Duke Reiter and ASU's University City Exchange: Driven by a sense of urgency


Expert Pitch

Wellington “Duke” Reiter is committed to finding viable responses to urgent issues. This mindset has influenced the projects that he’s pursued as executive director of Arizona State University's University City Exchange and as special adviser to ASU President Michael Crow. These include the design and development of the ASU campus in downtown Phoenix to help serve as a catalyst for sustainable growth and the Ten Across (10X) initiative to create a network of cities along the Interstate 10 corridor to address many of those communities' shared issues. 

ASU Now reached out to Reiter to better understand the thinking and goals that drive the University City Exchange and 10X.

“We are particularly interested in the city as a leading indicator of who we are, what we value, and how our desires are registered in built form,” Reiter said. “Most important, 10X will be unblinking in addressing the risks we face and the need for course corrections.”   

Question: How would you describe the central impetus for your work with the University City Exchange?

Answer: To my eye, cities and universities are not only comparable in their organization, I believe their fortunes are inextricably linked. The purpose of the University City Exchange is to make sure opportunities for mutual benefit between the two entities are identified and acted upon through physical planning, economic development strategy and cultural connections. 

Both cities and universities benefit from large, diverse and tightly packed populations which make them ideal settings to build unexpected relationships, exchange ideas and imagine possibilities. Design matters enormously in these settings. Well-orchestrated proximity in the city makes a streetscape walkable, vibrant and attractive. That same ingredient also causes two researchers to encounter each other on campus and generate an idea that neither would have developed independently. The optimal interaction between people and the environment at multiple scales is what the University City Exchange is all about. 

Q: Can you offer examples of the projects that best exemplify your mission?

A: Upon arriving at ASU in 2003 as the dean of the College of Design, one of my first projects was to help establish a presence for ASU in the heart of downtown Phoenix. The motivation behind this effort was urgent for both parties. The urban core did not project a sense of a city on the rise. At the same time, ASU was expanding rapidly and in search of new options. It was also clear that certain professional programs could be woven into the fabric of an urban environment to the benefit of all parties.  

By combining the common interests of all stakeholders, we were able to convince the voters of Phoenix to make a simultaneous investment in downtown, the university and the future of education in the region. Quality urban design was essential to the success of this new campus, including a carefully arranged sequence of buildings, parks, public art and key partnerships. In so doing, we demonstrated that the university would not be a place apart but an integral part of the city. We take pride in the fact that ASU’s burgeoning downtown now includes a number of schools, including journalism, nursing and law, and nearly 15,000 students.

The essence of the University City Exchange mission is captured in this partnership. It is also one that is replicable if all parties are willing. Accordingly, we advise other city/university combinations which might yield similar results under the right conditions.

Q: One of the great challenges in dealing with climate change is reaching people who are either uninterested or overwhelmed by the reality. Is this something that the University City Exchange considers in the course of your work?

A: As suggested above, the University City Exchange seeks to connect mutual interests and at multiple scales. We seek to put Phoenix into a larger context so as to understand what is unique to our situation and what is shared with other locations. I have lived in two cities whose very existence is often questioned: one below sea level — New Orleans — and the other in an arid climate with triple-digit temperatures and limited access to water — Phoenix. Both are going to adapt and persist in some format into the future, but the question is how.

A city like New Orleans is one that simply had to be, positioned as it is at the mouth of the largest river in North America. Phoenix, on the other hand, is an invented place, one built on 20th-century technologies, including the automobile, production housing and air conditioning. This has come with a host of unintended, and often negative, consequences to which we must be attentive. 

As the University City Exchange evaluates projects for engagement, we are constantly seeking alternative approaches to water, energy, transportation and buildings which reduce the demand we are placing on our finite resource base and the land itself. This should be the expectation of a university, especially one dedicated to the vitality of the region we serve.

Q: How urgent is the need to address climate change and pursue collaboration at a whole new level?

A: While we are committed to cities, even that unit of measure is too small to deal with the scale of the issues we face. So we have expanded our frame of interest, one which places Phoenix and ASU in a network of committed observers and problem-solvers ranging from Los Angeles to Miami, all along the U.S. Interstate 10. This has sprouted our Ten Across initiative. As we note in our mission statement, the I-10 corridor provides the most compelling window on the future of the country, one that is on the front lines of social, economic and climate change positioning this region as a living laboratory for resilience, adaptation, and where necessary, orderly retreat.

In keeping with the New American University model, 10X is an expansive network built to pursue viable responses to urgent issues. At University City Exchange, we are particularly interested in the city as a leading indicator of who we are, what we value, and how our desires are registered in built form. Most important, 10X will be unblinking in addressing the risks we face and the need for course corrections.  

Q: You are an architect and urban planner by trade. How optimistic are you that we can design our way to a sustainable future?

A: My actions and work on a daily basis are those of an optimist, one who believes that design is indeed a key component. And that would be true of the University City Exchange team as a whole. I don’t believe there is another option.

However, I know we need to work faster, smarter and at elevated scale to have any hope of inspiring the changes needed to tackle the difficult conditions ahead. Knowing that humans have a remarkable ability to ignore warning signals, even when starkly rendered by the built environment, the challenge is really one of communication. How to translate uncontestable data into collective action — and not despair — is the design project of our time.

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