On May 16, Phil Enquist, partner in charge of urban design and planning for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, addressed the graduates of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Enquist is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council.

PennDesign Commencement Address

By Philip Enquist

Thank you to Dean Taylor and all at PennDesign

Good afternoon and congratulations to all of you, the PennDesign graduating class of 2011.

Congratulations as well to all of your parents, families, and friends. And to the faculty and staff who helped and guided you to this moment of achieving this great honor and accomplishment.

You are a remarkable class.

You reflect degrees in many fields of design.

You represent 18 countries in this world.

You are almost equal in the number of women to the number of men.

Your average age is almost 28.

You are a diverse, international, and mature class.

You are “perfect” for the challenges that will confront you in the design professions.

You represent many of the qualities required to address the complex, challenging issues of today: rapid growth in Asia and Africa, decreasing populations in cities in the developed world, poverty, climate change, and many others.

As designers, you are problem solvers, you are innovative thinkers, and you are dreamers. You are entering your professional careers at a remarkable time, and that is why I am saying you are “perfect.” The design community is needed at the table to address and identify global strategies and solutions. So get ready! Embrace the challenges! And enjoy it.

The World of Tomorrow

Ian McHarg said, “The most important issue of the 21st century will be the condition of the global environment.”

By the time you will see the end of your careers, 50 years from now, you will have seen the world population grow by another 3 billion people. And of this total of 10 billion, estimates are that 70 percent will be residing in cities. So you see, design matters, environmental stewardship matters, better cities and healthier regions matter. You and your talents will be called upon to help the world find a better way.

Even though we understand nature to be highly resilient, how does a world support 10 billion people?

As Bruce Mau said in his book Massive Change, “It is not about the world of design … it is about the design of the world.”

A lot is riding on cities and urban regions.

Today, China is estimating 400 million people migrating into their cities.

India is estimating 200 million people will be migrating into cities.

Cities are where 75 percent of carbon emissions originate, where most of our waste originates, where most of our energy is used.

Cities are also one of the best bets for solving many of the environmental dilemmas facing our world. Copenhagen is a great example of a city phasing out of its dependence on fossil fuel and relying more and more on renewable energy.

Cities need to be:

  • Economic engines
  • Intellectual capital centers
  • Centers for innovative thought
  • Attractive places for young professionals to live and work

Emerging Megaregions

Today we are seeing the emergence of many “megaregions” in the world:

  • Gangetic Plain, 250 million people stretching from Pakistan across India to Bangledesh
  • The Bohai Rim, following the east coast of northern China supporting 200 million people
  • The Yangtze River Valley, stretching from Shanghai to Chongqing also supporting 200 million people
  • The European Core, stretching from the United Kingdom to northern Italy supporting 100 million people
  • The Great Lakes Region, from Minneapolis across Canada and the U.S. to the St. Lawrence River, supporting 60 million people

These international megaregions seem big but actually cover a tiny fraction of the world’s habitable surface while accounting for over 60 percent of all economic activity and about 85 percent of all technological and scientific innovation. So you see how cities and urban regions are important intellectual centers, places where great dreams, your dreams will be realized.

But today, at this scale, there is no master plan involved here. There is no global transportation plan, no global energy plan, no global plan on how to protect, nurture and expand on our natural resources.

Big picture design is absent … and is needed.

The design community is also mostly absent from the discussion … and is needed.

And I believe in the future, the design community will not only enter into this dialog but will lead it.

Remarkable People

I want to give you a few examples from my recent professional experiences of creative people, designers and innovators who are realizing their dreams and influencing the communities in which they work.

Jaume Plensa, a remarkable sculptor from Barcelona chose to propose a collection of sculptures that focused on the need for hope, optimism, and empowerment of the women living in the challenging community of East St Louis. He went across the river and developed ECHO, raising the quality of life on the poorer side. He believed that his art can make a difference in this community.

Stacey McMahan, a young architect I just recently met, working with Architecture for Humanity, is in Haiti helping to rebuild this country after the earthquake, focusing on solar power, rain water, and recycling of sewage to provide a devastated country with lighting, drinking water and a clean living environment. Using very little money, Stacey is maximizing free resources like sunlight and rainwater to make great changes.

Jerry Adelman of Openlands is working with historic cities like Weishan, in the Yunan province of China, to not only preserve significant buildings but also the traditional businesses that have occupied these buildings for centuries.

Rick Bayless, a famous chef in Chicago, who I have heard speak many times, says “Cities of tomorrow will be farms we happen to live in.” Growing food locally and organically in urban areas will reduce the carbon footprint of all the crops we grow and ship around the world and tie nutrition education to the urban communities.

Martin Felsen and Sarah Dunn, two architects/urbanists in Chicago, are scripting a plan for the city of Chicago to grow water, redesigning our streets to catch and filter rain, and return rather than always take water from Lake Michigan.

Looking at New Orleans

I just spent five days in New Orleans and saw the resilience and comeback of this great city. It is alive, vibrant, and back again.

New Orleans shows us how resilient we are. However, Katrina was a serious wake up call to a threatening and challenging century, especially when you realize that 10 percent of the world’s population lives within 10 meters of sea level. Six-hundred million people are living within 10 meters of sea level. This alone is a critical challenge for us as we face global warming and sea level rise.

To design a better future for everyone, we must begin with designing a healthier ecosystem and a healthier urban environment for our growing population and a better relationship between the built and natural worlds.

Let’s assign the responsibility for the health of the world to us.

Words of Advice

As we face these remarkable and challenging times, a few words of advice as you venture out into the working world and pursue your dreams.

  1. Believe in and follow your dreams. “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” said Eleanor Roosevelt.
  2. Love what you do. It will sustain you.
  3. Step out of your silos. Create and get involved in interesting collaborations. Start something that is bigger than yourself.

You will all exceed expectations and do remarkable things.

We need you. The world needs you. We are lucky to have you.

Congratulations again. And thank you for this remarkable opportunity to speak with you today.