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2018 Commencement Speech

Graduation speech as delivered to the graduates of the University of Maryland's School of Architecture Planning and Preservation by Dr. Rodney Harrell on December 19, 2018:

Good afternoon graduates, faculty, staff, family and friends.  It is my honor to be with you today. They say the best graduation speeches are short, focused and future-oriented, so naturally, I’ll start with something over 200 years ago. I used to work with the Maryland Heritage Areas Program. It was there that I learned about Riversdale, a mansion from the early 1800s located just a couple of miles from here. You don’t see a lot of houses like that - It strikes you as odd to see this Federal period mansion with these great Tuscan columns just a few blocks from Route One, and then you realize the massive scale of the plantation that it belonged to, which includes the ground that we stand on today. It makes me think of how much has changed around here since that time – slavery and tobacco crops no longer exist, and all of the homes, apartments, infrastructure, businesses and towns that you know (including this University) were built since that time.

Since then, transportation technology has steadily developed, along with architectural styles, planning practice, our understanding of sustainability, preservation, social justice, considerations of smart growth, and many of the concepts that you, I and previous generations of students have learned about over the five decades that this School has existed. 

Today is different. We are in a unique position as we are seeing fundamental shifts that will make the next 30 years very different, and these changes will impact the buildings and communities that you work on in the future.  I’ll mention two that are top of mind for me: First, our demographics are changing.  Many places in the country are becoming more diverse in many ways, but one type is clear: age.  For the entire time that we have been building in America (since before the time of Riversdale), younger people have outnumbered older people in the US. This is one of those facts that we take for granted and have established as “just the way things are.” It shapes our assumptions about who we are building for and what we need.

In 2030, people over age 65 will outnumber those under 18 for the first time in US history.  That is a huge shift – we have been able to get away with the assumption that there won’t be that many older adults around for centuries. The steps and narrow doorways at Riversdale and in many homes built recently don’t serve us all very well. Neither do communities with few transportation options. This is one example of the ways that we have designed our communities has led to limited choices, isolation and other poor outcomes for many residents.  We need to ensure that we have housing and communities to meet the needs of all, including the 70+ million older adults, and that will not happen overnight.

Another shift is the confluence of big data, machine learning and other technologies that lead us to everything from smart devices and apps of today to the autonomous vehicles and who knows what else of tomorrow - these advancements will reshape our communities and this can have impacts on housing patterns and communities that we don’t fully understand yet.  I am a believer that these changes will fundamentally shift how we get around and where we live - how our homes and communities are shaped and designed.  How will we build, market and locate housing, business and other structures that meet our needs?  That’s where many of you will come in.

I want to give you one vision for the future – this one shapes my work. It is one of a truly livable community that provides options that meet the needs of all residents across the spectrums of income, age, physical ability, ethnicity and other factors.  The hard truth is that housing and community choices are limited by a range of factors and every discipline in this school contributes to creating the kind of communities in which people and families can grow and thrive within.  People should not be forced out of communities because they do not have options that work for “people like them.” The idea is that it is our collective responsibility to work to create communities with a range of options that and meet the wide range of needs that residents have – these things don’t happen without the work of dedicated professionals.

I wouldn’t be doing my job as a speaker if I didn’t close with some advice. I talked to some of my colleagues in each of the schools areas, and I have consolidated the top five here.

1.     Take risks, be brave, bring new perspectives, and be proud of it.  We held a design competition for a home that supported people of all ages into the future and Junior Architects from NY beat out many more experienced teams to win.

On a different front, it took me years to get the idea of using social media for policy work to catch on when I started my  twitter and blog, but now, that is how AARP reaches the majority of its policy audience.  Don’t be limited in your thinking – if your idea is good enough, go for it.


2.     Learn from past experiences, your own and others, but don’t be limited by them. In other words, reach for tomorrow but look to the past.  Everything that happened in the past got you to where you are today and hidden in every setback is a lesson. Just because something didn’t work in the past, doesn’t meant that it won’t work with the right tweak or different circumstance.  A huge timesaver is to learn from other’s experiences. As someone once said, there is not enough time to make all of the mistakes in the world – you must learn from others


What is important is to learn from mistakes. We have all made them and luckily, my time limits me from telling you details, but there are meetings, decisions and memos that I would take back if I could, but all of those things helped me to get where I can.


3.     Start with a strategy, but be willing to adapt it.  Be open to all options. I learned this from one of my uncles – you should always have a plan.  Inevitably, you will have to adjust the plan, but having one gives you focus.  I talked to some friends in historic preservation, and “be willing to move to a new location or consider something unexpected” was their single biggest piece of advice, but it applies to all of us – in a limited job market, you may need to move for the job that you want. 


Sometimes that move isn’t a physical one.  I had no intention of working for a social mission organization focused on aging, but it was a good fit. My all-ages perspective helped as AARP developed their livable communities philosophy and programs. A single-minded focus would have meant that I missed out.


4.     Always be solution-oriented, but recognize there are no silver bullets – It’s easier to find problems, but personal and larger scale success comes in finding solutions. If something can be improved, don’t stop searching until you find the right answer. I just visited with architects and urban planners in California who have been working for years to find a way to make a dent in their housing  shortage, and they have found Accessory Dwelling Units address several needs – we are working collectively with national groups now to promote that work. It won’t solve all needs, but becomes a tool in the toolbox.


5.     Take in all advice, but don’t follow all advice.  Consider the source and some filter as appropriate, but you never know how or when something will resonate in your life. Even now I reflect on advice from years ago that I didn’t appreciate at the time.


    You face a different world than previous generations do. This school’s focus on multidisciplinary approaches to the built environment put you in a great position.  I and the other alumni are incredibly proud of the awards and competitions and honors that have been achieved, but all of you leave here with the tools that you need to start to shape that future.  Trust me when I tell you that coursework and projects that you didn’t think were relevant will serve you well as you face future challenges – a conceptual framework that I came up with for a class assignment here eventually became the framework of the world’s first nationwide neighborhood Livability Index over a decade later.  Concepts, techniques, theory and research and skills that you have learned serve as a foundation for what you can learn and do later on.

And now for the proof that you can learn from the mistakes of others – after you receive your diploma, don’t forget to pause for the photo. To this day, there is no photographic evidence that I actually graduated.  Learn from my mistake!

   Congratulations to all of you – everyone in this room is proud of you, and the world can use the lessons that you have learned and the ideas that you will create.  My challenge to you all is to take what you have learned and apply it to some problem out there – there is nothing more satisfying than knowing that you made a difference.


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