‘Second City’ First in Environmental Design

Hundreds of urban innovators came together at the Palmer House Hilton last weekend for Chicago’s annual Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference.

The EDRA conference was already in full swing when I arrived Thursday afternoon. Dozens of design professionals stood near the entrance of the Palmer House, laughing and talking about industry issues. Many more sat in the lobby, flipping through the various leaflets, pamphlets and scheduling booklets they’d been given—struggling to decide which presentation to visit next.

And what a struggle it was! There were no less than 47 group presentation sessions at the conference this year. There were also 23 symposium sessions, nine intensive sessions, two plenary sessions, several awards receptions, and one formal banquet—to top it all off.

Armed only with an EDRA scheduling book and a makeshift map of the hotel, I attempted to find my way, somewhat successfully, from session to session.

I wandered first into a presentation entitled “The Residential Experience of Rural Immigrants,” by Yushu Zhu. A native of China, Zhu was able to provide a firsthand account of life in a rural Chinese community. Her perspective was refreshing, and I enjoyed listening to her take on the rural immigrant experience.

Next, I made my way over to another floor of the hotel, where I caught two presentations about community gardens. One, by Rutgers professor Seiko Goto, was entitled “The Effects of Garden Design on Quality of Life.” The other, by PhD candidate Melissa Surratt, was entitled “Approaching the Community Garden: How Physical Characteristics Effect Impression.” Both presenters were well-spoken and well-researched. Both also seemed to stress the importance of aesthetics in urban planning.

Later in the afternoon, I ventured into a wing of the hotel that had been made into an impromptu poster display center. Titles like “Aesthetic Evaluations of Public Transport Shelters” and “Ethnography as a Design Tool: Reconsidering the Berkeley Lawn Bowling Club” caught my eye, but the posters were all engaging, and I learned a considerable amount about urban planning while reading them.

After studying a few dozen posters, however, I was a little fatigued. So I took a minute to drain a cup of coffee and devour a sugar cookie before I ventured into the last presentation I would attend that day, a symposium lecture entitled “Environmental Design Research: Bodies, Cities, and the Buildings in Between.” The symposium lecture was led by two professors: Professor Eleftherios Pavlides, of Roger Williams University; and Galen Cranz, of U.C. Berkeley. Pavlides and Cranz spoke to those assembled around them about the importance of environmentalism in design education.

Pavlides and Cranz wrapped up their presentation around 6:30 pm, and when I left them to make my way back home, I was exhausted but still engaged. I had learned more about environmental design and city planning in six hours than I would have thought possible. I was tired, yes. But I had also enjoyed every minute of my EDRA experience, and I would love to go back again.

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