Abstracting the City: Students Turn Plans into Art

"The exhibit is a microcosm of what you feel when you look over a city. Every planning project produces emotions," explains Kyle Ezell, Associate Professor of Practice in the Knowlton School's City and Regional Planning Section. Ezell’s Planning in the Abstract exhibit is now open to the public in Knowlton Hall's Banvard Gallery. "Viewers are invited to travel through the exhibit the way they might move through a city."

Ezell challenged his graduate students to transform their technical planning reports into abstract art that represents the core feelings their proposals may inspire. "Planners don't normally think in terms of the emotional responses of their implemented plans. The approach in planning is necessarily focused on facts, analytics, design standards, codes, legal issues and community needs and expectations,” Ezell explains. Michael Liggett, one of the eighteen students in Ezell's Innovations in City and Regional Planning (CRPLAN 6010) course, concurs: “This was one of the challenges of this course: considering the emotional experience of an individual relevant to your plan."

To train his students to think beyond the plan into the emotional response of the user experience, Ezell introduced a new project in his Innovations course. After formulating the structure of the class and research procedures, students were asked to identify and explore through the term an area of strong professional interest in the field of planning. After conducting technical research and an extensive literary review, students prepared reports that outlined specific proposals that promoted innovation and improvement in their chosen interest.

Liggett, a Columbus native and second-year Master of City and Regional Planning (MCRP) student, selected urban revitalization as the focus of his study. "In Ohio, on a governmental level, we see a planning focus that is still very sprawl-oriented," Liggett states. His plan examines how to counter this outward movement by promoting a strong urban core. Liggett's proposal to promote city-centered development involves an urban density tax credit to create incentives to build within the urban core. 

Improving the form, function and character of the Olentangy River Greenway that runs along The Ohio State University campus was the focus of research conducted by Christy Wiseman, a first-year student in the MCRP program. Exploring how the greenway can be utilized as a key component of the campus brought to Wiseman's attention several areas for innovation: wayfinding and signage, user amenities and recreational programming.

Rather than presenting and discussing the reports among the class, Ezell asked his students to identify optimal emotional responses to their plan, imagining how a particular user may experience the plan after its implementation. Working with large pieces of Mylar, students used graphic and photographic designs that incorporate color, representational figures and collage techniques to represent the emotions evoked by their plans. Ezell recalls that having his students translate their reports into the imagery of emotions was a visceral experience for them: "Planners don't ordinarily think in abstractions. They usually think in very specific terms. We spent three weeks becoming artists."

“I focused on the emotion of connectivity and how things can blend together once you get in smart urban spaces,” Liggett says, reflecting on the process to abstract his research into a two-dimensional piece of art. Based on his experience of urban neighborhoods as woven together with different cultures, backgrounds and age groups, Liggett describes the method for creating his abstract representations: “I created a mosaic with an element of blur where you have unique buildings and people, but they all blend together."

Wiseman chose the feeling of serenity to represent her greenway plan, choosing an emotion she experiences while running on the path or sitting by the bank of the Olentangy River. Abstracting this emotion into a graphic representation was challenging, Wiseman says, because it taps into a mindset that isn't normally utilized in the planning curriculum. She describes her method to create an idealized version of the greenway through the use of "linear, cool-toned blocks that represent tracts of the space, from the grass to the water."

Michael Outrich, whose research on the revitalization of post-war suburban neighborhoods concluded with a tax abatement option designed to increase property values, selected the emotion of hopefulness for his exhibit pieces. The first-year MCRP student explains his creative process of building on a foundational image of a dilapidated post-war house: "I wasn't thinking abstract enough. I had to do several iterations. I keep going back to the sunset theme. The sun in my piece ultimately becomes a half circle, a moon, a light that represents a pathway moving forward, carrying on, looking to a brighter future."

Outrich clarifies how this project, despite his early struggles to think abstractly, was a valuable experience: "I am very concrete. My approach is -- here are the facts, the community demographics, this is the built environment, here are the numbers, this is how the neighborhood looks, and all this is what goes into the report," adding, "This project allows me to rethink how facts are great for getting points across, but there's a whole other line of emotions involved with the plan, and ultimately, a person experiencing the implemented plan."

Ezell describes the result of creating art from technical research: "It was a new experience for the students to turn a focused process into a highly open-ended, speculative, abstract outcome.” The exhibit displays these abstract expressions on five suspended panels that are positioned in a parallel fashion that allows viewers to walk between the displayed work. The translucence of the Mylar allows the viewer to see through individual pieces, allowing the layered images, with their vivid colors and shapes, to form a visual emotion-scape. Shifting one’s perspective realigns the imagery, situating the viewer within a new narrative that emerges from the mosaic of abstracted plan details and the feelings they inspire.       

In a profession that values data analysis and technical reports that guide policy, Ezell says that planners are already very creative, but often don't get enough credit for their creativity. By encouraging his students to become visual artists and create pieces for an exhibit, he was able to teach them to think critically by "giving them a new language with which to express their work." Wiseman agrees with this outcome, stating, "It is crucial for planners to develop and hone their creativity in order to become better communicators, solution-finders and decision-makers. This entire experience has been genuinely valuable. What a fun way to start off my first semester in the MCRP program!"

The Banvard Gallery is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The gallery is located on the first floor of Knowlton Hall on the campus of The Ohio State University. The exhibit runs from December 20 to January 27, 2017.

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