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// In pursuit of models for social impact design & community engagement in practice //



Jul '14 - Sep '14

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    Rabbit Architecture

    Matt Kleinmann
    Sep 30, '14 11:04 PM EST

    This post comes as the result of a lively banter on twitter, one that involved members of the KC design community. It's far from perfect - watching your hometown team potentially choke away its first playoff game of your lifetime will shorten your attention-span too - but below is my long-form response:


    I enjoyed following the 20+ notifications I got in the conversation between @freshbreadkc @KCMidtowner @MattNuge @Yeslikedavis and @lscott1967. I wanted to add to the conversation, but since this is a passion and occupation of mine, it would've taken more than 140 characters. Here's my thoughts:

    Speaking as just one architect (non-licensed, mind you), I think my profession is uniquely positioned to envision, design, and then build within the urban fabric systems and structures that support the community. We're not the only ones that do it, as Sean (@freshbreadkc and baker-in-residence as well as social art provocateur) can attest to, nor are we always the best at it (Sean would probably agree here too). But our industry, from how we're educated to how we're licensed by our state to who we work for and what we ask to get paid for the work we do, makes our industry uniquely suited for developing projects. Most of these projects have the very real potential to raise the quality of life in the surrounding community. But here's the kicker: by and large, we don't know how to do it.

    That's changing, however, as is the overall myth that good design comes from inherently singular (and therefore insulated) 'designers' is continuing to erode. In terms of 'high design', or design that graces the cover of magazines - and affords name recognition akin to Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid, etc. - design does still rest on the laurels of the artistic genius. The issue is that, in pursuit of greater relevancy and more lucrative commissions, both the universities that train architects and the design firms that aspire for greater prestige amongst other design firms, we've effectively limited our involvement to only what we are liable for, insured for, and therefore tend to care less about the concerns others. For example, the new Louvre Museum being designed in Dubai is a modern marvel for an architect... but the artists in the area refused to collaborate because of human rights violations related to its construction.

    At the same time, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction towards more socially sustainable forms of architecture. Following the models found in the fields of law and healthcare, designers are finally starting to take on a 'do no harm approach', and beginning to work primarily in the public's best interest, and not solely in the interest of their client. The emergence of Public Interest Design (or Social Impact Design), speaks to the larger trend among architects and planning professionals interested in forming non-profit design firms that take on the wicked problems in cities. Community Design Centers, a hallmark of the 1960's and 70's, are returning back in style, where entrepreneurial designers are aligning the design of a project with a greater mission for social welfare, and then helping design the systems that fund and eventually build their projects.

    Public Architecture, SEED Projects, Structures for Inclusion,, MASS Design Group, BcWORKSHOP, Gulf Coast CDS, Tulane City Center, Detroit Design Collaborative, Hester Street Collaborative, Kounkuey Design Initiative, Enterprise Rose Fellowship... these are just a few of the examples of this shift in design. The key thing about each of them? They all have established partnerships with others (looking at you, Eric! @KCMidtowner and Bike Walk KC advocate). Hester Street works with neighborhoods and the Center For Urban Pedagogy to create projects like People Make Parks. Tulane City Center works with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority to identify community partners. Enterprise works with low-income housing organizations to place young architects into primary design roles on projects that serve the community.

    We're finally figuring it out that we can't (and shouldn't) do it alone. We need to collaborate, and not just with the professionals (planners, politicians, economists, developers), but also - especially - with the community (advocates, neighborhood associations, artists, small business owners, etc.). Along the way, these groups are figuring out that the people we aspire to work with know far more about a place than we, as designers from the outside, ever could. So instead, we're (re)developing new (and old) ways to work together, designing tools for engagement more than developing our own ideas for a single building or site, and letting people be a major part of the process. This is what I'm introducing to my students in architecture school, and while it's been positive so far, it's a major culture shift for many of them, especially since they haven't experienced the status quo yet.

    The goal of all this is that if people feel that they were incorporated as active participants, and not just a token box to cross off the list from some agency or institution, they'll then embrace the process to a greater degree, and feel a stronger sense of ownership of the end result. They then become the best advocates and caretakers of our work. To many architects, there's a fear that this process dilutes the 'design', or to funders that opening it up to input will unnecessarily complicate or divide the community. For that very reason, we often see 'Town Hall' meetings, where architects don't invite a dialogue, and maintain the existing power structure in the decision making process. To push back against that, public interest projects are moving beyond the 'build it and they will come' approach - as certain tactical urbanism projects are popularizing - but are now beginning to design for ways to invite the community in and afford them tangible opportunities to do it themselves, thereby empowering people to generate their own designs and systems long after the initial project is done.

    Here's just a few of my favorite links/examples:

    Thanks for reading.

    • 1 Comment

    • Preach it, Matt.

      More on this later.  I'm struggling to finish up a talk I'm giving at the IN-KY AIA conference Friday morning covering very similar topics.  Here is the brief:

      The City Is A Cleaver: Urban Social Action in Practices Both Traditional and Non

      My presentation will show examples of current civic engagement through non-traditional practice within the realm of architecture and urban design. I'll present projects by People for Urban Progress, Broken City Lab, DSGN AGNC, and others across the country and world. This work is all being done by architects and/or architecture school graduates who are consciously engaging in non-traditional practices to build local community and improve urban design and infrastructure. I'll also place this presentation within the context of NCARB's ongoing discussions (which I am part of in my role with AIA National's Emerging Professionals group) about how to allow non-traditional practice work be used for IDP credit. It will be an optimistic look at some very contemporary work. 

      So I'm actually presenting examples this so-called "non-traditional" form of practice as well as presenting how NCARB/AIA are truly starting to realize that this way of working needs to be embraced if we want to halt the hemorrhage of architecture graduates to other fields.

      Oct 1, 14 8:41 am  · 

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