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Rebecca Macklis, BA in Architecture ’12

Rebecca Macklis, AB ‘12, is the senior manager of strategic initiatives at The Municipal Art Society of New York. Her previous work included a variety of collaborative initiatives and urban design working groups.

It’s interesting, my title now is “strategic initiatives” and I work a lot in strategy, but I consider myself first and foremost an urban designer. The strategy portion fits in because I’m most comfortable working at the intersection of things and threading the needle between scales and types of ideas.

Infrastructural Impact
I was interested in urban design before I even really understood what urban design as a practice was. I think a lot of it was informed by my architecture courses at the Sam Fox School, and also the balance of those with courses in American culture studies and anthropology in the Arts & Sciences department. I remember, I asked if, instead of having a written essay, I could do a photo essay. I went around St. Louis, primarily East St. Louis, and interviewed people, understanding how the oil refinery in East St. Louis was either sponsoring or giving subsidies or shaping the infrastructure there. It was impacting everything from the high school football field, to what was offered at the grocery store, to how many car manufacturers and car dealerships were in your average mile. An understanding that all of those things were connected and you see that connection in the built environment was the first time that I was really like, “oh, there’s a there there.” Which lead me to urban design.

Quality Affordable Housing
I feel really privileged to work with such great people in the city and now at The Municipal Art Society. I’m provided the space and given runway for insular projects to become big. I would say the first and foremost [project I’m proud of] is the “Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing,” publication that was part of public design commission. It started as a research project with considerations for our commissioners to understand impact of site planning and materiality in terms of resiliency and climate change. We explored those things in tandem with development data — what subsidies are coming from where, what are the funding mechanisms, who’s involved in the build-out, how did you negotiate stakeholder feedback? — those questions a lot of people are reconciling with. That financial research leading to an inter-agency effort for a publication event series and a publicly accessible database that’s still used by students in housing studios and referenced in RFPs.

It was really incredible, beyond words, and also humbling to understand how those types of research projects start.

New Projects
I’ve been at The Municipal Art Society for less than six months, but that’s been really exciting. Across a few of our projects is the understanding that the organization gets involved at different stages of the project, and then you see it evolve over stakeholders in years. Whether it’s giving comments on the draft environmental review of the upcoming port authority, and then understanding how that project will evolve under a 10+ year timeline and understanding how a couple sentences or comments at this early stage can shape what the city interacts with for years to come.

Similarly, another research project that we’re aiming to build out to a larger advocacy and policy campaign is called “Enduring Culture.” It looks at the legacy and current practice of historic preservation and understanding that it’s been historically a marginalizing and privileged interpretation of the built environment, what should be preserved and for whom, and so we’re kind of in the very early stages of understanding what historic preservation means across the United States. How can we start to think of this as a more multi-vocal, multi-layered field? The built environment is not freezing a built object in time for one person at one year, but it can be a layered, adaptable thing that can celebrate more than one voice and be reflective and inclusive of the community. I’m excited to see how that can develop beyond our initial research brief and perhaps have policy implications in New York City and State. I’m excited to see how that can develop beyond our initial research brief and perhaps have policy implications in New York City and State.

Interview edited for length and clarity.


Enduring Culture

Dnyqafh extract page 01

Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing

Publication Extract

Enduring Culture

Community garden visit

About Rebecca Macklis

Rebecca Macklis, AB ‘12, recently became the senior manager of strategic initiatives at The Municipal Art Society of New York, as well as an adjunct professor at Columbia University. Previously, she was the director of urban design and strategy at New York City’s Public Design Commission, where she advanced a variety of collaborative initiatives and led urban design working groups. She is also the co-author of “Women-Designed NYC,” and managing editor of “Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing.”