Designing Equity was a recent forum facilitated by Toni L. Griffin. Convened jointly by The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Surdna Foundation, over 100 participants including architects, landscape architects, urban planners, community leaders, and funding agencies from across the country met for a day-long workshop in Washington, DC. The workshop combined case study presentations, large group discussions, and small-group activities all created to stimulate dialogue and bubble up unique opportunities moving forward. The following is Part II of the two-part series detailing presentations and dialogue during the forum. Part I was published on August 2, 2016.
Design at the Scale of Systemic Change
The final session attempted to offer lessons on scaling up our definitions of community to the City. Focusing on a case study in New York, Jerry Maldonado from the Ford Foundation moderated a panel consisting of participants engaged in the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan. The plan emerged as an opportunity to engage in Mayor DeBlassio’s borough-wide up-zoning process. Given the rate of growth and displacement across the city, a key community decision was to engage the process instead of resist through protest; this was a key decision point credited by all as a reason for successful engagement.
Sandra Youdelman from Community Voices Heard laid out in great detail the need for politically savvy actors to navigate the complex relationships within the community and between the community and the city. By introducing the language of “Power,” “Players,” and “Campaigns” (i.e. borrowing strategies for getting people engaged in political campaigns for a planning process), Ms. Youdelman illustrated the value of engaging a wide range of allies in the process. This was especially important to communicate because another participant was George Sarkissian from NYC Council ‘s Economic Development Division. Mr. Sarkissian made plain the political and economic risks and rewards for engaging a community in a contentious process, and praised the political savvy of the group.
Isella Ramirez from Hester Street Collaborative shared her strategies for building and adapting community engagement strategies to the shifting needs of the group. Her organizational and graphic tools, as well as inclusive tools (multi-lingual materials, use of new media and video, etc.) were praised by the group for aspiring to make the decision making process clear. Ms. Ramirez was especially focused on helping the community understand trade-offs from development decisions. An innovative approach asked community residents to role play as developers and translate simplifed upzoning requirements using real financial data and Return On Investment (ROI) precedents.
Finally, Kevin Ryan from The New York Foundation described how he was able to recruit allies in the financial community to participate in sustaining this in-depth engagement process and inspired by its success, work with city officials to co-create equitable development financing tools. New York City’s scale, density of resources, and sense of urgency due to development pressure is a difficult context to replicate elsewhere. However, this session was unique in that direct community engagement was inextricably linked to solution strategies extending far beyond the geographic and social network boundaries in East Harlem.
Small group working sessions occurred between each full group session. Tables were composed of diverse groups of designers, planners, community activists, funders, and allies. Prompted by prescribed questions and documented by note takers, table topics aligned with overall session themes. Given the number of designers present, they also diverged in interesting ways. For example, when asked to select individual case studies of community engaged design processes, there were several instances where different people who were involved in the same case saw their involvement in significantly different ways. Some assumed others were involved in key moments when they were not and vice versa. This particular prompt sparked group wide conversation about the value of communication and reflection on often fast-moving processes.
The working sessions also prompted a lot of discussion about the roles of government. In his remarks, Brent Brown was particularly accusatory of the negligence of local and state governments and he saw his role as a designer as discovering ways to work in counterpoint to a legacy of harmful community decision making. His frustrations in West Texas mirrored those found elsewhere. Everything from underfunded municipalities to, as Dr. Assata-Nicole Richards described, discriminatory policies, were identified as barriers to successfully executing community engaged design processes.
However, renowned Architect Teddy Cruz gave what would be an informal summation to the session by challenging all of the participants to not blame the government and realize that good governance is all of our responsibilities. It was his observation that the current political climate makes it easy to erroneously dismiss the role good governance as a key component in sustainable communities. However, as designers and planners, we should remain focused on the potential for good design and planning to also contribute to society. Specifically, he referenced the hope and dignity afforded broader society through The New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a case in how design and planning strengthened the nation’s infrastructure and reflected the best aspirations of good governance.
Additionally, Designing Equity was being held at The NEA, a governmental organization. In his closing remarks, Jason Schupbach, Director of Design Programs at NEA, celebrated the role The NEA has played through the Our Town grant process and many more efforts to facilitate the interaction between artists, designers, and communities to generate collaborative solutions. Mr. Schupbach also referenced the complexity of contemporary urban challenges and identified the Federal government’s interest in building “place-based initiatives” requiring careful coordination across multiple agencies. He was optimistic about the precedent set by The NEA in fostering collaboration, and saw a role for art and design in the future of these initiatives. Mr. Schupbach’s comments were reinforced by Jessica Garz from the Surdna Foundation. As a partner in the event, she was inspired by the sessions and discussions and was excited to incorporate lessons learned into Surdna’s funding priorities.
As a participant, it was interesting to experience so many references to the landscape as an integral part of equity issues. The challenge of reinforcing indigenous seven generation land planning strategies, the legacies of discriminatory housing and transportation policies, challenges with health and safety in urban environments, exposure to risks of flooding and pollution… all of these and more were mentioned as significant challenges. However, not once was a landscape architect or a work of landscape architecture mentioned during the workshop. This is not uncommon. Landscape architecture is an invisible profession to many communities. Given the number of landscape architects and designers in community engaged practice, there is a need to be more visible and extroverted about our work and lessons learned. Engaging with our colleagues in workshops like this is a good start.
It’s also interesting how comfortable designers, planners, and landscape architects are with navigating the complexity of natural systems. From data about landscape performance, to indicators about climate adaptation, there are few professional skill sets better suited to build a comfort level with extreme complexity. However, the tools, techniques, and sometimes tolerance with developing those skill sets about understanding the impacts of the human condition don’t always match that of natural systems. This is particularly difficult in urban context where the wave of regenerative design and planning is reaching unprecedented prominence and visibility. There are communities that require less complex tools for understanding the socio-cultural practices present there and in the current systems of practice, lend themselves for design with a capital “D.”
What’s important to take from Designing Equity is that there is multidisciplinary design and funder momentum providing knowledge bases and increasing amounts of resources in pursuit of the best tools to use now. In the present and near-past, dealing with race, class, and gender was outside of the formal scope of design practice. However, now and moving forward, there are few (if any) venues where designing in the public realm will not require expertise in diverse perspectives, histories, perceptions, and opportunities. It is an urban world challenged with climate adaptation and other risks to our shared health, safety, and well-being. Our time mandates developing and propagating robust tools working with human systems as well as natural systems.
Lastly, it was important that this convening included a diverse set of participants, cases, and topics. It was diverse in the broad sense; all parts of the workshop contained meaningful participation from women, people of color, and people with a wide range of expertise. In an interpersonal sense, there was also a diversity of thought and ideas. Experience and emerging designers and planners engaged with community activists, bankers, artists, and engineers. The fruits of this carefully calibrated diversity of thought leaders was made most apparent in the table sessions where small groups were able to discuss issues, debate, and engage in intimate dialogue about complex issues.
In addition to providing a more realistic representation of the range of players required to address community challenges, this format also afforded the unplanned and indirect human dynamics that can be the sparks of innovation. It is insufficient that the most diverse groups have been somewhat “ghettoized” into forums that demand diversity, like social equity. However, they do serve as a reminder of how much richer discussions and interactions can be when landscape architects don’t only talk to themselves, but actively seek out and engage others.
Designing Equity was an important setting that is in a wave of professional and academic interest in the future of our relationships between each other and the Earth. Landscape architects have a lot to learn and a lot to contribute to the conversation.
By Kofi Boone, ASLA, Environmental Justice PPN Officer (Allied Organizations Liaison)