New CAP Dean discusses CU Denver’s role as 'engaged citizen'

Ellin says CAP provides diversity of approaches, giving students a wide range of perspectives and tools

October 3, 2017
Nan Ellin
Nan Ellin, Dean of the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP).

Nan Ellin is the new Dean of the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) at CU Denver. Her scholarship and practice have co-created vital and vibrant places that celebrate and support life on every level. Ellin’s writings include the books Good UrbanismPostmodern Urbanism, Architecture of Fear and Integral Urbanism. Ellin spearheaded Canalscape for the Phoenix region, the 9 Line in Salt Lake City, and the Trinity Innovation District for North Texas. Dean Ellin holds a PhD from Columbia University in Planning with a concentration in Urban Design.

Ellin previously served as Founding Dean of the College of Architecture, Planning & Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Arlington; Chair of the Department of Planning at the University of Utah, Planning Program Director at ASU; and Director of the Urban & Metropolitan Studies Program at Arizona State University.

CU Denver Today sat down with Dean Ellin to discuss CAP’s integral place in a rapidly changing city.

Q: How has your vision for planning and education been transformed by the fact of having lived in different urban areas? What about Denver has struck you as really distinctive?

Nan Ellin: In Denver, there’s a deep understanding of building in harmony with nature, and I think it’s always been here. And the reason it’s always been here is that nobody thinks they can top that [she gestures to the Rockies]. And something I think that goes with that is a built-in humility. […] Also, this place was isolated for so long that people had to rely on each other; there wasn’t any point in being competitive. So there’s been this strong sense of community, collaboration and cooperation.

Q: How do you see CU Denver playing a role in ensuring that the city develops in a way that is greener and more just?

NE: “The university as ivory tower”; that was the old model. And the last two decades, in particular, we’ve seen the university much more as an engaged citizen. […] CU Denver has really embraced that. And of course, our tagline now is “CU in the City,” and not only are we located in the city, we are embedded in the city in terms of our research and our creative work. And we see that in CAP, and all the research that faculty are doing, as well as in our research centers. And this is taken into the classroom. Almost every single class is working on real projects and on assignments that are here in the city.

[In CAP] we’re very, very engaged. We have experts in housing affordability, a huge issue in Denver. We have experts in transportation, another huge issue. We have experts in “greenfrastructure,” which entails greening our urban infrastructure through water management while providing connective public space.

Q: In your work you emphasize “prospecting” and “gift-finding” as ways to recognize what you call “resources at hand.” What are some of the “gems” that you think CU Denver can offer the city, the state and the nation?

NE: Well, the assets that we hear again and again are that we’re urban, we’re public, we’re research. I think something else that people don’t always put on that list is that we’re really scrappy. You know, we just moved into these old office buildings; these aren’t built to suit; these aren’t university buildings. We just moved in! And we’re just getting to work! We don’t need the fancy buildings; we believe in the work. And so we just moved into the city and are getting things done.

I’m really interested in how we can make our work more impactful. I’m not throwing away the baby with the bathwater; I’m not throwing away the academic, peer-reviewed journal article; those are important too, we don’t want to lose those. But what if we translated those for a larger public that could then benefit from the expertise of our faculty? You shouldn’t have to be 50 years old before you can do that work. Here, we’re already engaged in public scholarship, and we want to do it even more.

Q: Your approach to “good urbanism” suggests we ought to begin with the outlook that places aren’t blank slates, but are in fact rich in assets and histories that need to be protected and enhanced. In your role as Dean, which programs would you like to protect and enhance, and what would you like to add?

NE: We’ve got so many assets here it’s incredible, both at the university and in CAP. For instance, our Design Build program is phenomenal. There’s been huge demand among students to be in the program, so it is very competitive, and now there’s demand to extend it into an undergraduate program. So that’s one we definitely want to enhance.

We’re pleased about the Chancellor’s big new add coming up, City Center. We’re going to be integrally involved with that.

One thing I did launch is the “Professional Development Program,” because I learned quickly that CU Denver students are very professionally-oriented, and prospective students want to know that we have these opportunities for them to become engaged, and prepare themselves for their professions. […]

Four people are leading this effort, and it consists of: internships, mentorships, portfolio review, firm visits, shadowing in firms, and sponsored studios. And now when I meet professionals and they say, “How can we get involved?” I say, “Well, would you like to host a firm visit? Or have some interns?” And they all say, “Yes, that would be great!”

Q: Is there something that brings all of CAP’s disparate programs and partnerships together?

NE: One is what I alluded to earlier, which is a respect for place; not coming in already with an idea, but really saying, “What are the gifts in this place?” And I saw that here, and that was part of what I was attracted to when I was working with [CU Denver faculty and students] on [the Phoenix] Canalscape, years ago.

I had a freshman tell me at the orientation, “I have a strong social consciousness, and I want to make a positive difference in people’s lives; I came here because it seemed people care about that.” I ran into him in the elevator a few days ago and I said, “So what have you found—is it accurate, what you thought?” He said, “Definitely; people here care about making the world a better place.” And I was so heartened to hear that.

I think another thing that really distinguishes [CAP] is that we equip our students with a variety of approaches. Some schools are really focused on the avant-garde, and we have that here; students will learn about that, but they’re also going to get a very humanist and social science approach, they’re also going to get a landscape and ecological approach, they’re also going to get a scientific and engineering approach, and they’re also going to get a historicist approach. I’ve never seen this anywhere before. Here, there’s respect for a diversity of approaches, and for inclusion, providing our students a wide range of perspectives and tools from which they can craft their own unique and innovative ways to practice architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning.