An interdisciplinary background informs
Ndubisi's leadership of Department of
Landscape Architecture & Urban Planning
At the end of his first semester as head of the Department of Landscape
Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M University, Forster
received two e-mails that underscored his primary reason for accepting
the College of Architecture post last fall. Two graduate students
from his department, the e-mails informed him, had recently earned
highly competitive honors — one, a $7,500 fellowship from
the Hideo Sasaki Foundation, and the other, a $20,000 dissertation
grant from Active Living Research, a program sponsored by the Robert
Wood Johnson Foundation.
“Awards on this caliber reflect the quality of our faculty, as well as the quality of our students,” noted Ndubisi, who previously served seven years as professor and director of the Interdisciplinary Design Institute at Washington State University - Spokane, “It takes good faculty to get these kinds of results, even if you have good students.”
According to Ndubisi, the Texas A&M College of Architecture boasts an extraordinary faculty who together reflect the complexity and depth of the built environment disciplines. As a result, he said, the college offers a rich, multifaceted environment, and his new department, with five degree programs serving four distinct disciplines — landscape architecture, urban planning, land development, and urban and regional science — “is almost like a college by itself.”
The department’s programs, he said, “provide a good mix,” complementing his background in ecology, planning, landscape architecture and interdisciplinary collaboration. Prior to his job at WSU Spokane, for nine years Ndubisi had a joint appointment at the University of Georgia. He taught at the School of Environmental Design, where he was tenured in 1992; and he served as city and regional planner for the Institute of Community and Area Development, where he conducted applied research and provided consultation services in design and growth management to Georgia communities.
In 1982, Ndubisi earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture from University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. He completed his doctoral studies in regional planning and resource development in 1987 at the University of Waterloo, also in Ontario.
With its academic diversity, A&M’s landscape architecture and urban planning department also facilitates Ndubisi’s longstanding desire to foster communication between design disciplines through collaborative projects and interdisciplinary teaching and research, a passion that has fueled his career.
“One person can no longer do everything,” he said. “We have to acknowledge this and work collaboratively with others to solve problems — the whole is created from smaller parts.”
A native of Nigeria, Ndubisi is the son of two schoolteachers who
instilled in him a zeal for learning that paid off early on when
he finished high school at the age of 16. His father, who earned
a doctorate in education from Columbia University, also served as
chairman of the education commission for the state of Anambra, in
Nigeria. Sadly, he died on the same day that Ndubisi interviewed
for the department head position at A&M.
Though his high school graduation exam indicated he was best suited for a career in religion, ultimately the built and natural environments captured Ndubisi’s imagination.
“I had several opportunities to travel abroad, and during those trips it occurred to me that there was a substantial difference in the quality of the built environment between Nigeria and England,” he recalled. “In Lagos, there was environmental degradation, disorganization and inadequate infrastructure and land use policies — basically, the carrying capacity of the environment was exceeded.”
Though his parents wanted him to pursue a degree in medicine, he began his college studies in engineering. However, when his application to medical school came through after his first semester, he conceded to his parents’ wishes, only to discover later on that he simply wasn’t suited for the medical profession.
“Theoretically, I could do it,” he said, “but when I went to the hospital, I felt sad.”
So, to retain his credits in the biological sciences at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, he switched his undergraduate major to zoology and added a minor in ecology. It wasn’t until his senior year, while perusing a Guelph University course catalogue, that he discovered landscape architecture. He made copies of the pages and “every now and then” he’d take them out and read them again.
“It mentioned the ability to creatively weave knowledge from the arts and sciences in addressing design and planning issues, and an intense desire to enhance the quality of people’s lives in the built and natural environments,” Ndubisi recalled. “The field seemed to cement all of the things that I wanted to do.”
However, landscape architecture is a relatively obscure field in Nigeria. When he told his mother what he wanted to study, she asked, “How can such a brilliant guy like you be a gardener?” It wasn’t until a friend in the land development business showed him plans, drawn by an Italian firm, for a resort project that was under construction in Nigeria that Ndubisi discovered exactly what it was that a landscape architect does. He wrote to the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects and asked which school offered the best programs. Serendipitously, they wrote back and recommended Guelph.
It was while studying at Guelph that Ndubisi observed a problem with cultural bias that ultimately laid the foundation for his graduate studies in culture-informed design and planning.
“There are certain assumptions about design principles that are, in reality, culturally dependent — in this case, dependent on the culture of Western society,” he explained. “That was what got me interested in the link between culture and design, and the design and planning implications of these differences.”
The perception of space, he said, can be very different between cultures. Whereas Nigerians have a high tolerance for crowds, as demonstrated in their crowded buses, Americans do not. Likewise, in Nigeria people use landmarks to give directions instead of cardinal directions.
This kind of cultural bias was evident in a rural outreach development project that Ndubisi worked on while at Guelph for the Ojibwa Indians in Northern Ontario. The project, funded by a grant from W.K. Kellogg, involved the development of a new Ojibwa community. An engineering and construction firm from Toronto had drawn up what many considered a fabulous design, but the Ojibwa rejected the plan.
“It was turned down, in part, because it violated many aspects of their way of life,” he explained. “In a subdivision, you divide the lots and assign specific functions for each space. That violated the Ojibwa’s sense of space. Traditionally, they were a hunting and trapping society used to expanses of space.
“We think of recreation as an activity that takes place in a specific place and time,” he continued. “We go to the park to play, or the beach to swim. But for the Ojibwa, recreation is an integral part of their lives; their environment is park-like. Recreation is an everyday activity that cannot be treated separately.”
To bridge this cultural impasse, Ndubisi developed a phenomenological approach in which the Ojibwa participated in the design process.
“You can only go so far by yourself,” he said. “It is fundamental that the design should flow from the community.”
Ndubisi’s process involved three-steps. First, he examined the Ojibwa’s history and heritage to gain understanding about their relationship with the environment, their way of life and how both have evolved. Next, he studied their current relationship with the land in a process that included walking with clients through the project site and noting their observations and reactions. Finally, he created a model of the site and invited the clients to create forms and spaces reflecting their ideal image of the community.
“I analyzed their creations and asked them why they placed certain buildings in particular spots. Then, based on what they did and said, I was able to extract commonalities. I learned what things to pay attention to,” he explained. “You have to embrace the culture and use it as a basis of design, so that the place created is lodged in their sense of time and place.”
Ndubisi’s master’s thesis on the Ojibwa project was the first landscape architecture thesis to earn distinction at Guelph. It also earned a Merit Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. Additionally, Ndubisi’s research in cross-cultural design established a participatory theme that would later inform Ndubisi’s doctoral work and ultimately echo throughout his career in his research, teaching and management style.
Ndubisi’s initial success with the Ojibwa earned him a number of consulting jobs on culture-informed design projects throughout Ontario, which in turn helped fund his doctoral studies in planning at the University of Waterloo.
PLANNER AS MEDIATOR
As a doctoral student, he switched his focus from design to cross-cultural planning. He theorized that there were differences and similarities of consequence in the value orientation of American Indian communities, and those of the consultants who worked with them.
He examined the planning systems supporting American Indian communities and concluded that the systems needed to be “participatory, adaptive to change, and considerate of the clients’ cultural values.” In addition to technical skills, he said, cross-cultural planning requires planners to engage in a group-based process in which mediation skills are paramount.
“The ability to listen, to have an empathic understanding of the issues, and the ability to observe things around you,” he said, “are needed to assist and enhance the group-based mediation process.”
Again, Ndubisi’s dissertation, “Variations in Value Orientations: Implications for Guiding Community Decision Behavior in Cross-cultural Settings,” was the first doctoral work to earn distinction in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Waterloo University.
REAL PROBLEMS, REAL SOLUTIONS
After earning his doctorate at Waterloo, Ndubisi accepted a dual appointment at the University of Georgia where, in the School of Environmental Design, he taught courses in environmental analysis and led studios in urban design, planning, landscape architecture and community design. At the same time, he worked with the university’s Institute of Community and Area Development (ICAD).
“The position offered everything I was looking for,” he said, “an opportunity to teach, research and consult.”
ICAD engages faculty from a variety of academic disciplines to help Georgia communities anticipate and plan for growth. The institute also offers research and consultation in community planning, economic development, health services planning, creative problem solving, natural resource management, and regional planning and development.
“I did not have Native Americans to deal with in Georgia,” he mused, “so my interest transformed into participatory planning and group processes.”
