Passionate design professionals volunteering to change equity in neighborhoods

In most North American cities I went through, I ran into a Community Design Center. Members of those centers – designers, urban planners or architects – devote their free time and professional skills to develop designs for community-initiated projects. In other words, they support revitalization by helping underserved communities obtain new recreation areas or reclaim vacant lots and abandoned buildings.
To gain insight into why Community Design Centers exist, I looked at North American urban history.

In the early 20th century, millions of African Americans moved from the Southern states to the North, Mid-West and West, seeking a better quality of life.
Newcomers settled mostly in cities to meet the needs for labor due to the rise of industrialization but also in order to refill positions previously held by workers gone to war. Thus, Black Americans populations increased relentlessly from 1910 et 1930 in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago or Detroit.
But they do not move to the North only for work, they also hope to escape racial segregation, very active in the South.

After the Second World War, inner-city demographic pressure is enhanced by the arrival of European immigrants as well as the return of veterans on American soil. The United States Government thus decided to invest in home construction on the outskirts of urban areas. Citizens of white middle and upper classes, benefitting from bank loans, abandoned urban centers in favor of suburban living (movement known as the white flight), while poor populations stayed in town centers, creating ghettos.
Racist violence, although less personalized and direct than in the South, is still present in northern cities. Indeed, immigrants have to endure wage inequalities, are denied to access certain jobs as well as bank and housing loans and have to experience red-lining*. The rootedness of black communities in inner-city ghettos increases with the Great Depression and the decline of industrial and low-skilled jobs.
In response to the racial segregation, social movements emerged from 1954 to claim legal recognition of the citizenship rights. After Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 and despite the urge for calm by many leaders, a nationwide wave of riots erupted in 120 cities.

During the summer of that same year, at the 100th Convention of the American Institute of Architects, the Executive Director of the Urban League, Whitney M. Young, outlined the role designers, architects and planners played in the conditions that lead to the riots. Indeed, infrastructures such as interstate highway systems as well as the construction of suburbs outside American cities, with financing that was particularly available to white families, lead to segregation and to the concentration of poverty within cities.

Willing to rebuild after the riots and white flight and to restructure the power dynamic about who was accessing the resources in the city, a group of Baltimore’s architects began working with low and moderate income communities: one of the first Community Design Centers – the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) – was born.

To give me a glimpse of the services they provide, Jennifer Goold, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC), took me on a tour of some of their projects.

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Jennifer Goold, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC)at the Remington Neighborhood Park

She introduced me firstly to the Whitelock Community Park, a large open lot in Reservoir Hill, surrounded by beautiful Victorian town homes. Reservoir Hill is one of Baltimore’s transitioning neighborhoods; it is a diverse mix of residents from all backgrounds and all walks of life.
In 2013, Reservoir Hill Improvement Council – an organization dedicated to developing resident-led solutions – requested NDC assistance to create a design for this lot. To achieve that, NDC merged the community knowledge of Reservoir Hill Improvement Council and the technical expertise of design professional volunteers in a participatory process, resulting in conceptual plans.

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Whitelock Community Park – Conceptual drawings from the NDC volunteers

Once completed, this park, adjacent to the active and growing Whitelock Community Farm, will help re-establish Whitelock St. as the physical and civic heart of the community.

The Whitelock Community Farm

We then went to check out the Remington Neighborhood Park, a park under development situated in one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods which retains its village-like atmosphere despite the recent arrival of new residents and businesses.
To help the Greater Remington Improvement Association (GRIA), a resident-based group, come up with a vision for the Remington Neighborhood park, NDC staff put together a team of design volunteers.
GRIA used the conceptual design provided to raise funds. During our visit, we could already identify a space for neighborhood residents to come together and grow vegetables as well as a place to play.

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The Remington Neighborhood Park (under development)

Jennifer outlined that NDC’s services are not limited to parks but opened to any community-initiated project which aims to restore their neighborhood. Projects such as adaptive building reuse, commercial facade improvements, pop-up farmers market, school courtyard, and even neighborhood master, transportation or greening plans.

« Our goal is to put together plans so that neighborhoods could access funding directly and implement their own concept. »

Since its creation in 1968, NDC have carried over 3 000 pro bono** design projects.

In order to make its services as accessible as possible, NDC often works with minuscule budgets. The applicant organizations will only pay $250 to $1,500 administrative fee, which is not a typical budget for conceptual design. Moreover, NDC requests payment by the end of the process, to allow time for the client organization to raise funds if needed. And if the organization is unable to pay, it may still receive design assistance if its application is eligible. NDC doesn’t want money to be a barrier to implement changes.

And for Jennifer, the project that get implemented doesn’t need to have a long lifespan. Indeed, it is more about building social connections and to use those projects as a community organizing tool.

« Both the designer and the community partners often become more connected to neighbors through doing the work, more connected to Baltimore as a place. » Jennifer said.

« The projects are also a powerful tool to advocate for urban development and to increase investment in Baltimore’s neighborhoods. », rather than the resident-led projects funded through the platform ioby mentioned here.

With conceptual plans in hand, neighborhoods are able to prove to the city that they are ready for some kind of improvements.

Whereas NDC provides only conceptual designs to communities, other Community Design Centers work with community projects all the way from design to construction. But in doing so, they are not able to support as many communities

Regardless of the services provided, Community Design Centers support the shift of dynamics in neighborhoods that do not have a functional real estate market. However, they can only operate in places which have enough engaged and organized citizens

Jennifer acknowledged that «there are parts of the city where nothing happens. Places where the delta between what you will need to invest in order to make it an actual real estate market and what it is now is so huge that it is not going to work. »

Unfortunately, those places are mostly black populated neighborhoods where the mechanisms to own properties was destroyed on purpose through red lining. And Americans – like members of Community Design Centers – are still trying to figure out how to change the market and shift the dynamics in those neighborhoods.

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Provocoative TIME’s cover – The Roots of Baltimore’s Riot

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* The term “redlining” was coined in the late 1960s by John McKnight, a sociologist and community activist. It refers to the practice of marking a red line on a map to delineate the area where banks would not invest. (Sagawa, Shirley; Segal, Eli (1999). Common Interest, Common Good: Creating Value Through Business and Social Sector Partnerships. Harvard Business Press. p. 30. ISBN 0-87584-848-6. Retrieved 2010-01-04.)

** Pro bono is the abbreviation of the latin phrase Pro bono publico, « for the public good » used in the U.S. to refer to professional work undertaken voluntarily to provide services to those who are unable to afford them.

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