Photos: Alison Mears, Lizzi Hernandez

Designers often ask what role community stakeholders should have in the public design process, but rarely consider the role of designers in community-building processes. This year’s annual APA-ASLA-AIA conference—Public Spaces, Social Movements: How Planning and Design Can Shape Public Discourse—notably offered a platform for grassroots activists to share their perspectives and expertise with the designers in the room. The aim for the day’s convening was to discuss the demands that expressions of community gathering and social unrest make on public space, as well as the potential design accommodations for this issue. 

Holding space for community organizers to speak candidly on their struggles for the right to the city opened up critical considerations regarding the social responsibility of designers.

The first conference panel comprised delegates from “active organizations,” who participate directly in social movements and who situated public space within their wide range of tools, activities, and strategies. Occupying public space is one escalation tactic of many that may be explored as part of a largely backstage, long-haul process of organizing. 

One panelist, Pati Rodriguez, described how she and her neighbors organize against displacement through the political art collective Mi Casa No Es Su Casa in Bushwick, Brooklyn, by using creative forms of protest, such as displaying artful signs with clear demands in windows of local small businesses and apartment buildings. 

Mi Casa No Es Su Casa is a member organization of the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, and were involved in organizing the Brooklyn March Against Gentrification, Racism, and Police Violence. The march took up the sidewalk instead of the street, a strategy that allowed for proximity to the buildings, from which people expressed support for the campaign and came down to learn more and to join. 

These instances of cultural organizing, of popular education and of a march-turned-indigenous-procession, prove successful to the organizations in achieving their intermediate and ongoing goals: consciousness-raising and base-building.

Communities not only use public space, but constitute public space through their activities of self-organization. As a conference participant, Vishaan Chakrabarti, put it, “Public space is made through the practices of people. People have made spaces public. Spaces are not sanctified as public by some [other] power.” By occupying space, people are staking their right to the city, claiming urban land and making use of that which is rightfully theirs. The short-term goal may be to achieve and maintain affordable and dignified housing, as well as culturally relevant spaces for community-building, but ultimately, the goal is to recreate the city so as to ensure that all are able to participate in shaping it.

The right for all to shape the city comes with differential responsibilities for stakeholders beyond organized community members. For example, new residents in gentrifying neighborhoods have the responsibility to ally with their neighbors. As Pati Rodriguez explained, “it’s not that new residents shouldn’t move in,” but that, “by not having consciousness of what they’re doing to uproot long-term residents,” they are furthering the overpowering interest of developers—which is not in their best interest, let alone in that of their neighbors. 

Rodriguez goes on to say that “new residents need to build consciousness by integrating into the community: by being receptive to and not ignoring the knowledges of their long-term resident neighbors, by supporting neighbors and intervening when their rent goes up” or when their rights are otherwise breached. By exercising true solidarity and by recognizing and taking on neighbors’ struggles as their own, new residents most effectively carry out their responsibility to stand with their neighbors against the powers that are displacing them.

This responsibility of solidarity with communities’ struggles necessarily extends to designers. Since public space is constituted through the self-organization of people, designers who are motivated to design for public space should facilitate and support the self-organization of communities. 

While there is more discourse around equity among the design community now, it is important to practice actual equity in design by not being “neutral in situations of injustice,” as Desmond Tutu famously advises. The long process of organizing people is to set an agenda that is actively apart from and against the course established by powerful interests, who—because of their organized money, access to and support from public and private institutions, and authorized forms of knowledge—are able to influence decisions easily.

What designers can learn from the work of grassroots organizers is that it is imperative to think critically about the concepts of equity and justice used in design processes, as well as the ways these practices, within a larger system that condones and is sustained by injustice, impact people. Designers must use the privileges afforded to them, as positioned near power and within advantaged socioeconomic classes, not to co-opt, mainstream, or otherwise derail movements, but to center and further movements’ visions. 

When carrying out community engagement processes, designers must be intentional not to replicate the disenfranchisement that folks from ‘the community’ already experience at the hands of monied power. Designers need not solely engage the community for one-off projects or in charrette-like meetings, but should actively engage themselves in allyship with communities over the long term. Designers need question their role in projects for the community, and provide their technical expertise only insofar as it supports the ability of communities on the ground to continue to control and determine their own goals, processes, participation, and outcomes to impact their built environment.

What designers can learn from the work of grassroots organizers is that it is imperative to think critically about the concepts of equity and justice used in design processes...

Luisa Santos, 2017-2018 Design Trust Equitable Public Space Fellow