Because of his joint appointment, Ndubisi said he learned to be very careful about the projects he selected through ICAD.
“When feasible, I selected projects that offered an opportunity for research. As a result,” he said, “we were not only able to provide services for clients, but the projects became the basis of learning, teaching, and research, which in turn provided opportunities to write and publish articles. In the process, students gained exposure to real problems and real solutions.”
During his nine years as city and regional planner for the institute, Ndubisi participated with his students on a number of projects significant to Georgia communities.
A 1992-93 project, focusing on the revitalization of East Athens, Ga., was adopted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a model for U.S. communities seeking enterprise grants. In preparation for the 1996 Olympic Games, Ndubisi also led a project involving the enhancement of the visual corridor along Interstate 20 in Rockdale County, Ga.
In 1989, the Georgia government created a law mandating community planning. Ndubisi was later asked to develop a phasing scheme for compliance, and in the process, he said, it became evident that the community classifications were too broad. To address this problem, he developed an eight-category classification system that was eventually adopted by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs and then Georgia Governor Zell Miller.
Because ICAD received considerably more requests for assistance than the institute was able to deliver, the institute relied on a group-based “advocacy planning” process in which consultancy teams would visit with client committees to help them articulate their planning and design issues. Ndubisi’s growing interest in participatory planning and multidisciplinary problem solving led him in 1997 to accept the directorship of the newly established Interdisciplinary Design Institute at Washington State University - Spokane.
The institute was created to foster collaborative learning, research and community service projects involving the four built environment disciplines taught at Washington State — architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and construction management.
“The four programs were located in three departments on two campuses,” Ndubisi said, illustrating the challenges he faced in building an interdisciplinary culture at the new institute. “I had to find a dynamic balance between disciplinary and interdisciplinary orientations. Even though I had the authority to allocate resources, academic authority was lodged in the academic departments at the Pullman campus. To be effective, I had to be a facilitator. It was an ongoing, evolving process.”
As the institute’s first director, Ndubisi drew from his experiences at the University of Georgia. He emphasized the examination of real-word problems within an interdisciplinary context, creative achievement by faculty and students and service to the larger community.
“Real life projects, as opposed to abstract projects, provide the best opportunity for a pedagogical approach to interdisciplinary design, interaction and learning. Additionally,” he said, “real projects tend to attract a great deal of media attention which enhances the visibility of the program.”
Because the institute was breaking new ground, Ndubisi said, there were few known “best practices” to guide them. They adopted a unique collaborative technique, somewhat different from the standard paradigm.
“In the standard model, upper-division students start together then separate into their different areas of specialization. In our model, which is very, very unique,” he said, “the students begin their design education within their individual disciplines, and then toward the end, they came together.”
To strike a balance between teaching and research at the institute, Ndubisi embraced an encompassing definition of scholarship developed by Ernest Boyer, a renowned educational reformer. “Boyer’s Notion,” he said, divides scholarship into four functions: the scholarship of discovery (research), the scholarship of integration (across disciplines and areas of inquiry), the scholarship of sharing knowledge (teaching), and the scholarship of the application of knowledge (engagement of scholarship with the community).
It didn’t take Ndubisi long to figure out that interdisciplinary collaboration is not for everyone.
“There are creative tensions between disciplinary and interdisciplinary work that will always exist. Some people are amenable to it and others are not,” he said. “Through a process that we established at the institute, we were able to attract only those people who were truly interested in interdisciplinary collaboration. I would tell faculty interested in working with us, if you cannot participate in interdisciplinary work, then this is not the place for you — period!”
However, such stern warnings did little to discourage growth at the design institute, which grew from six to 18 full-time and eight adjunct faculty under Ndubisi’s direction. The program offerings also expanded to include four new graduate degrees: a master of science in landscape architecture, a master of arts in interior design, a master of science in architecture with options in design theory and design-build, and a doctorate of design, which was the second such degree in the nation.
Also, on Ndubisi’s watch, an articulated bachelor’s-master’s degree in interior design was created and dual degree program guidelines were developed for the design disciplines.
All students enrolled in the design institute’s graduate programs were required to take an “interdisciplinary core” that included 12 credit hours of interdisciplinary instruction including theory, methodology, applications and seminars.
