsulates the potential “goodness” of public education’s mission. Few curricula I’ve encountered in my 28 years of teaching come close to embodying Cronon’s belief. Project Wayfinder is one of the few that does.

(For more about Project Wayfinder, read my series of posts from 2018 Here , Here, Here… and Here)

How We Build a Brand for Good

It’s hard to believe, but NOVA Lab is now in its fourth iteration.  We started the class in 2016-17with a semester-long prototype called “Design Lab.”  In 2019–2020 we had our first full (though COVID shortened) year and tremendous, serendipitous success.  (Though to be truthful, we did plan for some of that serendipity.)  From Make it 100 to Living Now to The Student Section Podcast, students were able to persevere through a tremendously difficult shift to online emergency learning in March of 2020 and still produce some amazing results.  

In 2020–2021–a year broken by interruptions and the need to navigate through all the weirdness that was “schooling” during a pandemic–we still managed to develop some interesting projects.  Litter Ridder and their app, “Scrap Snatcher,” VR Science Classrooms, Online Chess Tournaments, and Design Thinking classes for Middle School students all happened last year.

I bring these up as a preview to one of the greatest joys of doing good things:  Seeing how the learning and the good things associated with it is multiplied beyond the classroom.

NOVAssociates and NOVAlumni

Last week, eight former NOVA Lab students (“NOVAlumni”) returned to class (in person and on Zoom) to give current “NOVAssociates” some insight into the way they ran their projects, the successes and failures they encountered, and the unique learning that has endured through the years for them.   To a one, the students remarked that the work they did in NOVA Lab has been a huge factor in the direction and trajectory of their lives.  

What’s more, they noted a primary reason they decided to spend two hours of their day on a Zoom call or stepping outside of their scheduled classes to speak to this year’s NOVAssociates was because they recognized the huge sense of gratitude they had for the class they helped to create, and they wanted to make sure that the new students had a chance to succeed more quickly and with a more focused technique than they were able to pull off.

Two years ago guest speakers Phil Holcombe (principal designer at Form & Faculty, Head of Design at Project Wayfinder, and Member of the NOVA Lab Board of Advisors) taught us “your brand is the story people tell about your business when you are not present.”  What last week’s presentation taught us is that the NOVA Lab brand is alive and growing.   We have no doubt that many of our current NOVAssociates will see these NOVAlumni as role models.  And they will return,to bring the same insights and arguments about the class to future students.