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David McKinney/University Relations

Daniel Serda, director of the Kansas City Design Center, leads a discussion with a class. Architecture students from KU and Kansas State University study there.

Years at current job: Six.

Job duties: As director, I serve as an ambassador for the School of Architecture and Urban Planning in Kansas City. My duties include management and oversight of our downtown studio facility, building working relationships with civic organizations and interested professionals, and providing technical outreach and assistance to community groups and public agencies. I also teach in the graduate program in urban planning on the Lawrence campus.

What do students learn from working in the Kansas City Design Center that they might not otherwise get? The KCDC hosts a resident urban design studio in Kansas City for fifth-year architectural students from KU and Kansas State. The studio offers an amazing opportunity for students to collaborate with public officials, civic leaders and community members in devising solutions to real-world physical planning and development problems. They also gain exposure to the political, social and cultural complexities of an urban environment -- Kansas City serves as our living laboratory. In the same respect, the KCDC offers the community direct access to the knowledge resources of the academic and professional worlds of urban design, planning and architecture.

How closely have the students at the center followed the downtown revitalization in Kansas City, and how have they applied that to their KU education? Our students are immediately drawn to the vitality and energy that is growing in Kansas City's urban core. Our new studio facility is located in the heart of downtown, within a few blocks of the new Sprint Center arena and only a few minutes from the River Market and Crossroads art districts. Several students live in the urban core, and it serves as the daily backdrop and inspiration for their studies. Students are working in teams with actual community clients -- such as the city planning department, the Port Authority and the parks department -- on planning open space, promoting innovative architecture as part of the city's redevelopment, exploring the potential for light rail and other forms of expanded public transit, and devising "green" strategies to reduce the local impacts of global warming.

The Kansas City Design Center also sponsors public education programs. What topics do these efforts cover and who are they intended for? From 2002 to 2006, we hosted nearly two dozen public lectures focusing on excellence in urban design and city planning. These programs brought nationally recognized experts before an audience of residents, public officials and civic leaders. In the past two years, we've limited our public programming activities in order to focus on providing direct technical assistance and revamping the academic studio experience in Kansas City.

In the past year, my appointment has provided the opportunity to work with public agencies on projects such as light rail transit and the design of the new I-29/I-35 bridge over the Missouri River. As the studio becomes established, I'm hopeful we will again offer lectures, and perhaps continuing education courses, on urban design for the interested public.

Your research looks at the balance between physical rejuvenations of urban areas and the political execution of this type of revival. What are some examples of cities that have struck this balance successfully? In academic and professional circles, the most studied urban centers are usually the obvious ones -- New York City has, of course, served as the bellwether for urban revitalization since the early 1990s. While it's obviously a unique and exceptional case, one can very easily trace direct links between public policy decisions and processes of urban change -- such as Mayor Guiliani's crackdown on adult business, private support for family-oriented entertainment and the revitalization of Times Square. Vancouver is renowned for having developed progressive urban design policies that helped create a vital and thriving urban center. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley has demonstrated the importance of public leadership in creating distinctive and memorable places -- like Millennium Park -- that become the touchstone of that city's urban experience.

The thrust of my research is the idea that cities are always a work in progress. As such, policies that are informed by leading thinking from the professional and academic worlds of urban design and planning can have profound influence on how a city changes. Well-designed cities are exceptional places for people to live, work, raise a family and come together socially and culturally. They don't happen by accident.

What do you enjoy most about your profession? I find great inspiration and fulfillment in the opportunity to be engaged in the processes of change -- helping to guide public and private decisions that offer hope and opportunity for people and places.

What are some aspects of your job others might not realize you're involved with? I'm not sure whether my colleagues recognize the importance of my academic credentials to building working relationships with community partners. People seek out the KCDC because we can offer unbiased, objective access to the intellectual capital of the academy. Every week, I field practical questions from people throughout Kansas City -- and sometimes, other parts of the country -- who are seeking innovative solutions to the challenges of urban growth and development. This requires me to stay abreast of current scholarly debates, as well as best practices from the profession. My applied research also offers object lessons that I actively apply in my teaching and research.

You were educated in Massachusetts and have been in the Kansas/Kansas City area for several years. Is there a noticeably different approach to urban planning projects and the involved politics in distant, seemingly different locations such as these? Friends and family used to ask me whether I preferred Kansas City to Boston -- a comparison between apples and oranges, in my mind. The physical and social character of every city is always different, and that's especially true with Boston vs. Kansas City. One thing that always struck me about Boston, however, is the level of public activism and engagement around urban design and planning issues. I've often joked that the average taxi driver can offer an astute opinion of the latest development proposal in Boston (to which colleagues retort that Boston has an unusually large contingent of post-docs moonlighting as cabbies).

All kidding aside, there is a profound difference in the level of grassroots activism around questions surrounding the future physical development of each city. My research suggests that these differences are attributable to the mediating role of public institutions -- including not only government, but also the press and universities -- in facilitating public discourse around these questions. I use this insight as inspiration for the work we're trying to accomplish through the center.

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