Alumni Q+A: Eric Shaw MUP ’00
Eric Shaw MUP ’00 has a unique perspective on the urban experience. Having grown up in a diverse, industrial working-class community outside Oakland, California, Shaw has lived in eight cities across the country in his relatively short life. Last year, he relocated to Utah from Louisiana, where he worked on post-Katrina disaster recovery efforts in state government and philanthropy. He has held economic development and planning positions in Miami, Washington D.C., and in the Silicon Valley.
Until October, Shaw was the Director of Community and Economic Development for Salt Lake City. He served as the lead city official responsible for oversight and strategic direction of the following city divisions: planning, economic development, transportation, engineering, building services, housing and neighborhood development, and arts council. Shaw has an undergraduate degree from UCLA and a master’s degree in urban planning from the GSD, where he graciously serves on our Alumni Council.
What’s your favorite city? Why?
I was amazed at Berlin when I first traveled there. I loved that every time you got off of the U-Bahn or the S-Bahn it felt like you were in a completely different place. The people are fun and unpretentious. It’s a cosmopolitan city without being cliché.
When did you realize you would be a planner?
I was exposed to a design sensibility in the 9th grade at a summer program at UC Berkeley to prepare youth of color for college. I realized that I wanted to be a planner studying the dynamics of Los Angeles as an undergraduate at UCLA. I didn’t realize that planners were designers until my first day at GSD.
How does your environment impact your work?
Salt Lake City is planned with a purpose unique from that of any other city in the United States, and with intentionally planned 132 foot right of ways. I learned early on that development in SLC is about how to make the models of success our own, versus exactly replicating what other cities are doing.
What is your biggest professional accomplishment? And, your biggest regret?
My biggest accomplishments both happened during my time in Louisiana—the first was the creation of the Community Resiliency Pilot Project designed to provide hurricane impacted communities in Louisiana with funds to develop (for many their first) masters plans. And the second was the Citizen Guide to Urban Design and Citizen Guides to Land Use, designed to teach everyday people about the role of planning and design in their lives.
I’m also extremely proud that I was able to work with my planning team to get a chapter on social equity included in the new general plan for Salt Lake City. It is now the only major city in the United States with such a section in its plan.
As far as regrets, I wish I would have more actively sought out opportunities to work outside of the country when I was younger.
As someone who has moved around a fair amount, I suspect you enjoy travel. Describe your best trip ever?
My best trip ever was my GSD studio trip to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority–it was also the first time I had left the country.
Where have you travelled in last year?
Tokyo, LA, SF, New York, Philadelphia, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Denver, Chicago, Las Vegas.
Wow! So is there anywhere you have left to visit?
I can’t wait to go to Rio de Janeiro.
Other than travel, what do you do for exercise, to relax, and summer recreation?
I don’t exercise. To relax I open a decent bottle of red wine and watch a Chopped Marathon on the Food Network. Summers are spent in the office, doing my job!
How does your experience at the GSD impact your life today?
I learned that design has a significant role in the planning of a city. And while at GSD I learned to incorporate design into my thinking of the city as a social system. This is helpful as I oversee both design and social programs in the Community and Economic Development Department.
Doing a pin-ups and reviews prepared me for every time I have to testify in front of City Council. (I actually think the professors were a bit rougher). I still reference things I saw in a studio pin up (from others) to my staff and colleagues in brainstorming sessions.
How much do you rely upon your GSD network in your work today?
They are dear friends and colleagues who I try and work with as much as possible. I also rely on them to make sometime dull conferences a lot more eventful–the MUPS are a fun bunch.
What is the most significant thing you learned at the GSD?
I learned to always stick to your core vision and build your work from there.
What advice would you have for young GSD alumni?
Learn how to draw with a sign pen and trace, because sometimes you have to scribble down a design thought and don’t have InDesign handy. Also, think bigger than living and working in the big cities–a lot of innovation is happening in cities that you would least expect. Never be ashamed to say you went to Harvard GSD. It opens doors.
What’s your favorite memory of the GSD?
I think my favorite memory was my first day of school when all of the students in UPD had to do a two-minute slide presentation on why they wanted to be a planner or designer. I still remember most of those stories today.
Is there someone you hope to work for still?
Where will you retire?
Somewhere warm, with a beach and attractive people. Brazil or the South of France.