An aerial image of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, a large flood-control structure outside New Orleans that was the subject of a thesis by Travis Bost, M.Des.S. ’12


Typically, cities face the challenge of squeezing more green space into their existing urban landscape. But what if you could plan out a city starting with open spaces, and add roads and buildings later?

That’s just one of the driving ideas behind the urbanism, landscape, and ecology (ULE) concentration at the Graduate School of Design (GSD). Started two years ago by GSD dean Mohsen Mostafavi, Irving professor of landscape architecture Charles Waldheim, and associate professor of landscape architecture Pierre Bélanger, the two-year program invites students to think of urban planning from the outset in terms of water use, energy use, alternative energy sources, waste streams, biodiversity, and green space.

“Let’s look at the city as an ecological or biological system,” says Waldheim. “For urban design, the ideal model of the sustainable city has been Manhattan. And in terms of its urban form and energy usage or transit per capita, that model does very well. But as a model of the city it does not incorporate the external energy, and food, and water, and other biological and ecological systems to sustain life.”

The challenge ULE students face is to re-envision cities that can bustle as well as Manhattan but are environmentally sustainable at the same time.

“The program moves beyond the conventions of urban design, regional planning, and civil engineering that have typically limited urban studies to the study of the city,” says Bélanger. “It is the only postgraduate research program in the world designed for architects that explores and investigates the complex ecologies of urbanization.”

Waldheim says the track—which is within the traditional master in design studies (M.Des.S.) program—grew from an emerging interest in the subject, primarily among a cross-disciplinary group of landscape architects, designers, and planners eager to study the city from a landscape and ecological point of view. Unlike other programs at the GSD and most other schools of architecture, the ULE concentration is primarily research-based, rather than design-based. Echoing Bélanger, Waldheim adds, “There were very few research-based programs available in the world…for people who wanted to study the city from the point of view of sustainability.”

Candidates design their own course of study, choosing among classes offered by the GSD, other Harvard schools, and MIT. They then pair with GSD professors in designing research projects; recent examples include examining urbanization in the Great Lakes’ drainage basin, exploring geography and ecology on the border of North Korea, and investigating the challenges of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

For program graduate Dongsei Kim, M.Des.S. ’12, the Korean Demilitarized Zone was fascinating because it’s been uninhabited by humans for decades, fostering incredible biodiversity in flora and fauna. His thesis, which featured a cartographic timeline of the zone, received a National Map Award from the National Geographic Society and the Howard T. Fisher Prize from Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis.

Kim, who will begin teaching urban design at Columbia this fall, was one of 12 students in the program’s first graduating class. Other graduates are taking full-time tenure-track teaching positions, continuing with doctoral programs, or returning to the professional world to put their new perspective on ecological urban design to use—“precisely the kinds of outcomes,” Waldheim says, that the program fosters.


Makoko is a slum neighborhood located in Lagos, Nigeria.

At present its population is considered to be 85,840; however, the area was not officially counted as part of the 2007 census and the population today is considered to be much higher. Established in the 18th century primarily as a fishing village, much of Makoko rests in structures constructed on stilts above Lagos Lagoon. Today the area is essentially self-governing with a very limited government presence in the community and local security being provided by area boys. In July 2012, Nigerian government officials destroyed dozens of residences after giving residents 72 hours notice of eviction. One resident was killed in the action. Lagos may continue the destruction of this historic community in order to redevelop what is now seen as prime waterfront. (source: wikipedia)

Nigeria boasts of more than 250 tribes, 521 languages and a population of 158 million people – all living in an area twice the size of California. Combine this social complexity with environmental abuse and human rights offenses, and you’re bound to hit some hurdles when launching a social justice media campaign within the country. This was the case with Nigerian NGO “SERAC” (Social Economic Rights Action Center).

After many attempts and four different producers, SERAC’s story would spend a year in an editing bay waiting for somebody to solidify the organization’s message.

Burgeon Media Principals stepped in to salvage the project. What followed were four short advocacy videos and a short documentary that were crafted into powerful tools for SERAC’s effort to uphold social justice in Nigeria. The videos have since been used to influence the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights, the Lagos Government, and Nigerian Federal Government to respect the social and economic rights of Nigerians.

Shot for NMAP- Benjamin Wu/Leigh Lacobucci
Produced/Edited for NMAP – DnA @ Burgeon Media

7885764488_aa7ac156cd_o Nigeria Floating Slum Makoko_1-960x550 Capture d’écran 2013-10-18 à 00.20.18 Capture d’écran 2013-10-18 à 00.20.39 Capture d’écran 2013-10-18 à 00.21.12 Capture d’écran 2013-10-18 à 00.22.43 Capture d’écran 2013-10-18 à 00.25.32 iwaan_baan01 iwan_baan02(photo credits: Iwan Baan, Yann Arthus Bertrand)