‘I GET BORED’
Throughout his career, Ndubisi expanded his involvement in a number of organizations. He served as chair of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture, a position encompassing a three-year term as vice president, president and past president. He also served as chair of the Landscape Architecture Accrediting Board and the Council of Landscape Architecture Registration Board. Additionally, he was a member of the Landscape Architecture Foundation Board and the American Society of Landscape Architects, where he has served on the group’s academic support committee.
With an active role in all of these organizations competing with his duties at Washington State, Ndubisi confessed, he was under a great deal of pressure. During his first year at Spokane, for instance, he had to travel every three weeks. But the challenge, he said, enhanced his excitement and heightened his energy level.
“I am best in the developmental mode, where I have an opportunity to shape things,” he said. “When I start pushing paper, I get bored.”
His energy level is evidenced in his prolific scholarly output. In addition to numerous articles, papers and book chapters, Ndubisi has authored or co-authored three books. His latest, and perhaps most important book, “Ecological Planning: A Historical and Comparative Account,” published in 2002 by Johns Hopkins University Press, has been widely acclaimed for its refreshing and innovative approach to the topics of land use planning and landscape architecture. Ndubisi’s work on ecological planning earned the only Honor Award in Research presented in 1999 by the American Society of Landscape Architects. In 2003, his book earned the Certificate of Merit Award from the ASLA’s Washington Chapter.
“The author’s goals are on target, for no other book sets the ideas of landscape planning into a set of developing concepts within a historical context,” writes Sally Schauman of Duke University in her review of Ndubisi’s book. “There are few books on landscape planning in general and none to my knowledge that attempt both a complete overview and a comparative analysis. Ndubisi’s approach is sound in every way. This book is long overdue.”
Ndubisi’s highly acclaimed book, combined with his stellar career and high visibility in a variety of professional organizations has made him a much sought after faculty member. When he accepted the department head position at Texas A&M last summer, he was a semi-finalist for three different dean-level posts.
The A&M position was especially appealing, Ndubisi said, because of the university’s national reputation as a major research institute. The fact that the graduate and undergraduate landscape architecture programs rank second, nationally, in the Gourman Report, he said, was another feather in the department’s cap. Additionally, the A&M job put him at the helm of an urban planning program, a discipline that was missing from the line-up at the Interdisciplinary Design Institute.
His first semester as head of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning has been a busy one, focused primarily on developing short and long-term plans for the department. In keeping with the participatory process he has advocated throughout his career, Ndubisi began by getting acquainted with the faculty, whom he interviewed individually in a series of one-hour sessions.
“I wanted to know their ideas, what issues and challenges they defined and how the department can help them,” he said.
He synthesized the results of those sessions, and after presenting them to the faculty for clarification and feedback, the amended notes formed the framework for a daylong strategic visioning workshop held by the department last November.
“It is obvious that our mission deals with physically enhancing the quality of the built and natural environment in a sustainable manner,” Ndubisi said. “But embedded in that quest are core values that shape us, like lifelong learning, social commitment, respect, and critical thinking.”
At the workshop, the faculty defined five topical areas for further development: strategic planning, marketing, strengthening the curriculum, developing incentives and rewards for the faculty, and expanding partnerships with the department’s constituents.
As those solutions develop, Ndubisi will also be focusing on the department’s five degree programs, beginning this year with the master of science in land development and the master of urban planning, then proceeding to the Ph.D. in urban and regional planning, and subsequently examining the master’s and bachelor’s programs in landscape architecture.
An independent consultant, Donald R. Epley, a distinguished professor of real estate from Washington State University, has already visited the A&M campus and evaluated the MSLD program. Ndubisi shared Epley’s report with the faculty last fall.
Since joining the department, Ndubisi has increased faculty participation in the governance of the department’s degree programs by establishing coordinating committees and requiring faculty to participate in one of the five groups. Additionally, the programs are overseen by coordinating councils that work with the new faculty committees.
On the marker board in his office, Ndubisi has a diagram with three overlapping circles representing the disciplines comprising his department. The space where the circles intersect, he said, represent areas of commonality between the disciplines. This, he said, is the area that he hopes to expand.
“I am very excited, Ndubisi added, “about the opportunity we have to build on the department’s diversity, and the strength and quality of our faculty and students. I want to maximize our competitiveness and position us as sustained leaders in all of our programs.”