Jordan Clark ’15
Planner, designer, Cultivate Collaborative
Sustainability Planner, TGB Partners, Dallas, Texas
What were you doing before you applied to the Conway School?
I had just moved back home (Indianapolis) after spending a couple years living and teaching English at a public high school in Madrid.
What brought you to Conway?
I had always loved expressing my creativity through design of some sort. And after college I got especially interested in cities and the very broad topic of sustainability, but I thought about them separately. Conway was basically the sweet spot of all those interests, and I was particularly drawn to the program’s unusual hands-on setup and the accelerated pace.
Imagine we just met, and recognized we had common interests. How would you describe Conway to me?
It’s an intense (but fun!), personalized, whole-systems education in solving design problems at any scale. It’s the longest 10 months of your life and you probably won’t realize how much you’ve learned until it’s over. Oh, and it is just the beginning of your education.
What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the field?
Making mistakes is the way you really learn. So don’t be afraid of them and don’t think they reflect poorly on you. I learned the most from my mistakes during projects at Conway, and the same is absolutely true in my work since.
Also, don’t underestimate the importance of being able to speak the language of a lot of different fields. So if you’re able to engage with landscape designers, engineers, planners, public works officials, finance directors, and so on, you’re really setting yourself up to be particularly valuable.
And don’t forget that almost no matter where you go (this is definitely true in Texas), making the financial case for your project (whatever it is) is always essential. You might find some people who are more moved by environmental or social concerns, but in the end, money talks. (The good news for ecological planners & designers is that the ecologically smart decision is generally also the financially smart decision, at least in the long term.)
What are you doing right now, and what do you love about it?
We’re working with cities to cultivate a more inclusive, responsive, and resource-conscious model of community building. That happens at different scales—from the block level up to the citywide level—and it involves more than just planning, code-writing, and design (although we do those things). It’s also about helping cities break down silos within the government (as well as with citizens, developers, and business owners), and get their plans, codes, and development processes synched. A big piece of the process is making sure that plans don’t just sit on the shelf, but are heavy on implementation guidance. A lot of cities need help figuring out next steps (otherwise plans can turn into untethered wish lists), especially when they’re low on resources. We help them prioritize low-cost, high-return, and incremental projects that are often citizen-led. What I love about this work is that it’s outcome-oriented, it connects people, and it’s a reminder that the community building process can be a lot of fun.
We’re also doing some educational work. We started workshops to help educate city leaders on the pitfalls of the typical fast-growth model, and what an alternative model of growth, community engagement, economic development, and city management would look like. I’m also working on a podcast that we will be putting out on a regular basis. There are endless opportunities to keep learning new things from lots of smart people, and it’s really exciting.
Ed. note: Jordan wrote this when he was a planner at Verdunity; as of October, 2020, he is a Sustainability Planner with TGB Planners.
List one or more books that you find influential in the field of ecological design and/or planning.
I think everyone could stand read through Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. Both because it contains some really impressive insights into the patterns that make a place comfortable and interesting (at various scales), and because it gets you into the mode of looking for patterns in everyday life that work or don’t work. It’s a great reference book and not necessary to read front-to-back.
I was also surprised by how much I learned from (and enjoyed) A Better Way to Zone: Ten Principles to Create More Livable Cities by Donald Elliott. Zoning has an outsized impact on what our cities look like, how people live and get around, and how adaptable we are to changes in economic and environmental conditions.
All three editions of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns by Chuck Marohn (and other Strong Towns contributors) are essential. Nobody does a better job of explaining what has gone wrong with our “growth” approach since WWII than Chuck Marohn, who started the Strong Towns movement. This is the place to start, in my opinion. It definitely changed the way I see the world.
What is your favorite tool?
I use the Apple Pencil all the time now; I was skeptical but it’s really won me over. I do a lot of illustrations and some conceptual site plans and sections, and these days I do them all on my iPad (with some apps like Procreate & Concepts) instead of the computer. Saves me a ton of time.
What blogs or podcasts do you recommend? Particular posts or episodes?
I listen to way too many podcasts. One that has had a big influence on me is the Strong Towns podcast. It’s actually where I first heard about the company that hired me after Conway. Listening to interview podcasts that are related to your field is a great way to find someone you might want to work with. At the very least it’s a great excuse to reach out to them and ask them questions.
In Our Time is a podcast from BBC4. They pick a topic (from dark matter, to Frederick Douglas, to bird migration…) and have three guests on to exhaust the issue in less than an hour. It’s addicting. A few more awesome podcasts: Philosophize This!, On Being, 99% Invisible, & Building Local Power.
Blog-wise, I don’t think there’s anything more enriching on the Internet than Brain Pickings. I also read Seth Godin’s blog sometimes. And of course, I read the Strong Towns blog about every day. There are too many articles there to keep up with these days, so I have to pick and choose, but you can never go wrong. I’ll read anything there written by Chuck Marohn, Daniel Herriges, or Andrew Price (to name a few).
How do you think ecological design and planning can help make positive change?
The design and planning disciplines (not to mention other decision-makers) have ignored ecological repercussions for a long time, and the results are places that are less viable environmentally, socially, and financially. Ecological planning & design is a restorative act, and it needs to be understood as having a central role in addressing financial and social issues in addition to environmental ones.
Which aspects of your Conway education do you use in your current work?
Conway more than anything taught me to never stop asking good questions and to always, always, always consider context. Those two things never go out of fashion. Also, the importance of understanding your audience is something that’s stuck with me.