Maybe it’s because the University of Texas at Arlington is located out there in Arlington, a wide spot on the highway between Dallas and Fort Worth known for little more than paying to host the Rangers and Cowboys. Arlington, which was the largest city in the country without public transportation until it added a single bus route in 2013. The campus doesn’t do much to distance itself from that reputation. It’s a mile south of Interstate 30 and has all the charm of a strip mall in Euless.
Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it is because any school in the UT system plays second fiddle to Austin. Or maybe it is simply that, in a college sports-obsessed state, the height of UTA’s athletic achievement was a first-round loss in the 2008 NCAA basketball tournament. Regardless, UTA—one of the oldest public universities in Texas, a school of 54,000 total students (second in size in the UT system only to UT Austin), and a school that issues the third-most degrees of any university in the state—enjoys something of a below-the-radar profile, even in its own backyard.
In 2014, UTA officials sought to change that. They drafted a new strategic plan, which laid out an ambitious vision to make UTA an impossible-to-ignore intellectual powerhouse in the region. Like the familiar pitches we’ve heard for the football and baseball stadiums in Arlington, the strategic plan is quick to point out the competitive advantage of being located at the geographical center of one of the United States’ fastest-growing regions. That growth will require the input and expertise that only a top-tier research university can provide, it says. Like most documents of its kind, UTA’s strategic plan speaks in broad, sweeping terms, but it does emphasize one specific goal that at first seems strange when thinking about Arlington. UTA wants to help lead North Texas into a future that is defined by “sustainable urban communities.”
“We will be at mega-city status of 10 million people very quickly,” says UTA President Vistasp Karbhari, an Indian-born structural engineer who was the main architect of the strategic plan. “One of the challenges of a mega-city is looking at built environments as well as public policy. The concept was that if we were truly going to make an impact on how Dallas prepares to become a mega-city, there was a need, in my mind, to try to do much more to shape it in the best way possible.”
To make that kind of impact, to put UTA into a prime position to help manage and plan for that growth, Karbhari had a masterstroke. What if, he suggested, they merged the administrative-focused public affairs and urban planning department with studio-based studies like architecture? No other university in the country had done this before, putting these disparate but connected pursuits under one roof.
This new College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs (or CAPPA, for short) required a founding dean who could not only, as Karbhari puts it, “speak all the languages” of these various disciplines, but also foster an amicable marriage of strange academic bedfellows. UTA and Karbhari were looking for a unicorn, essentially. They found her in Utah.
Nan Ellin was born in Baltimore, went to school at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, obtained her doctorate at Columbia University, studied on a Fulbright scholarship in France, and spent half her life immersed in the quaint, walkable, European-style urban environments that are the envy of every Jane Jacobs aficionado. Then she moved west and fell in love with the spirit of places more defined by car-obsessed American sprawl. Stints at the University of Southern California and the University of Cincinnati were followed by terms heading up urban planning programs at Arizona State University and the University of Utah. In Phoenix and Salt Lake City, she also led acclaimed and ambitious urban planning projects, such as a proposal to re-incorporate Phoenix’s extensive canal system into a series of urban villages inspired by Venice and Amsterdam. In other words, she had experience working in the public realm, where the ideas of the architect and the planner intersect with the often messy reality of public administration.
Soon after her arrival in Arlington, in early 2015, Ellin demonstrated her political savvy. Despite being handed a new college full of potentially irritated faculty forced into a collegiate marriage arranged by the university president, she has never held a CAPPA-wide faculty meeting to lay out her plan and vision for the school. Instead, she held gatherings at off-campus locations—Bolsa Mercado in Oak Cliff, the Belmont Hotel—and invited faculty from various disciplines to present something they had been working on in seven-minute TED-style talks. In addition to breaking the ice, the mixers were intended to be read as metaphors, Ellin demonstrating her desire to encourage a more communicative, collaborative, and non-hierarchal approach to administrative management.
Ellin—in her late 50s, with long, straw-blond hair and wide, expressive blue-gray eyes—often speaks in metaphors. Asked about her vision for CAPPA, she uses weaving terminology: interweaving various disciplines and programs and exploring the potential of interlacing points. When speaking about education, Ellin conjures an image of a spiraling gyre, talks about “zooming in” and “zooming out,” and coins a term—“mesearch”—that she hopes will counterbalance the university’s traditional emphasis on research. Some of it can sound a little wishy-washy. But in all of these images, what Ellin is talking about is understanding ideas, people, systems, and cities within their proper historical, cultural, and ecological contexts. Mesearch, for example, simply means affirming the value of the subjective experiences and talents individual students bring to the education process.
