David Brain, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and environmental studies in New College’s Urban Studies Program
David Brain, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and environmental studies in New College’s Urban Studies Program

By Marty Fugate

Most of us live in cities. Few of us actually think about them. David Brain, Ph.D. does, and he has spent a lifetime doing so. Brain is a speaker, an author, and a professor of sociology and environmental studies in New College’s Urban Studies Program. Inside and outside the classroom, Brain explores the sociological issues related to the planning and design of good neighborhoods, humane cities and sustainable development. The web of our built environment is intricate and complicated. Brain ties it all together with one simple principle: the power of human choice (it’s the theme of his upcoming book, The Intentional City).

Your scholarship bridges the gap between sociology and urban studies. That’s fairly uncommon in academia. What led you to connect the dots?

My original background was in architecture. As a sociologist, my research and work has always focused on human issues related to the built environment—particularly the relationship between professions like architecture and urban planning and the general public. To me, that connection is extremely vital.

How do you explore that connection in your “Urban Sociology” course at New College?

I focus on sociological research on a wide range of urban issues, including urban inequality, the politics of the city, and the unintended consequences of our haphazard decision-making process. It’s a fragmented process, but it’s still a form of design.

What is the most important lesson?

The fact that the built environment doesn’t just pop out of the ground. The shape and character of human cities flows from human decisions. That means that we can consciously and intentionally reshape the urban environments to better serve human needs. We can choose to make our cities more livable, sustainable and ecologically responsible. That’s the big lesson.

Does the lesson apply to city dwellers, city planners or sociologists who study cities?

All of the above. Most of us adjust our living spaces to meet our needs—and assume that it’s impossible on an urban scale. Why? If you can redesign your home or apartment, why not your city? City planners are often blinkered to the big picture. Say a traffic engineer designs an intersection with a big curb radius to allow for safe high-speed turns. That has a major impact on pedestrians and the interactions with a vehicle environment. But they typically have not thought about it.

It’s not the job. “Design curb cut A for intersection B.” That’s the limit of their thinking.

Exactly. Social scientists also tend to narrowly focus on the city’s institutional processes. They often fail to grasp why the built environment comes to be the way it is and never dream of changing it. Citizens, planners, scientists—with rare exceptions, they share the same faulty assumption about the built environment.

What is the assumption?

That a city just happens as a result of objective, unintentional processes—like the weather. And there’s nothing you can do about it. My twist is to focus on the human consequences of urban form and planning decisions as decisions, and say there is something you can do about it. That’s my other big lesson.

OK, so what can ordinary citizens do? Changing a city sounds like turning a battleship around. How do you do it?

There are strategic points where grassroots intervention can make a real change in our cities. In practical terms, it has to do with organizing and creating a capacity for urban placemaking as a form of collective action. That’s not something you can do on your own or impose in a top-down fashion. This kind of action only works as a democratic process, which is why the charrette (a collaborative design-centered process) is so important.

I know that your thinking is informed by the New Urbanism movement. What originally drew you to it?

I have to give credit to a New College student. In my early years of teaching here, I was researching those big, planned, gated communities in Florida suburbs. One of my students actually said, “Oh, if you’re interested in planned communities, you should check out Seaside.” I did, and that led me to New Urbanism as a movement. I became fascinated by the very idea of making urbanism an intentional project, not a detached field of objective study.

How would you define New Urbanism’s basic principles?

That’s hard to do quickly, but I’d say it revolves around recovering the empirical lessons learned over 5,000 years of town building. In practical terms, I define that as the three Cs. A city designed for humans should be compact, connected and complete. Ideally, you have a mixed-use area where you can basically get to most of your daily needs with a five or 10-minute walk.

That sounds idyllic.

It can be, but there’s always a tradeoff. André Duany, one of the original New Urbanist planners, likes to say, “In order to make a townhouse work, you need to have a town.” So, you can have an active street and cool stuff you can walk to, but you can’t necessarily have a big lawn at the same time. That’s the tradeoff.

Let’s say a New College student pursues an area of concentration in urban design. What does that educational path look like after graduation?

New College is very good at getting our students into graduate programs; our students typically thrive at that level. The demands of first-year grad school don’t come as a shock to them; they’re comparable to what they’re used to here. That’s true for all New College graduates, and our urban studies graduates are no exception. In addition, our students come out of that program with practical knowledge, and they easily transition first to a master’s program in urban design and regional planning and then into practice. Over the years, a lot of my students have done that, and they are now professional planners. But many urban studies students also pursue graduate studies in related fields. So, a student who’s interested in political science might be drawn to post-graduate work in public administration. Or an urban studies student might go right to an entry job in planning right out of New College.

What is a graduate’s first step on an urban design career path?

That’s often an internship with a planning department in the public sector. A student with an urban studies area of concentration could also get a job with a nonprofit organization like Realize Bradenton. They’ve hired many of my students as interns over the years. There’s an easy track into the nonprofit, community development kind of world, and community and regional planning as well.

How about job possibilities in the private sector?

I’ve had some luck placing students with private sector planning firms. That’s a little more challenging. It depends on the firm’s capacity to take on the teaching role of that kind of internship. But our graduates can find a range of opportunities right out of the gate.

I understand that New College recently partnered with other institutions to create a curated database of research on public space. You and several of your students participated. What was it like for those students?

Yes, we’ve partnered with KTH in Stockholm, the CUNY Graduate Center and the University of Cincinnati. It was a wonderful learning experience in two ways. Our student research assistants contributed to building the database. Now that the TerraPublica.org site is up and running, they’ll continue plugging in research and also use the database itself.

OK, let’s assume your students go on to brilliant futures in fields like architecture and city planning. Do you think they can make a difference?

Absolutely. I’ve known many people who’ve made a profound impact on cities across the country. That includes high-profile designers and planners like Andrés Duany, Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule (Moule & Polyzoides developed our campus master plan in 2005 and designed ACE). I’ve had the opportunity to work with many of them. But I’ve also worked with the younger generation of designers like Victor Dover and Joe Kohl, as well as with emerging new communities. Thanks to these collaborations, I’ve been able to witness a lot of innovative new work with the goal of building more livable, equitable and ecologically responsible cities. Things have been changing rapidly, and some of the old career patterns are no longer as possible, but there are still a lot of significant opportunities to have an impact.

For more information on Brain’s work, visit ncf.edu/directory/listing/david-brain.

For more information on New College’s Urban Studies Program, visit ncf.edu/academics/undergraduate-program/interdisciplinary-programs/urban-studies.

Marty Fugate is a contributing writer for the Office of Communications & Marketing.

Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is a top-ranked public liberal arts college and the state’s Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in arts, humanities and sciences, a master’s degree program in applied data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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