Putting the “public” back in public space

The design profession is growing more comfortable discussing issues like equity and social justice, but figuring out how to move from ideal to action can be difficult. Creating a more diverse workforce is a critical step. New York–based nonprofit Design Trust for Public Space recently launched a fellowship program to help do just this, providing recent college graduates from historically underrepresented groups the opportunity to spend a year building relationships with design professionals, city agencies, and community members alike.

I spoke with Jourdan Sayers to learn more about his experience as the organization’s first Equitable Public Space Fellow.

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Describe some of the projects you’ve worked on with the Design Trust that show the potential of inclusivity in design.

One is called Opening the Edge, which is working at the Wald Houses [a public housing project in Manhattan’s Lower East Side], which has a lot of fenced-off grass areas that no one can access.

The Lillian Wald Houses

The Lillian Wald Houses

We’re having a codesign process with the residents to make those grass areas usable. We meet with a core group of 15 or so residents about every three weeks and ask them about how they would like to use that area. We’re still doing those meetings, and people seem pretty excited. But there was some skepticism at first; it’s been a process. People aren’t used to being involved. A lot of it is about trust building.

There’s another project I’m working on called Future Culture. Staten Island’s waterfront is undergoing a major redevelopment, so we’re looking at how to make sure that local artistic and cultural communities have a strong stake in the development and in the future of their home.

Jourdan Sayers at a Future Culture community working group session

Jourdan Sayers (center) at a Future Culture community working group session

We have a weekly working group with 17 different artistic and cultural practitioners. We were really careful about pulling that group together, starting with looking at the demographics of the North Shore and figuring out who was really active in those different communities. We targeted the invites to make sure it wasn’t just the usual people who are involved in planning processes. For example, we looked at census data and saw there was a big Mexican-American community, so we reached out to a Mexican artist who coordinates the Day of the Dead festival every year. That can be more effective than dropping a flyer on a doorstep.

Both projects aren’t just about building things, but about building community and power. Neighbors are meeting each other for the first time, and when they’re working on something together and influencing something, it gives them a whole new power, or at least a new perspective on their power.

When neighbors are working on something together and influencing something, it gives them a new perspective on their power.

How did you get interested in the idea of equitable public spaces?

Most people in cities have access to some type of public space, and they use public space to serve their basic needs. But a lot the policies and designs we put in place in those spaces create boundaries — parks closing at night, for example, stop people from sleeping there who don’t have other places to sleep. I worked on a documentary about queer homelessness on the Christopher Street pier [in Manhattan], which was converted into a park and reopened with a curfew. That really affected its relationship with the people who used it. The people who used it at night were pushed out and onto residents’ stoops and other places, and then increasingly policed. It was really destabilizing.

Most of your projects involve working with nonprofessionals. What do they bring to the design of public spaces?

They have really inclusive definitions of public experience — like, anything from a park to a streetscape to a taxi cab. They really think about the entire public ecology and not just highly designed spaces.

Do you see a future in which cocreation is the normal way design is done?

I think it’s actually already fairly popular, to the point where it’s even been co-opted in ways. [Designers] say they’re involving residents, listening to them, but it’s another thing to actually have them influence the design.

How do you ensure that spaces actually get used in the way they’re collaboratively designed?

All of our projects end with some sort of maintenance memo. We recognize that you can’t just build something and not come back. A lot of the process is about establishing a strong local partner who will keep everything running smoothly after the project is built.

 

Questions or comments for Peter Moskowitz or Jourdan Sayers? Contact peter.moskowitz@gmail.com or jsayers@designtrust.org.

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