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Therese W. McMillan's Commencement Address to the College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley

Dean Wolch, Distinguished Faculty and Honored Graduates:

I am deeply privileged to be here with you on this day. I am particularly inspired by graduations — from kindergarten to graduate school — as they celebrate milestones of hard work and accomplishment held foremost by the students — but also by all those who supported and encouraged them along the way. So special thanks to all of the parents, extended family and friends with us here! The graduation community is truly special.

As your commencement speaker, I have been wrestling with the question of “Why me?" What have I done — what can I bring — to this podium that is worthy of remembering from this day? Is it a reflection of my own experience since my graduation from College of Environmental Design (CED) 35 years ago? Must I include memorable quotes from personages much more famous than me, from books I have not had time to read? Is it a call to action from my generation to yours — the future? I have landed on a bit on both reflection and action (and only one quote) —  drawing from my journey of mistakes made, lessons learned, accomplishments hard won, faith and no small measure of luck.

I titled my address “Place, People, and the Public Interest.” Looking back, this College continues to be on the leading edge of where these lines of study and responsibility intersect. CED has changed much since I was enrolled here, but its Departments, and the students, scholars and practitioners who continually mold, guide and sustain those Departments have held true to these principles.

“Place” can be defined in many ways. But in my experience, Place at its core is “space physically captured for a purpose.” That purpose may be shelter, protection, storage, assembly, creation — all manner of things. The Design of place for purpose is central to the beauty and science of Architecture.  Whether a small home, a temple, or a fortress, the architect’s vision should drive to optimal purpose of the Place, not unto itself but to the people that it serves.  And the Design of Place for people can profoundly impact intent — dictating acceptance and access on the one hand, or rejection and barrier on the other.  Thus the architect can deliberately shape the atmosphere and culture of place — a tall responsibility.

An essential parallel role is the impact of any human-hewn place on the landscape.  Centuries of building on the Earth have their consequences, much of which we have begrudgingly acknowledged, but too rarely held ourselves accountable.  Rather than smothering Mother Earth, Landscape Architecture, especially in this College, strives to embrace Her.  Such respect is critical especially now: as a people we must face the mirror and seriously ask if it is too little, too late. Mother Earth’s rage is undeniable- drought and fire; flood and rising seas; the attendant rain of starvation, disease, and physical and economic destruction upon the global family. Climate Change is real, and all of the Disciplines housed in Wurster Hall — and you now venturing forth from its walls — are destined to be at the forefront of this challenge in some way. Adaptation, Sustainability and Resilience — as noble and necessary as they have become — at center are a profoundly insufficient plea to our Mother for forgiveness. Yet we must give it our all.

Ultimately, People do need Place. BUILDINGS become PLACES when they are inhabited, and PLACES become CITIES when they are CONNECTED. Be it a hamlet or mega-polis, it is gathering and linkage that defines the City — not just its geographic location, but the network of opportunities deeply embedded within it. Defining, creating, maximizing and managing those connections is the heart of City and Regional Planning, my home department. The well being of a city is rightly measured by these opportunities, be they housing, jobs, education, health care, recreation. And it is not just how many opportunities exist in the City — it is about how they are intentionally shared among all those who live there. Only in this way does a City truly become a Community. In my humble opinion — and I state this as my view — we deny our accountability to shared opportunity at our peril. Despite the growing and frightening rise of individual, self centered interests claiming privacy and private gain as ultimate, premium goals — I believe that people, and thus Cities, only thrive as a community.

And the task is so much more complicated for you, than it was for me 35 years ago. Transportation — my lifelong career — is an illustrative case in point. Mobility provides access to opportunities for the people that live in places — large or small — or must move between them. But the very scale of transport defies even the “connected” definition of the City that I just painted. On any given day, a person may define community as intensely local — taking their child to the neighborhood school. Then, that same soul connects to a distinctly regional community by virtue of traveling from their home in Berkeley to their job 40 miles away in Silicon Valley. Then, after the frustrating journey back home with thousands of others doing the same, they call upon the “on-line” global community to produce a shirt in Asia that is then shipped and delivered to their front door over a span of just days involving multiple modes. All this without a thought regarding the impact of their multiple community connections. And this defines, in part, my world leading a transportation planning agency here in the Bay Area.

Which brings us, at the end, to the Public Interest.

There is an African proverb that rings especially true for me, in these times:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Even as the capacity of architectural design races ahead with new technologies; even as we painfully claw back shards of our environment from oblivion; even as our cities and their fantastic mix of customs and cultures shift and change before our eyes — taking care of people is at the heart of what we do.

People are the Public. The Public Interest must be about advancing the Public Good — why wouldn’t it be? And unless we actually set out to divide and suppress, this Good must be afforded to everyone, consciously and deliberately.

Connecting Place to ALL People is an arena of Public Interest — and hence public policy — that lands squarely in the wheelhouse of CED and its family. When policy fails the Public Interest in this space, we see huge consequences. The unacceptable and inhumane rise of homelessness in our cities is a stark example. If a city cannot provide — through the admittedly  complicated meshing of  physical, economic, and legal  means — even the most basic, safe and affordable shelter for those that seek its opportunities, something has gone hugely wrong. And if we in fact serve the PUBLIC interest, we collectively own that failure, whether we wear the cloak of public servant or private entrepreneur. And once we truly own the failure, we take on the collective responsibility to solve it, one way or the other.

That is the call to action that I leave with you today. Place must serve People. People must account for ALL. The Public Interest demands that connection, and TOGETHER, we must steward both our stumbles and successes to that purpose. 

  • Your education from CED has prepared you for this. 
  • Your graduation today opens the door. 
  • Walk through it with conviction. 

Thank you for the leadership you carry forth, and best of luck always.       

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