Cristina Ungureanu of WXY Studio
by Cristina Ungureanu
May 4, 2018
This interview with Cristina Ungureanu, an AICP Associate at WXY, was conducted and condensed by frank news. W X Y is an award-winning multi-disciplinary practice specializing in the realization of urban design, planning and architectural solutions in challenging contexts.
I always like to start by saying where I'm from because I think it shaped why I got into urban planning and why I care about urbanism and design. I was born in Bucharest, under Ceaușescu, the communist dictator at the time. My parents and I wanted to emigrate while he was still in power but we couldn’t get out. My father left first and moved to Ridgewood, New York in 1992 . He laughs when I tell him how much Ridgewood costs now. We all moved to Vancouver in 1994. I went from living in Bucharest, which is a huge city and extremely metropolitan, subway systems, trolley car systems, beautiful brutalist modernist buildings — to Vancouver, a Pan-Asian growing power in the global economy. I saw towers going up around me. I lived in very dense and diverse environments there as well. I then lived in the Bay Area for high school and college. Again, a huge region, and very influential in how I thought about placemaking and good urban environments.
I studied urban design and planning at MIT. I worked in New Orleans for 4 years which was extremely formative for me. I was there right after the BP oil spill and did some recovery work in the coastal parishes, which was my first introduction to Louisiana.
It taught me to value landscape and the importance of economies as they interrelate with landscapes and remake them as well as destroy them. I did a lot interviewing of stakeholders affected by the spill over the course of 4 months. Crab-men, fishermen, people that ran oil rigs. A lot of politicians in Louisiana that were responsible for getting Louisiana back on its feet.
I fell in love with New Orleans and Louisiana and decided to stay and work there. I had an amazing mentor – Allen Eskew – who really took me under his wing. He passed away when I was living and working there. He was incredible. He was the architect of the World's Fair in New Orleans in 1984. He was a true collaborator. He formed great partnerships with the mayor, council members, and community groups, and I’d say he was crucial to reconceiving the New Orleans riverfront as a public asset. One of his last and biggest goals was to get people to the waterfront. And his vision is slowly coming to fruition, which is really exciting.
What are the fundamental differences between planners, architects, and designers?
That’s a fantastic question.
Planners have an onus and responsibility, in my opinion, to position themselves wisely within a design environment.
Design thinking cannot be stressed enough. Everyone can do design thinking. Scientists do it. Writers do it. Design thinking is a problem solving methodology. A way to identify the right questions, ask questions at different scales, and tap into solutions that create new paradigms. Every planner I know comes from a weird, wonky background. They didn't all go to urban planning undergrad, and none of them knew that they wanted to be a planner growing up.
I’ve always tried to position my research, analytical, and writing skills within a collaborative environment. Take those skills and use them to leverage a design question and design solution. With planners on a team, you create a transdisciplinary framework and set of solutions. When I use the word transdisciplinary, it is the engineer becoming the planner, the architect becoming the social scientist, the planner becoming the artist, and those roles shifting to such a degree between those people that you’re essentially creating a new field. Basically creating a new discipline.
I’ve been really fortunate because I’ve never felt like an outsider as a planner. I think a lot of that comes from being taught in a way that made planners feel important, and being raised in a way where being a woman was important, and being a leader was important. My parents raised me to think that way, and then my professors raised me to think planners are integral to a team. Not everyone thinks that way. That’s not everyone's experience.
How do you relate planning to activism and government?
I think the reason WXY gets hired to do the work that we do is because we’re able to navigate these channels of stakeholders that don’t agree with each other. Red tape, governments that are trying to find financing to actually make projects happen, but don’t know how to express those projects to people. I don’t think it’s a divide necessarily, but I do think it's a particular type of skill set that planners have, that architects don’t. Where they’re able to advocate for the project. Advocacy on one end is advocating for the project in and of itself.
I do think you’re right about advocacy and planners. I think it’s an astute observation that planners do think about issues of equity, and distribution of wealth, and health disparities, and all of these environmental and societal issues. And they have these tools to address them that are extremely analytical and advocacy based.
I have to say, though, that architecture has deep roots in social engineering and creating a social impact through remaking cities. The most famous architects all had a social platform that they were trying to fulfill with their work. They had an idea of what they thought cities should be, and how they thought people should interact with each other. And they wanted to make spaces where they influenced society to act accordingly. Architects still do that to this day. The best ones and the worst ones.
Think about the Panopticon. It’s an idea of watching over people, them not being able to see you, and exercising control through that physical environment. There is a sense of ownership and control that architects want over their environments.
