Center for Urban Pedagogy – Design to demystify complex policy

I came across the Center for Urban Pedagogy’s work while visiting the exhibition The Other Architect at the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal last winter.

Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) is a nonprofit organization using design and visuals to help communities all over New York City understand how public policies and the urban systems work. Around since 1987, CUP collaborated with numerous partners to develop posters, flyers, videos and other media always with the mission to help people understand complex urban topics and thus, enable them to participate meaningfully in decisions that shape their lives.

I was pleased to meet Oscar Nuñez, Program Coordinator at CUP, and Cassie Ang, CUP’s spring 2016 intern, in CUP’s office, situated in a majestic industrial building from the mid-nineteenth century in Gowanus.

But before sharing with you the details I gained through this chat, I wanted to give you a glimpse of their past projects.

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In 2014, CUP collaborated with grassroots organization CAAAV and designers IntraCollaborative to produce a Chinese and English poster to help tenants understand rent stabilization laws that protect them and their rights as tenants.
In neighborhoods like Chinatown and the Lower East Side, landlords are eager to increase property values and often pressure tenants to move out. The poster provides information on how to challenge harassment and other illegal practices, and how tenants can organize collectively to be able to stay in their homes affordably.

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Another great example of CUP’s work is the production in 2010 of a brochure explaining the Brownfield Opportunity Areas (BOA) Program in the neighborhoods around the Newtown Creek. The BOA Program is a state program providing financial support to communities in the revitalization of vacant lots. To produce this brochure that breaks down the BOA process, CUP worked with The Greenpoint Manufacturing & Design Center and design studio DoubleTriple.

Those two projects are part of the Making Policy Public program of CUP.
Oscar and Cassie explained to me that for this particular program, a multidisciplinary jury is selecting 4 projects each year among the numerous applications filed by organizations, agencies and nonprofits wishing to develop visually-based educational materials to facilitate their work. All projects selected must have an educational component and the organization applying has to have a proven experience with the issue.

For instance, in the case of the Rent Regulation Rights project presented above, the grassroots organization that submitted the project – CAAV – is the local expert in developing the leadership of immigrant Chinatown residents to organize against tenant displacement, fighting gentrification, and advocating for affordable housing.

For each project, CUP can help the community organization collect funds by applying for technical assistance grants. CUP is also in charge of selecting a team of designers and visual thinkers with whom they are going to collaborate through the process.

To meet specific community needs, CUP staff members follow an 8 months to a year hyper structured process during which they play the role of translators between community organizations and designers, two protagonists that do not interact in the wild.

Oscar outlined the importance of having everyone at the table during all sessions. They organized several feed-back sessions during which community members for whom the tool is developed are invited to comment the drafts. Those sessions could not be possible without the direct access to the constituents the community organization provides. They often affect the design, refine it and help the team produce tools reflective of the people. On posters and flyers, people and their surrounding environment often present characteristic features that aim to capture community members’ attention and to encourage them to identify with the issue.

In parallel of this community education work, CUP also partners with public high schools to enable students to explore fundamental questions about how the city works such as Who decides where homeless shelters go? Where does the garbage go? Why basement apartments exist in New York City and what to do if you live in one?

To dig into those questions and find answers, students get out of the classroom and engage in rigorous field research, visiting real sites and interviewing decision-makers and stakeholders. « By participating in Urban Investigations, students gain access to the decision-makers that affect the world around them, and engage in active citizenship. »

After the investigative work, a teaching artist trained by CUP join up to help students create innovative engaging multimedia tools to share what they’ve learned with a wide audience.
Students have a certain liberty with the final tool which takes the form of a video, booklet, exhibition, webgraphic, magazine, etc. Whereas in Making Policy Public projects, fold-out posters are privileged, not only because paper is the easiest and best way to get people’s attention but also because marginalized community members do not always have access to internet.

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Convinced that « increasing understanding of how the systems work is the first step to better and more diverse community participation », CUP wish they could answer all community organizations applications. But due to the heavy hand they have to have on each project, they are quite limited in terms of number of projects they can start.

The local presence needed also limits them in terms of collaboration outside New York, whereas the issues they address are faced by many cities worldwide. One exception is the San Francisco edition of the Rent Regulation Rights poster for which the initial Chinese tool was adapted and translated to Spanish to serve low-income San Franciscans. But it is the only collaboration outside New York for the moment.

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