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DAMn° magazine # 32 / designyc

Intervening in the Nitty-Gritty NYC’s design do-gooders These days, good will and big plans for change are on the lips of so many. To see some real action is always a treat. The same pair as construed the awkward name of desigNYC for their organisation have devised a way in which to identify useful projects on neglected plots of land in the city’s underdeveloped neighbourhoods, and to then gather all the relevant parties together into a dedicated team willing go the distance and achieve the desired result. In short, they match socially minded designers with non-profits. As is the case with all good ideas, it is a win-win situation.

text lyle rexer

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. No one knows this better than Laetitia Wolff, the executive director of DesigNYC. She sees plenty of good design ideas that could be making cities more liveable but aren’t, because they can’t be applied effectively where they are needed. Instead, the story usually goes like this: a design/marketing/branding/architecture/landscape firm (take your pick) wants to give something back to its community so it approaches a non-profit/ government agency/NGO/cultural organisation (take your pick) with an offer it can’t refuse: free expertise to support its mission. Then all goes haywire: the organisation is unsure as to how to define the scope of the project; mission creep, that nightmare of foreign policy and pro bono work, sets in; the designer grows impatient with an open-ended time frame; communication is sporadic; the firm feels unappreciated, the non-profit feels ignored. The end result is actually worse than a failed project - it’s a practise that won’t be offering its services again and an organisation that won’t be asking for them. “We know the power of design in the urban landscape”, says Wolff, former editor-in-chief of Graphis magazine and founder of her own design initiative, FutureFlair,

“and in a city like New York there is an army of talent. The challenge is to make sure there’s a great fit between the people offering their services and the organisations they work with, and that things actually get accomplished.” desigNYC is a matchmaker, using its knowledge of the design industry, the non-profit sector, and government agencies to pair organisations and their needs with the right designers. The initiative was launched in 2009 by two designers with knowledge of both sides - Edwin Schlossberg, head of ESI Design, and Michelle Mullineaux, ESI’s marketing chief. Since then, desigNYC has fostered almost 40 collaborations and has put together an imposing group of experts, including design guru Steven Heller and MoMA’s Paola Antonelli, to help identify and select projects.

Facing page, all images: The Greenhouse Initiative in Cypress Hills supports CHLDC’s larger ‘Verde’ project, aiming to make the community of East NYC a greener, healthier, more sustainable place to live for all of its residents. Cypress Hills is a high poverty area that struggles with obesity, type2 diabetes, and high unemployment. 63% of the community members speak a foreign language at home.

The long and the short of it

Along the way, they have learned a few things - often the hard way. Lesson-one might be that things take longer than they do. The Brooklyn neighbourhood of Red Hook is being transformed by the arrival of major retailer IKEA, restaurants, and small businesses. But the waterfront itself remains underused, especially by low-income residents, so designNYC brokered a part-


DAMn° magazine # 32 / designyc

nership between the non-profit PortSide NewYork, architecture firm 590BC, and graphic designers L’image. Their BoatBox project would extend and transform a kayak storage shed in a waterside park into a protected gathering place, and make this an information centre for water safety and fishing. The plans are ready, budgets are drawn-up, and community groups are on board, but the project awaits New York City approval. Holding the team together in the interim is going to be the challenge. Lesson-two might be: think big but start small. A vacant lot in the Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn represents the tip of a vast iceberg of empty city land, with the acreage of nearly eight Central Parks. It sits in a

community that is underserved by supermarkets and whose residents struggle with the diet-related problems of obesity and diabetes. With the help of desigNYC, Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, NY Sun Works (an educational group), Abruzzo Bodziak Architects, and Claire Taylor Hansen Design collaborated on a single solution to all these problems, a greenhouse and pop-up hydroponic farm. The off-grid mobile unit is assembled from a kit of parts and could be moved to different plots as empty land is sold or developed. The unit also serves as a hands-on classroom and community garden. Up and running, it could produce as much as 8000 pounds of produce every 12 weeks. The project models not only design and community

