Q&A Nan Ellin: New UT Arlington dean to integrate architecture, urban and public affairs schools

Robert Francis rfrancis@bizpress.net

When professor Nan Ellin joins the University of Texas at Arlington on Jan 5, she will take on the job of founding dean of a new college being formed through the integration of the existing School of Architecture and School of Urban and Public Affairs. Currently professor and chairman of the University of Utah Department of City and Metropolitan Planning, Ellin’s move to Texas will continue a career has kept her involved in a variety of disciplines.

In Utah, she has been credited with overseeing a highly successful accreditation review, raising the stature of the planning department, building strong community partnerships and helping increase student diversity, according to UT Arlington officials. Previously Ellin held a series of leadership roles at Arizona State University, where she directed programs in planning, urban and metropolitan studies and a doctoral program in architecture and environmental design. She held ASU faculty positions in planning and urban design and in the School of Sustainability, the School of Public Affairs and the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. She and her students have not been afraid to venture out of the classroom.

In Utah, they worked with residents, community organizations and city officials on The 9 Line project, an effort to convert a neglectedrailroad corridor into an urban amenity and trail system. In Arizona, Ellin shaped the vision for Canalscape, an ongoing initiative to create vital urban hubs throughout the Phoenix metropolitan region where canals meet major streets. She has written numerous books and articles including Good Urbanism: Six Steps to Creating Prosperous Places, Integral Urbanism, and Postmodern Urbanism. At UT Arlington, her first priority will be to integrate the School of Architecture and the School of Urban and Public Affairs into a new college that will, according to university officials, “extend the reputation, impact and influence of the university in areas related to design, architecture, urban planning and public affairs.

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“Dr. Ellin’s depth and breadth of experience that bridges the disciplines of architecture, planning and urban and public affairs will help position UT Arlington as the center for excellence in all aspects of sustainable urban development,” university President Vistasp Karbhari said in announcing her appointment in November. “Her impressive background of civic and community involvement will be a valuable asset not just to the new college but to our entire region as we address the challenges and opportunities of the Metroplex becoming a megacity.”

Ellin, 55, earned her undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and her graduate degrees from Columbia University in New York, including master’s degrees in both anthropology and urban planning and a doctorate in urban planning with a concentration in urban design. She also was a Fulbright Scholar who studied in France and is fluent in French and Spanish. Ellin also has served on the faculty at New York University, the University of Southern California, the Southern California Institute of Architecture and the University of Cincinnati. The integration of the School of Architecture and the School of Urban and Public Affairs emerged as a strategy in the university’s Strategic Plan 2020 study, which identified goals for the university. Part of that plan was the merger of the two schools. The idea of merging the two schools has been viewed with skepticism among some area architects. Fort Worth architect Joe Self of Firm 817 said he likes the idea of more collaboration between the architecture school and other disciplines, but he is concerned about the School of Architecture losing its standalone autonomy. Self earned his undergraduate architecture degree from UT Arlington and has also taught as an adjunct professor there.

“There’s no question having interaction with other disciplines is a good thing, but at the same time I’d hate for the profile of the School [of Architecture] to suffer by being subsumed by another department,” he said. Ralph Hawkins, chairman of the architecture firm HKS and a UT Arlington architecture alumnus, served on the dean’s selection committee. He said the merging of the two schools will raise the profile of the university. “Dr. Ellin brings a unique experience in both planning and architecture to lead these disciplines to national prominence for UT Arlington and ultimately for our communities,” he said.

Fort Worth Business Press Editor Robert Francis conducted an email interview with Ellin.

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Tell us about yourself and how you became interested in design and architecture? I’ve always been fascinated with how our buildings and cities can elevate life experiences or, conversely, degrade them. During my junior year abroad in Madrid and Aix-en-Provence, this fascination grew deeper and I became committed to enhancing the health, vitality and beauty of the places we live.

What attracted you to UT Arlington and the combined architecture/urban and public affairs schools? I have been in a School of Architecture for 11 years, Planning for eight years, and Public Affairs for seven years, but never in a college that combines all three. The potential for synergies are tremendous, both within the college as well as across campus and beyond. As we begin to realize these possibilities, new partnerships can be forged that extend UTA’s reach and influence, while providing wonderful learning experiences for our students.

What are your goals for the new college? The new college will offer students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the larger community greater opportunities to generate knowledge and creative work that truly contribute to improving the world, and especially our own backyard. The scale of the D-FW Metroplex and its projected population growth over the next few decades demand large-scale integrated solutions, and the new college at UTA is the perfect place to refine, teach, practice, and showcase such an approach. The suite of programs along with the opportune location between Fort Worth and Dallas make this college absolutely poised to be at the forefront of metropolitan planning, policy and design.

What do the combined schools offer that separate schools do not? The complement of programs can provide mutual support, allowing each to realize their goals more effectively. It will be easier for students to learn the value of their allied professions – and how to work with them – during college instead of waiting until after they graduate.

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How will the curriculum change? The merger of the School of Architecture with the School of Urban and Public Affairs will not affect the curriculum, though it may facilitate the pursuing of multiple degrees and certificates.

You’ve written a book titled Good Urbanism: Six Steps to Creating Prosperous Places. We’re a business newspaper, so I have to ask, how do we create prosperous places? In the book, I describe a path toward prosperity, which is measured in terms of health and well-being, not in terms of profits. We create prosperous places by leveraging existing assets including natural landscapes, history, culture, buildings, neighborhoods, businesses, cultural institutions, schools, and the talents, ideas and skills of community members. Can you give some examples of what you consider good urbanism? Good urbanism protects what is valued and enhances what may be underperforming, inviting a range of stakeholders to participate in the planning and design process. Some examples around the U.S. include the High Line in [New York City], Canalscape in Phoenix, Open Space Seattle 2100 and the BishopArts District in Dallas.