Q&A with Randall Mason

PennPraxis has been instrumental in some of the biggest discussions about public space in Philadelphia in the last 14 years.

The outreach, professional, and practical hub at the School of Design has done everything from facilitating public conversations to providing thoughtful plans of action. Specifically, PennPraxis initiated a civic engagement process and created an action plan for the central Delaware River waterfront, worked with the city on a plan to create hundreds of acres of new green space, and conducted a study about improving Fairmount Park for pedestrians.

Now, Randy Mason, the new executive director of PennPraxis, wants to expand the scope to give more people more ways to engage—starting with faculty and students from PennDesign.

“There are always more and different issues to be pursued and as part of an educational institution, PennPraxis does and should always take research, education, the careers of our students, very seriously and have those concerns, research, and education be part of every project we do,” says Mason, who is also an associate professor and chair of the Historic Preservation program in PennDesign. “That will take us around Philadelphia, it will take us around the country, it will take us around the world. We plan to broaden the places we’re engaged and the ways we’re engaged, all focused on the core nature of PennPraxis as an extension of the School of Design.”

Mason knows about engagement here and abroad, and credits his globetrotting father for sparking in him a sense of wonder about the world. In college, Mason stumbled upon geography as a major, and turned an internship at National Geographic magazine into a post-collegiate job.

He went back to graduate school, but says he became disaffected about the field of geography, feeling that there was “no requirement or expectation that you’d actually do anything about the understanding that you’d built of the world. I guess I felt it was only academic.”

When Mason went back for his Ph.D. at Columbia, he did so with the thought that he’d eventually teach and practice in the planning field. Here at Penn, Mason makes his home in the Historic Preservation department, but is an urban planner by trade, having been advised in grad school by preservationists, planners, and historians.

His research has taken him near and far, from the preservation history of New York that he detailed in his 2009 book, “The Once and Future New York,” to more recent research on conservation in rapidly urbanizing places such as Shanghai.

Mason sat down with the Current to talk about plans for the next phase of PennPraxis, public engagement in the design process, and why he rejects the term “preservationist” when describing his work.

Q: You’ve said that PennPraxis has had good public visibility, but some of the other things that students and researchers do haven’t been as publicized. What are some of those less-visible aspects of Praxis that you want to bring to the forefront as executive director?
A: PennPraxis has earned a really great reputation around Philadelphia and a lot of that is based on the track record of civic engagement work that it’s done around Philadelphia for the last 10-plus years, most of it led by Harris Steinberg and ranging from the Central Delaware Waterfront and Fairmount Park to, most recently, LOVE Park. As PennPraxis is known around Philly, it’s principally for those big civic engagement projects and the wonderful thing about those projects is that when they work well, they really end up being public conversations about places and aspects of the city that we have some collective shared interest in. PennPraxis has really wonderfully filled that role over the last number of years. In the several years that I plan to fill this position and lead PennPraxis, I want to complement those successes by strengthening the connections that we have within the School of Design and within the University. Now, we still will do work in Philadelphia—work that involves civic engagement centrally, work that is funded by local foundations, but we mean to shift the mix of activities to not be as committed as much to those Philadelphia projects as PennPraxis has been in the past. And that’s not through any criticism or need to not work in Philadelphia anymore; it’s primarily the outgrowth of wanting to focus more on the interests of the faculty and what interests students [have] as they come to the School of Design.

Q: Can you talk specifically about one of the ways that you hope to broaden the impact of PennPraxis?
A: We’re in the course of developing those at the moment. One of them that we started to develop has to do with other parts of the University’s successes, specifically the School of Medicine’s work in Botswana. A colleague of mine in landscape architecture, [Assistant Professor] Chris Marcinkoski, recently did a studio in Botswana using the infrastructure, the insight, and the connections of the School of Medicine’s work there. We mean to build on that, to take our students to understand the problems and the capabilities of the folks in Botswana, but also to bring to Botswana various kinds of education, capacity-building, research ability, and so forth, to make a two-way engagement in places where the kinds of urban challenges are very different from the ones that we face here. Philadelphia has lots of urban challenges and urban assets. One of the ones that we don’t have is really fast, rapid urbanization, so we’re meaning to build on this work in Botswana.

