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August 19, 2020
by Jean You, Assoc. AIA, and Peter Martin, Assoc. AIA
The CLP class of 2020 at their first remote development session. Image: Center for Architecture.

With New York City burdened by the simultaneous crises of climate change, systemic racism, and a once-in-a-generation pandemic, architects must reevaluate their role in supporting the city’s most vulnerable communities.On Friday, July 17, the AIANY Civic Leadership Program (CLP) class of 2020 convened for its first remote development session, organized by Jean You, Assoc. AIA, and Peter Martin, Assoc. AIA. The cohort explored how architects can work within legacy and novel systems to better tackle the challenges we face today.

The session was broken into four parts, beginning with a group activity, inspired by articles by George Aye of Greater Good Studio, that prompted attendees to deconstruct their biases and preconceptions as designers. A few key takeaways included:

  • Be aware of the role of power and privilege in design processes and projects
  • Relationships between two parties or more often start with a power asymmetry, such as between the community of users and the sponsoring party or stakeholders.
  • There is often a gap between what good design is to architects, designers, and the public, and what good design means when evaluating projects promoting social impact and social good

Next, You and Martin discussed how environmental and political factors have impacted the crises in New York City. They also presented new systems and partnerships that architects can use to create equitable solutions. This presentation was followed by a panel discussion on transforming practice through community engagement, as well as organizational and funding strategies for civically minded architects.The invited panelists and experts were:

  • Chazandra Kern, Project Manager and Design Lead, LA-Más
  • Gabriel Halili, Designer and Urban Planner, Founder, Gabo Halili
  • Fauzia Khanani, Assoc. AIA, Founder, Studio For/ Design Advocates
  • Danish Kurani, Founder, Kurani
  • Peter Madden, Executive Director, JOE NYC

The cohort explored the power dynamics present in existing systems. As case studies, they were presented with two examples of Community Development Corporations (CDC) in Brooklyn: one that was established through top-down state means, the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AYCDC), and one that was established through bottom-up grassroots efforts, the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC). While both models catalyzed neighborhood transformation, the comparison showed how architects can evaluate the role they play in shaping power dynamics within communities.

The leaders also highlighted new partnerships and coalitions that have formed in response to the pandemic, signaling a recent shift in the way designers are getting involved directly with communities and neighborhoods. Below are takeaways from the Neighborhoods Now, a program that connected leading designers with five neighborhoods hard hit by COVID-19:

  • The communities are in the driver seat and working with community-based organizations helped build trust with communities during the short timeframe of the program
  • While the first phase of the program was reactionary, they are exploring ways to extend the program and potentially get involved in proactive long-term planning for the neighborhoods. As neighborhoods are subject to planning fatigue, the program is being mindful of not overpromising during the first phase
  • Communities are generally grateful for the fast services provided by the architecture firms compared to working with bureaucratic agencies
  • Architecture firms are able to get hands-on experience working with communities and are now building their toolkits of civic engagement to be used in the long-term

The session in whole equipped the cohorts with different avenues and frameworks that can aid their participation in more direct community-related work and to become better advocates in helping tackle current issues. In addition to hearing about the panelists’ personal journeys toward their current advocacy work, the tactics presented ranged from working pro bono through a platform of shared work to designing new models of financing. As architects, planners, and designers serving the public, it is not only critical for us to constantly be aware and assess our position within the power dynamics of projects, but also to find ways to shift the power back to the end users.

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