Columbia Alumnus Damon Rich Speaks on MacArthur 'Genius' Grant

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When Damon Rich '97CC found out he was a recipient of this year's MacArthur "Genius" Grant, he couldn’t believe it.

"It was very, very surprising," he told The Low Down. "In this day and age, we assume unknown numbers are solicitations."

Rich added that he was still in disbelief during the call's opening lines: "Congratulations! You have been selected for…"

"You don't expect it to be real," he said. "They convinced me that they were legitimate, and I really became overwhelmed."  

Rich is one of four Columbians -- and one of three alumni -- to be awarded the prestigious fellowship this year.

In 2015, Rich co-founded Hector, a design, civic arts, and planning studio in Newark, NJ, and is currently working on projects in the city, as well as Philadelphia and San Francisco. Previously, he was Newark’s chief urban designer and director of planning. In that role, he revamped the city’s waterfront with parks, trails, and environmental installations, and updated its zoning regulations for the first time in 50 years.

In 1997, Rich founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy, and helped develop programs to engage community-based organizations and public school students in subjects like affordable housing and infrastructure design.

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In their profile of Rich, the MacArthur Foundation said he creates "vivid and witty strategies to design and build places that are more democratic and accountable to their residents."

"...he is committed to enlivening bureaucratic systems and applies a democratic approach to a wide range of projects, including designs for public spaces and exhibitions, civics curricula, and regulatory systems," the profile added.

Rich initially enrolled in Deep Springs College in California, before transferring to Columbia College as a junior and graduating in 1997. Columbia was the first place where Rich formally studied architecture, and he found that it complemented his interests in literature and philosophy.  

"I was really happy to find architecture," he said.

Rich has returned to Columbia for a third time (he taught a "Democratizing Architecture" seminar at Barnard College in 2016). His current role, adjunct associate professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) has him teaching a seminar titled, "Activism and Engagement in Urban Design."

He was invited to teach by fellow 2017 MacArthur winner Kate Orff, an associate professor at GSAPP.

"Students are going out to look at neighborhoods where planning and architecture have become controversial," Rich said.

In addition to learning how these plans became controversial, students are leading developed walking tours and creating portfolios of drawings.

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After the announcement of this year's MacArthur winners, Rich tweeted that he is grateful to so many teachers, heroes, and collaborators, and is "challenged and ready for the work."

He also hopes the recognition serves as inspiration to others.

"I really do hope that this recognition by the MacArthur Foundation encourages young people—students at Columbia and other places—to really consider making working in local government part of their career path," he told The Low Down. "If they are curious about the way the world is and want to see how things happen, and how one might begin to make a change."

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