Q: What was your personal involvement with PennPraxis before you became the executive director?
A: One of the less public aspects [of PennPraxis] that’s always been part of its strength is that it was created as a platform for faculty and students to do research work, applied work, professional work as an alternative to going through a private firm. In that platform function, Praxis has been partnered with lots of different professors in all the different departments of the school, doing applied work, research, design planning, and preservation work near and far. I’ve done projects here in Philadelphia through PennPraxis principally and the other work I’ve done overseas or around the country has been through other research channels. One of the other pieces of my own research that may result in PennPraxis work at some point is to look at cities around the world, especially rabidly urbanizing places, to try to understand the role of urban heritage or urban conservation in those fast-growing cities of very different types. Over the last eight or 10 years, I led a bunch of courses and have done research in Shanghai where, despite the massive growth and urbanization, there’s also been a pretty significant preservation response. We’ve done work in smaller cities, in Montenegro in a city called Kotor and in Cyprus in a city called Famagusta, which are much more recognizable historic places—walled cities. And there, it’s pretty clear what the heritage values are and how they should be sustained, but in places like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, and in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, where I recently visited, it’s much more up-for-grabs what role urban conservation and urban heritage can play. I have a firm belief that it can play a positive role and not just to stop things, but can help broaden and strengthen and alloy the urbanization that’s going on. Part of my interest is in looking at different cities around the world at different scales in different growth trajectories and trying to understand how urban heritage and urban conservation can contribute. Often it’s to slow things down or to help local populations or the indigenous culture recognize places and not just have everything be changed all of a sudden. Sometimes, it’s about equitable development and giving local people control over the change process. Sometimes, it’s pushing against change and sometimes, it’s helping to make change.

Q: PennPraxis was recently involved with the project to reimagine LOVE Park, an iconic place in the city. Can you talk about that project?
A: We were asked to do the civic engagement piece of that project, working with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the idea was that a robust campaign of civic engagement would be the right way to build a platform for a foundation for the design work that needed to happen. The city sold the parking structure [under the park], and the parking structure needs some work and retrofitting. In order to do that, they needed to remove the park on top, which gives you an opportunity to make a new park when you put it all back together. They’ve hired a fantastic couple of firms, a landscape architecture firm called Hargreaves Associates and the local architecture firm KieranTimberlake to do the design. We did the civic engagement work and then handed that off as a set of design principles and community expectations and a public conversation that people felt quite good about as an input to that design. That design work has now started and we don’t have a formal role in it, but of course, we’ll continue to watch and participate as asked.

Q: A public engagement component is something that’s a key part of design projects. I assume that hasn’t always been the case. When did public input start playing such a big role in planning and design?
A: It’s slowly built in to all the planning fields, whether you come at it as a designer, a community advocate, a developer, or somewhere in between. It’s become both required, as well as expected as a matter of ethics, I think, to understand the kinds of intelligence that the public brings to urban issues that experts don’t necessarily bring. That didn’t happen just in a heartbeat; there wasn’t a moment of invention or epiphany. I’m just over 50 and over my lifetime, I think the expectations of that have been growing such that as an historian of planning, preservation, and the built environment, there’s a pretty clear moment in the 1960s when, from a number of different directions, for a number of different reasons, the expectations of public voice were multiplied. You can point to academic articles in the 1960s in the planning field, but by the time I became a young professional in the late ’80s, as I learned planning, public engagement, civic engagement, public participation—whatever one calls it—was part of the practice. In my whole career, public participation has been a really important part of every project I’ve done.