Tell us about the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, the project you managed at WXY in 2016-2017.
WXY was involved with the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan as technical advisors on two fronts. We helped set up a community engagement framework that was as broad-based and ground-up as possible, facilitating dozens of workshops, working group meetings and stakeholder sessions. We also tapped into our zoning, urban design and planning expertise to help constituents visualize trade-offs, and make some informed decisions about the future of their neighborhood.
Part of the impetus for the Plan was the Mayor’s affordable housing agenda, which had a goal at the time of creating and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing.
The Mayor’s mechanism of creating affordable housing is through adding density to neighborhoods. One way you add density to neighborhoods is to rezone them, giving them a different land use and density designation so developers can build higher. The way the housing plan ensures affordable units will be built is via Mandatory Inclusionary Housing. This means that if a piece of land is rezoned, a developer is required by law to build 25-30% of those units at certain affordability levels.
The difficulty is that the other 70-75% of housing that comes in is market rate. It will often be for people who have never lived in that neighborhood before, who are much better off. They are going to change that community in lots of ways: their kids will likely go to different schools, they’ll go to different grocery stores, they’ll seek out different amenities. They are going demand resources that people living in those affordable units will not be able to tap into.
Local residents going through these rezoning processes are justifiably concerned. How do they advocate for resources without losing the culture, history, and assets they already have? A lot of stakeholders in the East Harlem planning process were inclined to say “no” to a rezoning from the get-go.
WXY framed that choice – of saying “yes” or “no” – as a trade-off. If you do nothing, you are going to continue to lose affordable units, and you will not be tapping into this thing that will bring millions of dollars of resources into your neighborhood. For me, what keeps me up at night, is that this can feel like a Faustian bargain. The other day I was talking to someone who said, "I would take the word Faustian out of it", because people have to make hard choices every day. Whether or not that’s the case, a good planner needs to be well-equipped to lay out those choices factually and rigorously.
How many neighborhoods are being rezoned in New York, and how do you compensate for such a large density increase in these neighborhoods? When does it start having a huge impact on environment, human interaction, and quality of life?
People are continuing to move here, have children, and grow their families here, and there is not enough housing to support them. So there is this question of fair share: every neighborhood that can stand to get denser needs to in order to accommodate this growth.
But this needs to be complemented by supporting complete neighborhoods. This is where planners are integral, because we think about how an interrelated set of systems can accommodate and manage this growth – transportation, open space, hospitals, community centers, schools. This is how planners think when they consider density in growing cities.
What is a day in the life of a planner and what are the most important skills to have?
I can speak from the perspective of working in the private sector, and having a mix of private, nonprofit and city agency clients. Every day is pretty different. Client interaction is a big part of my day. I spend a lot of time in meetings, taking calls and writing thoughtful emails. I spend a lot of time with my team, setting goals, identifying how we communicate a design proposal, making sure we are on time and on budget, and being responsive to client needs. I spend lots of time mentoring and teaching. I work with several interns and I love spending time with them teaching them a new tool, or a new way to think through a problem.
Another one of my favorite things is going out to sites and seeing the work that is needed on them. As a planner, it’s harder to chase that high of seeing your idea get built. This is actually something fundamentally different between architecture and planning. As a planner, I go into a space to see the opportunities and challenges, and identify the latent capacity of landscape to take on more than it is currently taking, and to produce something better for society.
Right now, I’m working on this project in Broadway Junction. Our client has asked us to think about how we densify this amazing space because it has such rich transit capacity, but lacks the land use patterns or population around it to fully take advantage of it. How do you think about bringing office space, affordable housing, institutions like colleges and universities, to this new space? We are literally looking at underutilized space and thinking about how you transform it. So that part of the process is really exciting to me.
Is there anything you feel you would want to say to someone who has never heard of urban planning or who walks through a city everyday (or does not) and does not think about?
I think there is a huge emergence of people who think about urban planning but may not even know it. Take any walking tour of New York – there's nothing like experiencing or sensing a city through storytelling and narrative. Planning really is for people. Say you’re a bicyclist and you don't have a bike lane to get from point A to point B. You start questioning why that’s not the case, and maybe you go to your community board meeting, or a public meeting, and you learn about the power structures that create those opportunities to make you feel safer and happier in your environment. As the world is tapping more into that information and learning about those power structures and dynamics, they are learning more about planning.
I think it is about asking a bunch of questions and finding resources to help explain why your city works the way it does.
Through that, people start to learn about histories of cities, how they come together, and they get a peek into planning and what urban planners do.