June 13, 2024

Can Participatory Design Save the World?

In 2015, the closure of Architecture for Humanity – the international nonprofit that changed the game for humanitarian design – was met with dismay throughout the architectural profession.

The organization, whose slogan famously encouraged those in the industry to “design like you give a damn,” was renowned for its pioneering rebuilding programs in disaster-hit regions.

Landmark achievements included the construction of more than a dozen schools in Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, a plethora of projects on the east coast of Japan after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and a major reconstruction plan for the victims of Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey in 2012.

Given its great impact, the organization’s closure – brought on by an economic fragility all-too-familiar to nonprofits – left many architects soul-searching about the state of pro bono design and construction. Such was Architecture for Humanity’s legacy, it felt like the end of an era for public interest design.

In actual fact, this moment marked the beginning of a new story for the industry – the seeds of which had already been sown in more than 20 cities around the world.

During its 16 years of operations, Architecture for Humanity fostered a thriving “chapter network,” interconnected volunteer groups that undertook local projects in dozens of countries. Over time, these groups became largely self-sufficient with industrious leaders at their helm, and remained intact after the closure of the organization’s headquarters. From these chapters, a new, decentralized movement was formed to drive pro bono design forward globally. Dubbed the Open Architecture Collaborative (OAC), the new organization was founded in 2016 with the mission to harness participatory design to become even more accessible – and sustainable – than its predecessor.

Participants in OAC’s Day of Impact in New York.

“The OAC began in response to a need for a renewed and more relevant mission to the issues of our time,” explains Garrett Jacobs, executive director of the organization. “A deeper commitment to an equitable, inclusive, and needs-based approach was formed. We now work beyond just one-off projects and scrutinize the larger, systemic issues that caused the need for our services in the first place. We reflect more on who we are and the privileges we’ve had. This allows us to show up more authentically and build trust with communities affected by generational trauma. ”

According to Jacobs, it is vital to foster long-term relationships with local populations in order to make progress on the underlying problems that leave certain regions vulnerable to external forces, both natural and man-made. “The largest global challenge that I see is our inability to build healthy local communities,”he says. “We can go on about every issue from global warming to immigration, but we need to learn how to internalize each others’ lived experiences and really develop equitable local economies and systems in order to see this culture flourish. ”

Jacobs and his team strive to achieve this by involving local people in the design and development of projects from the very beginning of the process. The OAC also aims to a shift away from the “one and done” approach that has been common in the realm of pro bono architecture in the past. In place of foreign entities parachuting in with short-term, reactionary solutions, the OAC looks to provide a foundation for people to build a healthier, more resilient environment for themselves in the coming decades. The new goal of humanitarian design is to empower people from every demographic, promote social equity, and put local communities in charge of their destiny.

So just what does this look like in real terms? In Abuja, Nigeria, Open Architecture Nigeria hosts the Kids Skating Series, an annual event that sees skating used as a means to activate public spaces and teach the community the power of play to reinvigorate neglected urban environments. In San Francisco, a dead-end dumping ground was transformed into Burrows Pocket Park, a gathering space for the Portola Neighborhood including a sustainable xeriscape native plant garden, custom outdoor furniture, a free library, and vibrant murals. In Cairo, Open Architecture Egypt has racked up almost 1,000 volunteer hours running Forgotten Spaces, a program designed to seek out redundant spaces across the city for potential revitalization.

Photos from the opening of Burrows Pocket Park.

Finally, Jacobs and his team are about to launch Pathways to Equity, an initiative that will educate people on public interest design through “interactive workshops and hands-on field experience. ” Pathway to Equity fellows can look forward to a program of training and project building grounded in “responsible social impact design methods. ” The program will encourage a more inclusive approach to pro bono design and construction, where people from all backgrounds are given a voice in the future of their built environment and public spaces. A culture of transparency helps to build trust between parties, leading to more open communication between the OAC and the communities it supports.

The Open Architecture Collaborative is not alone in its efforts to change the approach to public interest design. Jacobs cites numerous inspirations for his own work, including Colloqate, a “Design Justice” practice that strives for racial, social, and cultural equity and masterminded the Design as Protest day of action on January 20, 2017 (the inauguration day of a certain U. S. president). Then there is Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), whose mission, per its website, is to harness “innovations in architecture, design, and real-estate development to attack the root causes of mass incarceration. ” Creative Reaction Lab’s work focuses on collaborations between youth, African-American, and Latino populations to design racially equitable communities.

While each of these organizations approaches social challenges through varied lenses, their missions align around a core belief: that design can be harnessed to create healthier communities with equal opportunities for all. Given the current sociopolitical climate – in which issues such as global warming and immigration are at the forefront of the public consciousness – these groups have never been more relevant. “I do not believe I am working on the margins of the profession,” said Jacobs. “I believe my colleagues and contemporaries, whom I am inspired by every day, are working to define the future of our industry. The structures of our businesses are a small component to how we are shifting the perception of design and the place it has in how we come together as a culture. Our processes are driven by equity and a new balance of power. You must be committed to those values if you have hope that creative processes can facilitate our way to a more just future. ”

As this kind of attitude becomes more prevalent, there is a chance that participatory design won’t just save the world – it could give local communities the ability to build something better still.

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