Q: Your most recent book, ‘The Once and Future New York,’ is about preservation in that city. What’s your read on preservation in Philly? Is this a town that embraces it?
A: The history of preservation in any city is always going to be contentious. We live in a capitalist society and that results in a fairly tumultuous culture of building and demolishing, or you could say building and rebuilding. I think the takeaways from that are that every city does preservation—it’s not a choice, it’s what every modern culture does. How we decide to do it changes from city to city. The particular way it’s done in Philadelphia differs from how it’s done in New York, L.A., Phoenix, Chicago, Rome, Moscow, Beijing, or Shanghai. And the interesting question to me is how it’s done differently in different places. We get really wrapped up in local preservation laws because those are the strictest and clearest expressions of preservation impulse. There are lots of other paths by which preservation gets done. If you buy a home and you decide to renovate it, inspired by property values or because you like old stuff, that’s preservation. If the President decides to declare a national monument, which is one of the unilateral things that the federal policy allows the president to do without Congress, that’s preservation, in addition to all of the typical tropes of preservation—national parks, historic districts, great monuments, great works of architecture. … Preservation takes many more forms than we typically think of. I think correspondingly, those of us who work in preservation need to be more assertive in cultivating forms of preservation that are not ‘capital-h,’ ‘capital-p,’—not just historic districts, but the adaptive reuse of buildings, for which there are lots of public policies to try to advance that. People’s understanding of how cities change is as important as keeping certain parts of it from changing. That said, there have been some real black eyes and bruises to the preservation movement in Philadelphia and there’s a significant amount of worry about how we can remedy that.

Q: You’ve worked in preservation for a long time, but your background is in city planning. You also don’t consider yourself a ‘preservationist.’ Why is it important to make that distinction between the two fields? And why do you make the distinction?
A: Historic preservation thrives because a lot of different people are interested in it. If you choose to go someplace [on vacation] to see old buildings or you’re going to a specific museum or historic site—that means you’re interested in preservation, you’re invested in it, you’re giving your attention it, you’re valuing it. There are different ways to do that and I think the preservationist label has become kind of exclusive and not in all good ways. Preservation, for a lot of good reasons, found itself on the defensive, especially post-World War II. If you think about people with protest signs saying, ‘Stop the bulldozers’ and forming a social movement in reaction to the massive destruction of urban renewal—those are all important parts of the preservation story, but that shouldn’t be the one thing that defines the field. For instance, we have courses [in PennDesign] about how to pursue historic preservation as a real estate development process. We spend a lot of time talking about the interpretation of historic buildings and environments, about the design of cultural landscapes as changeable but very meaningful ways to look at the world. There are lots of different contributions to historic preservation. The preservationist label to people who don’t obviously or explicitly care about preservation is an epithet. ‘Preservationist’ is usually associated in the public mind with people who say ‘no,’ people who don’t like change, people who are only looking backward, only have their head stuck in the sand. It’s conservative and worse than that, it’s regarded as an unthoughtful and uncritical field. That is a really wrong impression that does not describe the overwhelming majority of people who care about historic preservation. I’ve taken on the rejection of the preservationist label to make the point that preservation is not an ideology. You don’t say, ‘I’m a development-ist.’ You say that all cities need some new development and I think all cities need some preservation, as well. I just think there are plenty of people who I know and love and care a lot about and admire greatly who are preservationists. I’m just trying to make a point by distancing myself from the label that you don’t already know what you think just because I have ‘preservation’ in my job title.

Q: And yet you landed in a historic preservation department.
A: It’s been more happenstance and good luck than anything else. The reasons I started studying preservation as a subject in my planning dissertation is I thought that all the explanations that planners had built up about how cities work were so focused on economics and couldn’t explain why the preservation movement existed. The insight that ‘The Once and Future New York’ helped me formulate was that preservation was not just a protest movement, especially in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was formulated by the people who were also the city builders. They thought that in order to be a modern city, you had to preserve parts of it, and curate parts of it, not just redevelop it. So, that’s the mindset that I’m always reminded of as I work, do projects today, teach, or think about what’s in the newspapers.