“In the olden days—the old education, the Bauhaus—we transmit,” Ellin says. “We take knowledge and skills of disciplines, and the student comes in and becomes an empty vessel. We know from many issues in our societies and our schools that this is problematic. ‘Mesearch’ is ‘Who am I?’ But by the time you have gotten to college, you’re taught not to talk about that.”
Students and faculty in CAPPA have already experienced Ellin’s youthful tenure in more concrete ways. Douglas Klahr, the associate dean, says Ellin’s gestures of transparency, like the mixers, have helped along the process of familiarization and staved off organized resistance from faculty. Students, too, have noticed. When Myriam Igoufe, a student from France, first arrived at UTA, in 2014, to pursue her doctorate in urban planning, she found the school impersonal and aloof. Since Ellin’s arrival, however, faculty seem more approachable, expectations are higher, and students are more motivated, she says.Things began to change for Igoufe when she had a chance dinner with Shima Hamidi, the director of CAPPA’s Institute of Urban Studies, whom Ellin brought with her from the University of Utah. At dinner, Hamidi and Igoufe spoke about her background, her interests, what initially brought her to Texas, and what drew her to studying urban planning. After that conversation, Hamidi invited Igoufe to work as a Graduate Teaching and Research Assistant. It was an opportunity that transformed the direction of Igoufe’s studies and professional goals.
“In my first year in urban and public affairs, I didn’t work [as a graduate research assistant]. I was going along lethargically,” Igoufe says. “Now we have very strong leaders. It was a wake-up call.”
Even in the heat of August, CAPPA’s Institute of Urban Studies is a buzzing hub of life on an otherwise desolate campus. Since Ellin’s arrival, the institute has gone from $60,000 in projects to more than $700,000, with an additional several million dollars in pending project grants. The space will be expanded soon to reflect that increased workload.
For now, though, in a room crammed with folding tables, computers, and graduate students, Hamidi stands in front of a dry-erase board that outlines progress on projects in Fort Worth, South Dallas, Vickery Meadow, Love Field, Fair Park, and elsewhere. CAPPA students are working inside Arlington City Hall, helping design new streetscapes for the city’s downtown area, adjacent to campus. And through a partnership with a nonprofit, a design-build program has launched that will add one new student-designed, low-income house to Arlington each year.
Hamidi is a renowned urban planner originally from Iran who has worked on projects for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the National Institute for Transportation and Communities, the National Institutes of Health, Smart Growth America, and many other organizations. Ellin describes her as a firebrand and credits Hamidi with the progress the institute has made in the past year. Hamidi comes across as an enthusiastic and approachable taskmaster, tough but kind.
The crowded room is divided into teams of students pulled from the various disciplines—architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and design, and public policy—and also culled from around the world. I meet students from Jordan, Turkey, France, Iran, and even Memphis and Atlanta. Some, like Ahoura Zandiatashbar, a student from Shiraz, Iran, were attracted to UTA precisely because it was located at the heart of a sprawling American metropolis that is experiencing tremendous urban growth.
In the context of the Institute of Urban Studies, many of Dallas’ familiar problems—like the design and use of Fair Park or the inefficiency of its transit system—suddenly read like challenges on the cutting edge of urban planning. In Arlington, these students have found themselves with an up-close look at (and a chance to help answer) one of the most complex questions of the 21st century, a matter of architectural, sociological, and ecological importance: how do you plan a sustainable future amidst the inertia of a young, rapidly growing, sprawling metropolitan region?
This challenge is very much what lured Nan Ellin away from cities like New York and Paris and into the American West. Ellin once described her books to the American Institute of Architects as each stemming from a specific experience of a place where she had been living. Volumes like Architecture of Fear explore the way the contemporary landscape is shaped by what she sees as a society preoccupied by fear, and Good Urbanism lays out practical guidelines for improving urban spaces. In Texas, Ellin has been working on a new book about something she calls “habitat instinct,” an observation that human beings are the only species on the planet who build and dwell in unsustainable habitats.
Ellin’s life in Texas straddles sustainable and unsustainable urban landscapes. She found an apartment a few blocks from the Bishop Arts District and commutes out I-30 to Arlington. It’s a daily trip that maps out the twin poles of contemporary economic growth in North Texas—the limited success of adaptive re-use of historic neighborhoods within a region otherwise driven by booming suburbs.
