Joel Towers

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The New School, a leading university in New York City that has been frequently in the vanguard of social movements, announced plans to divest from fossil fuel stocks on January 30th of this year. As reported in the New York Times, “The eclectic, historically progressive school said not only would it divest itself of all fossil fuel investments in coming years, but it is also reshaping the entire curriculum to focus more on climate change and sustainability.” The Times article quotes Executive Dean Joel Towers of Parsons The New School for Design, the art school division of the university:

“What we’re trying to do here is to get students and faculty to think differently about climate change, and look at it as an opportunity to design the future differently.”

We spoke to Dean Towers to find out more about how the university came to the decision to divest, and what the school plans next.

What prompted the New School to take the step of divesting, at a time when most other major universities have not yet chosen to do so?

First and foremost, we’ve had a long and consistent focus on issues of environment and social justice – in many ways those define the university. And so divestiture is really just one step among many to really engage in the questions around cities, environment, social justice, and how these things all come together.

The idea of divestment was introduced by as an issue for college campuses, and I think Bill McKibben needs to be given the credit for having gone from where he was leading up to Copenhagen in 2009 [the last major international climate negotiation, which will be followed by Paris in November 2015]. And then saying ‘What can we do now that we’ve gone past 350 parts per million and past 400 parts per million?’

Divestment became a really important way of raising issues, and our students are very attentive to these kinds of transformative issues. We have an incredibly engaged student body across The New School. So I would give a great deal of credit to ‘350,’ but also to the students of The New School for bringing the issue forward as one that was important. The administration took their concerns seriously, having had a long-standing commitment to the same issues. 

“The big story is, how do you go about making positive change in cities?”

The question of whether we should divest in some ways was answered a long time ago. The question is, how to do it and what else to do to make sure that it’s seen as a significant step. So, The New School, for example, is already investing more money from its endowment in renewable energies than it still has in its endowment in fossil fuels. We’re already double that amount on the positive side, and we will reduce down to zero [the fossil fuel] investments.

There’s the investment strategy piece to it, but the big story, and the reason I think we’re talking, is how do you go about making positive change in cities, in social justice, and with regard to the climate question?

Is there a reason student movements have more influence at The New School?

I’ve never known New School students to feel inhibited about bringing their concerns to the administration. It’s one of the great things about this place – it’s one of the most open and open to dialogue and open to change institutions that I’ve ever worked in.

The challenge that climate change and sustainability and social justice represent is that they are cross-disciplinary problems. They are classic ‘wicked problems’. And you don’t solve them in disciplinary silos.

“Climate change, sustainability and social justice are cross-disciplinary problems.”

You can’t solve climate change by being “the engineering school” or “the design school” or “the social science school.” You’ve got to bring all these things together and you’ve got to work in a collaborative fashion. You’ve got to be willing to hear other people’s opinions and be open to them, and that really defines the character of this university.

What drew me here initially from teaching about sustainable design and climate issues at Columbia’s School of Architecture was the opportunity to work with the social scientists and the policy makers and the humanities in a really integrated way, in a collaborative way, as opposed to kind of struggling to make connections. And that extends to the student body. It’s not just faculty doing that, it’s a really collaborative space.

Tell us about a teacher that influenced you. 

A woman named Sharon Sutton, who is an architect, and is now in Seattle. When I was a young architecture student, undergraduate, at the University of Michigan, she was one of my studio faculty.

Sharon introduced me to the relationship between social justice and design through work that we were doing in Detroit in the early 1980s. Sharon was interested in how you could use architecture and design as a way of teaching young children how to communicate the issues happening in their own neighborhoods. And to begin to become empowered and active to make change in those neighborhoods.

We worked with 3rd to 6th grade students in Detroit while I was an undergraduate. We taught them to use drawing and representation as a way of reflecting on their community, to begin to envision change. And then to use those documents to leverage public officials to improve neighborhoods.

I never forgot that lesson. While Sharon is also a committed environmentalist, it was really the social justice piece – that design could be a part of making positive change in the world. It wasn’t just aesthetic, it wasn’t just something that you did to build edifices and they weren’t just symbolic. It was really about communities and people, and design in the service of them. I was probably 20 years old when I met Sharon, so that’s 30 years ago, and she started me on that path.

How did you fare personally during Hurricane Sandy? And what were the effects here at The New School?

I live in Brooklyn, so I had the Brooklyn view of Hurricane Sandy. Funny story about how long I’ve been working on this issue – when my wife and I decided where to move, after being kicked out of buildings that were torn down for what is now the Barclay Center, we looked at the flood maps of New York City. We chose a place to live based on it being above a category 3 flood zone. And that was a long time ago. These are the risks facing the city. I would never move my family into the category 1, 2, or 3 flood zones in New York, because it’s going to happen again. Sandy wasn’t a surprise. Sandy was to be fully expected, and we can expect more Hurricane Sandys.