PortSide NewYork (both images) A non-profit organisation creating diverse programmes about the BlueSpace, the water part of the waterfront. Based in Red Hook, PortSide activates the waterfront through a number of innovative educational, community-based, and cultural programmes, from activities on and about the Mary A. Whalen tanker (where the organisation has its headquarters), to the BoatBox project, special exhibitions, harbour advocacy and other things. The BoatBox project further helps PortSide’s mission by enabling it to host its first permanent and consistently accessible exhibit (as opposed to events on the tanker, which has been limited to short-term access, much like a pop-up cultural centre). Creating this attraction will also bring people to Red Hook, thus satisfying PortSide’s community revitalisation goals.

involvement but also site assessment, land lease negotiation, maintenance and fundraising, not to mention marketing (what is hydroponics, anyway?). More for less

And lesson-three might be: you don’t have to spend a lot to get a lot. Nostrand Avenue in the Crown Heights part of Brooklyn is a thoroughfare, but it’s also an economically vulnerable neighbourhood with a turnover of commercial tenants. Empty storefronts dot the street and convey a sense of gritty depression, a vote of no-confidence in this commercial corridor. Appearances matter. VAMOS Architects and Nostrand Park, a community revitalisation group, came together through desigNYC to prototype and publicise various streetscape interventions at minimum cost, with maximum visibility. Colour-schemed awnings for vacant buildings and graphic


Educating Tomorrow (left) is a teacher-based coalition that believes our schools must take the lead in moving toward a greener future by providing our children and future leaders with an environmental education and exemplary environmental programmes, such as school-wide recycling. Intergenerational Garden (middle) Green spaces play a crucial role in supporting urban ecological and social systems, but can often be challenging to finance as a part of affordable housing developments. desigNYC brought together Robin Key Landscape Architecture, Enterprise Community Partners, and Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation to design a 2880-square-metre intergenerational garden for the senior residents of Serviam Gardens, an affordable housing development and its neighbour, Mount Saint Ursula’s, an all-girl’s Catholic High School. Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project (NEDAP) (bottom, both images) A resource and advocacy centre that works with community groups to promote economic justice in NYC’s low income communities and communities of colour. NEDAP leads the NYC Immigrant Financial Justice Network, which conducts community education, organising, and policy advocacy to promote immigrants’ economic rights and financial inclusion.


DAMn° magazine # 32 / designyc

Nostrand Park (both images) Named after Nostrand and Park, two Brooklyn streets that run through Crown Heights. Nostrand Park is a placemaking organisation committed to fostering continued arts, community and commercial development in Crown Heights. NP utilises a full spectrum of new media tools to promote community revitalisation, as well as engaging ‘on-the-ground’ projects such as merchant organising, community greening and cleaning, and art exhibitions.

window displays transform passive blight into active invitation. Simple transportable furniture blocks can be positioned to create pop-up street-side seating areas for everything from food carts to musical performances. One of desigNYC’s most ambitious projects was an earlier one: the 2010 construction of a garden as part of an affordable housing complex for senior citizens in the Bronx. Serviam Gardens stands next to the Academy of Mount St. Ursula Catholic high school for girls, and the 2900 m2 garden, a collaboration between Robin Key Landscape Architecture, Enterprise Community Partners and Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation, forms a bridge between the generations as well as between facilities. Many of the residents using the garden had never met each other, much less the girls next door. Now they have. The garden has an exercise loop and an urban farm, where seniors and students often find themselves working side by side. The upside for the designers was nearly as great. “It energised and brought the whole staff together”, says Robin Key. “They loved working on it, and I think it shows in the result.” Even as desigNYC expands its network and becomes more active as an educator, it remains committed to stay-


ing small and flexible, “a lean organisation with a lot of clout”, as Wolf puts it. “Our mission is relevant to the crisis mode of most cities today, which have needs too great and resources too few”, she adds. “But over time, we hope to build a stronger sense of the critical importance of design in large organisations. That will have an impact far beyond any single project we broker.” #

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