In her first year, Ellin also spent time learning about the people in her new home. She navigated local architectural circles and toured boardrooms, introducing herself and her new program to the community. In Dallas, she says, she found a city that was something of a cross between the East Coast where she grew up and the American West that she fell in love with.
“After I came out west, I didn’t want to go back east,” Ellin says. “Then I came to Texas and realized that this has the best of both worlds. It has the openness and generosity of spirit and can-do attitude of the West, and it has the subtle sophistication of the East.”
Ellin’s writing about Dallas focuses on sustainable habitats, but she is also quick to point out the strengths and advantages that her new home brings to the table. When I ask her about the familiar frustrations of planning in Dallas—the difficult politics, the penchant for producing tons of plans but never fully implementing any of them, the macroeconomic forces that treat communities like expendable resources—she redirects the conversation.
“Most cities are not that visionary, but this is an extremely visionary city,” Ellin says. “That’s a good thing.”
Ellin is nothing if not an optimist. She talks about needing to embrace the strengths of a place before you can properly understand and tackle the challenges it presents. But while her attitude may seem like common sense, it underscores a deeper philosophical disposition that drives Ellin’s thoughts on urban planning and education. Both disciplines, she argues, have been overly influenced by a modernist approach that was so keen in finding a new way forward that it often lost sight of important historical, cultural, and ecological contexts. She says the problem with movements like the Bauhaus—the influential early 20th-century German school of design that advocated for a “new objectivity,” a way of stripping down design challenges to find new solutions to old problems—was that it stripped away too much.
“We gained things that are important [from the Bauhaus], and those things could not have been gained if they didn’t do the new objectivity,” Ellin says. “But I think we are ready for a new building school. We’re saying context is not erasing what is there.”
Ellin believes one of CAPPA’s strengths is that by combining its particular mix of disciplines, the school can work to help restore that context. What is common to teachers, students, architects, designers, and city administrators, she says, is that they all need to learn how to build on the strength of existing communities and places, to appreciate and understand what is already there.
“Once people start talking about what they love about something, they can then build on that,” she says. “They used to say, ‘Let’s create a tabula rasa,’ a clean slate. We’re saying it is not about a tabula rasa. It is a tabula plena. It is a full slate.”
Earlier this year, Karbhari’s strategic plan for UTA began to come to fruition. The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education raised the university’s research classification to R1, the highest possible ranking. Ellin credits the jump to the schools of science and engineering but allows that CAPPA “played at least a small role.”
But she and her new college deserve more credit than that. In one year, Ellin and her team have positioned the college to become something North Texas has never had: a top-tier, university-based think tank poised to have an impact far beyond our boundaries. Even if no one has noticed yet.
Back in her bright, sparsely decorated corner office, where ceiling tiles have been removed to expose thick concrete beams, Ellin shows me designs for future renovations to CAPPA’s mid-1980s building. They suggest her influence on UTA’s campus will start to be felt in more visible ways. Chief among them is a farm-to-table cafe that will be stocked with produce from a new student-designed, student-run urban farm one block east of campus. Funding for the cafe has been raised, and construction begins this month. It will be the most attractive spot on UTA’s 420 acres, with a courtyard view of a fountain that sits at the center of a cluster of brutalist buildings. What excites Ellin about the cafe, however, is not just that she’ll have an easier time finding a healthier lunch each day in Arlington but that it has already become a fulcrum point to raise new ideas about education.
The urban farm, for example, led to CAPPA creating the first certificate program in urban farming in Texas. Fundraising for the cafe led to partnerships with local architectural firms that will display images of their work there in rotating exhibitions. Ellin hopes those events will expose students to the work of professional architects in the region and also draw those architects to campus to interact with students.
These are the kinds of urban design projects that seem to excite Ellin the most—not the design of a specific space or structure, but the conception of a place that drives interactions, new connections, and fresh ideas. It can sometimes lead to projects that seem far afield from what we typically think of as the purview of architecture, urban planning, or public affairs. For example, a data-mapping project of Dallas’ existing and proposed public spaces that Ellin is heading up has evolved into a plan to involve high school students from throughout the city to script and stage an ensemble musical about their communities.
But there is something common at the core of all of it, CAPPA’s merging of academic disciplines, the work of the Institute of Urban Studies, the soliciting of high school students’ thoughts about the good and bad of living in Dallas. It is a belief that the secret to fulfilling UTA’s dream of driving the region toward a sustainable future resides in taking better stock of the past. It is about fostering a vision of a new school, new cities, and a new region whose success rests on charting a path forward that celebrates what has been gained and learned along the way. Celebrating the “tabula plena.”