It’s absolutely crazy to not make the changes that we need to be making in the big scale issues around climate. We also need to address the really immediate changes to the city, to make it more resilient for the kinds of storms we’re going to have based on the changes in the climate system that are already in effect. We’ve got to adapt the city.

Hurricane Sandy cost 60 billion dollars and that was only partially the cost of rebuilding from it. We should be spending way more than that in preventing the next damage. 

“Sandy was a kind of proof of concept for those saying ‘this is the future we have to deal with.'”

I was amazed by the way this university rallied to support people. We had students from our programs here who were very quickly getting involved in helping elderly people in tall buildings who had lost power, and they were carrying food and water up dark stairways to make sure that they had help. We had one of the only buildings that had a backup generator in this neighborhood working, because this whole neighborhood was out of power and our President, David Van Zandt, opened the building to students from surrounding institutions to help out; Arnold Hall, 55 West 13th street. 

David was immediately on top of how to manage the crisis, but also to see this as a refuge for the neighborhood. It was amazing. Our buildings, except for one of our dorms which was in lower Manhattan which suffered some damage, didn’t really have significant damage to them, but we did something after Hurricane Sandy, not to just hold another conference like everybody else saying ‘oh we have to do something’ kind of thing, we really tried to think about ‘how do you make the more substantive transformations that something like Hurricane Sandy should bring about?’

We wanted to treat it not as a surprise, not as a freak event, but as the new normal. And to say ‘What is the curricular, what is the institutional response to this? How do we make our buildings more climate resilient?’ And we made them more energy efficient. I mean we’ve done amazing work at this university to become energy efficient, to become resource efficient, saving water, saving electricity. We buy wind power to offset our electrical load. Sandy, I think, was a wake up call for many and a kind of proof of concept, if you will, for those who had been saying for a long time ‘this is the future we have to deal with.’

Tell us about some of the steps the New School is taking to become more climate resilient. 

We just finished, a year ago, the University Center – which is a 350,000 square foot building. 

It’s a LEED gold-certified building, so it’s built to be energy efficient and water efficient – it has its own greywater and blackwater management systems in it. It has a green roof on it. It’s not proven to be resilient to water main breaks, which I guess is something that we couldn’t have anticipated, although I suppose we probably should’ve. A 130 year-old water main broke on 5th Avenue and 13th street right in that intersection and flooded the lower two levels of it about a week after we opened it, a year ago.

But from a climate perspective it has allowed us to reduce total university water usage by about forty percent. Our energy reduction has been enormous as well.

“The challenge is not new buildings, the challenge is existing buildings. And for New York City, that means retrofit.”

We are also retrofitting and increasing the energy efficiency of our existing buildings, like the one we’re in now [66 Fifth Avenue]. That’s a super important part of the story for New York and for any existing city. New York City has a replacement rate of 1-2% which means that 80-90% of the buildings that will be here 20 years from now in New York City have already been built.

The challenge is not new buildings, the challenge is existing buildings. And for New York City, that means retrofit. So the most important work, in my opinion, is not the shiny new buildings that function really well, it’s what do you do about the 80-90% of existing buildings that have to be retrofitted, that have to become energy efficient, that need to be climate resilient. 

And so for us, when you say curricular change, we’re focusing on those kind of questions. What can you do about existing buildings? How can you make them more climate resilient? 

What is changing in the curriculum, and why?

Our impact is to educate students on the core issues of our time, which is essentially the definition of The New School. You could argue that should be the definition of any university, but The New School has a long history of saying we are going to tackle the challenges of our time and do so in an engaged way.

“We’re educating students who will go out into the world and have 60 years or more of productive and engaged life. What is the world going to be like 60 years from now?”

This is not a university that’s ever been hands-off. We kind of get our hands dirty, we work on issues that matter, we think that education is constantly evolving.

Today the issues that we have to be focusing on are things like climate change and cities and social justice. Right? That’s what’s driving society. And so curriculum should be aligned with that. We’re educating students who will go out into the world and have 60 years or more of productive and engaged life. What is the world going to be like 60 years from now?

We need to really be thinking of the future, thinking critically about what’s happening. The curriculum is explicitly about forward-looking, problem-solving engagement in society.

You need to be teaching about sustainability, you need to be teaching about cities, you need to be teaching about policy, you need to be teaching about the role design has played in shaping the world to the way it is today and how you can design it differently.

And that’s why, for me, I mean I’ve been working on this issue for almost 30 years now, but the really important focus of it from a designer’s standpoint – I’m an architect by background – is that we have to redesign everything. We’ve got to completely redesign the way society transforms the materials of the planet and sets up the social systems of organization and society to be responsive to the kind of restraints that are real on this planet and are demanded by a socially just, ecologically resilient world. And that’s the future I want to live in. I find it to be very exciting. To me this is not about fear. The only fear in this is being afraid to grasp the future and that’s not something to be afraid of.

Photographs: Maureen Drennan