Q: You’ve been quoted as saying that preservation shapes collective memories. Does that really sum up the job of a planner, then—to think about the past and think about the future at once?
A: Everybody does that anyway, so I don’t think there’s anything special about preservationists in that regard. There are plenty of developers who think about the past all the time. The best way I’ve learned how to try to explain it is that preservation is a means to an end and why preservation exists is because we need to remember. The need to remember was made much more urgent and difficult by modernity, which is a fancy way of saying history. Things changed dramatically over the last couple of centuries, whether it’s technology or the economy. In the modern world, collective memory became a really important need. And societies invented a number of different ways to do that—museums, all the tropes of patriotism, the national anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, the national holidays, the design of memorials. Preservation is just one of those tools that we created to help us form or reform collective memory. Collective memory has a really fraught history, as well, because for a time, it was wrapped up in national politics and oppression and discrimination. I think when we think about preservation these days—and this gets back to the preservationist label—some parts of the field have come to think of preservation as an end in itself. That, I think, is a strategic mistake. We shouldn’t just do preservation because preservationists tell us it’s the right thing to do. We don’t have some special ethical insight that others don’t have. We should think of preservation as a means to a number of different ends—collective memory is probably the one that’s most important, still, but preservation is also an important means toward community revitalization, toward tourism development, toward maybe even poverty reduction. I have a Ph.D. student right now who’s studying the connection between the preservation of historic city centers in Latin America and poverty reduction measures. Among the insights of Jane Jacobs, the famous preservation advocate, was that start-up businesses gravitated toward historic neighborhoods because they found very useful the cheaper real estate and smaller spaces available in historic buildings, and that was in the ’50s and ’60s in New York. I think that’s still true today. That’s why you see new businesses going in Northern Liberties and places like that.

Q: So much of preservation work is tied to funding, be it funding from nonprofits, government agencies, or private developers. Does that create an inherent tension since progress is often dependent on somewhat external forces?
A: The funky thing about parks and historic preservation as two big examples is they are mixed goods. They’re not totally public, and they’re not purely private—preservation especially. In the case of preservation, we have to look to the private sector to both provide and consume the goods of historic preservation. That’s where things like the federal Rehabilitation Tax Credits have been a really important part of the preservation movement. The Main Street programs, started by the National Trust [for Historic Preservation] in the 1970s, was a really important innovation to essentially save whole small-town commercial districts, not by preserving the buildings pristinely, but by organizing the businesses by communicating and branding the advantages of being in a small center and using preservation as a means to that end. The public sector is never going to have all the answers. That’s unrealistic to think so.

Q: Can you talk about some PennPraxis projects on the horizon?
A: SEPTA is starting the process of doing a master plan for the [underground] concourses, thinking about what they should be, what they could be. In a way, this whole not-quite street, not-quite platform space is a significant public space resource, I would say, and there are all sorts of possibilities for how they could be better used. Some of them are retail possibilities, some of them are what we call placemaking possibilities for art performances, sports, you name it. We’re doing the civic engagement piece and some other research as part of the foundation for the master plan that they’re beginning to work on. It’s a heaven-sent project and I’m working with folks from the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, Harris Sokoloff and his shop based in the Graduate School of Education, and a colleague in landscape architecture, [Lecturer] Nick Pevzner. PennPraxis, in collaboration with the dean’s office, is doing something called the PennDesign Project for Social Impact. We asked students to work across disciplines and with faculty to generate ideas for how design in all of its iterations can and should be serving communities. We got a bunch of great proposals, five of which we’re moving forward with. That’ll begin happening this spring and it will happen throughout the year  with funding from the dean’s office and PennPraxis overseeing them. Those will be great sources of visibility, of practical experience for students, channeling what they think is important, taking advantage of faculty know-how, and advancing the whole teaching and research enterprise.

Q: What are your goals for PennPraxis?
A: The next PennPraxis will engage more faculty in more ways. It will engage more graduate students in more ways, and it will build new visibility in new ways. We’re trying to find what’s appropriate for the School right now and in the near future.

Randall Mason