Urban Design Dreams: Improving Careers & Neighborhoods

Erica Cochran, an assistant professor at CMU, is working to simultaneously diversify Pittsburgh's urban design industry and help neighborhoods in need.

Erica Cochran studied architecture in college in the early 1990s, when she says only about 100 accredited architects in the United States were black women.

Today, she’s working to keep improving on that statistic — and Pittsburgh — as an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the director of the UDream program within the CMU School of Architecture’s Remaking Cities Institute [cmu.edu/rci].

UDream, which stands for Urban Design Regional Employment Action for Minorities, began at CMU in 2009. It brings about 10 recent college graduates from around the country for an intensive 18-week program focusing on urban design in a neighborhood in need. Students complete classes, work with high school students to help them learn about architecture and urban design and end the program with a local internship in the architecture field. The goal of the program is to keep them in Pittsburgh, where they’ll share their professional skills. The Heinz Endowments and other donors pay for the costs of student tuition, housing and travel.

“Because of the program, we’re adding diversity on a professional level to the city,” Cochran says.

The students complete studio projects in struggling areas throughout the city, looking at problems that could be solved through urban planning. In 2014, one project involved researching the Hill District’s Centre Avenue corridor, which has been a focus of redevelopment, and creating a plan for green, affordable housing there.
Cochran, 41, of Highland Park, was attending graduate school at CMU (she went on to earn her Ph.D. there as well) when she became a teaching assistant within the UDream program. She became coordinator in 2011 and director in 2013.

This year, the American Institute of Architects recognized UDream as an honoree of its Diversity Recognition Program for UDream’s innovative method of diversifying Pittsburgh’s urban design industry.

“People who come through the program are amazing, and they fall in love with the city like the rest of us and become citizens, and it increases the diversity of the architectural profession for Pittsburgh,” Cochran says. “It’s a nice way to recruit the best and the brightest from across the country and bring them here.”


Why is the UDream program important for Pittsburgh?
Because all of our studio projects are always in a neighborhood that’s facing challenges, it’s a way to bring the expertise in sustainable design, urban planning, real estate design — just the expertise that comes with CMU — to the community for free. [Residents] may not be able to afford to hire a firm to do a full assessment [of their neighborhood], but this is something CMU can do to help a neighborhood because we’re a part of the Pittsburgh community, and we should be giving back. 

What are your goals for the program?
I want to expand. I would love it to be more than just architecture. I could see minorities and women in everything. We could increase in [the] engineering [field]; we could do more in math and computer science. … I think it’s a nice formula that shouldn’t be kept just to us. 

What’s something people may not know about you?
I love sports, any type of sports, and a couple of years ago I learned to surf.

In Pittsburgh?
I don’t do it in Pittsburgh; only when I’m not here. When I’m here I just have to run on a treadmill. When I get away and I’m at the beach, I just love getting out there on the water. It’s so much fun.


Categories: Community Feature