2013-01-28

Creating Resilient Community, Through Design And Advocacy

Anne Fredericks and the Hester Street Collaborative involve citizens in redesigning their neighborhoods to create stronger communities.

Anne Frederick is the head of the Hester Street Collaborative, which works to turn the ideas of New York City’s underserved community members into physical reality, by teaching them about design and neighborhood advocacy. By building stronger neighborhoods, the HSC fosters resilient communities and strengthens New York City. Frederick can take inspiration from a kindergartener’s drawing without excluding the ideas of longtime neighborhood residents.

How does the direct involvement of youth and community influence your design process?

Our work at Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) exists to give people a voice in how their neighborhoods are shaped. Over the past 11 years, we have developed a practice that places community members of all ages at the center of the design process. Whether it is the creation of a new public park, playground, installation, or school garden, our work always begins when a community identifies the need for a project. We work together to shape a bottom-up, participatory process where local knowledge is met with design expertise to transform underutilized or neglected public spaces. We are constantly experimenting with playful ways for the process to be as inclusive and creatively engaging as possible. We take the design process out into public housing developments, schools, and public parks to meet people where they are at. We gather input through games, and hands-on activities, often in multiple languages. We tailor the building and making process so that people of all ages and abilities can contribute.

Why does it matter that a community gets involved with the design of a public space?

The people who live, play, and work in a place know it best and stand to be affected by changes to their physical environment. In dense, urban neighborhoods where people are living in overcrowded housing, the public spaces often serve as de facto living rooms for many. Parks, playgrounds, and streets become the places where community life unfolds and people gather. We believe that a community is strong and resilient when the people of that place are informed and effectively engaged in local decision-making. Participatory design can be a powerful tool for civic engagement. Often the more official channels for community engagement are alienating and leave many residents behind. When our elementary school students help to design and build a part of their school’s outdoor classroom, they can point to something tangible they have done for their school and their community. They understand how their own creativity and efforts can directly improve their neighborhood, and the next generation of students benefit from what they leave behind.

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire.

Can you give an example of a community member inspiring a design innovation in one of your projects?

When we first started working on participatory design in New York City parks, we got involved with the redesign of a local playground in Chinatown. We organized a big community design day in the playground, and over 1,000 kids, parents, and residents came out to participate by playing games, creating architectural models of their dream playgrounds, making art, and telling stories. All these activities were informal ways of gathering input for the future design of the playground. We analyzed the final models and activities for common themes and elements and were able to convey the children’s hopes and aspirations for their new playground to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Design features like climbing nets, an undulating ground surface and water play were a direct result of the youth participation. We also were able to include a permanent mosaic art installation made by local students. Since opening, this playground has been featured on many lists of top New York City playgrounds. The features of the playground that local kids asked for are the most popular and well used. I credit the success of the design largely to the kid’s participation, and the Parks Department taking them seriously.

When did you realize your career as a designer would be focused on giving back?

I developed an interest in socially engaged design when I was an architecture student at Parsons. However, translating that interest into a career took some time. At the time when I graduated from college in 1998, there was not a clear path for pursuing this kind of work. I went to work for Leroy Street Studio Architecture right out of school. I was interested in working for them because at the time they were involved with a participatory design-build project for an affordable housing development in East New York. When we moved our offices to a storefront in Chinatown in 2001 we cofounded HSC together to create a community-driven design practice. We felt it was important to give back to our new neighborhood in some way. Although none of us had experience founding or running a non-profit, we sought out help and learned along the way. From the beginning HSC has been a team effort.

What is the name of one up and coming social good designer we should be watching and why?

I’m a big fan of the Center for Urban Pedagogy. They share our commitment to a truly community-driven process, and their projects are also always initiated through partnerships with community-based organizations. They create tools and materials that help explain and demystify complex urban policy. When communities are informed about the often invisible processes that affect them, they can more effectively advocate for their needs. CUP has a funny and playful way of breaking it all down, and everything they make looks fantastic.

Who inspires you most with their generosity?

I don’t think I could pick one person. I would have to say my family. I am fortunate to have a very large extended family that teaches me the most about both giving and receiving. As a family we see when one person needs help and we put our attention there. And we take turns, when the next person needs an encouraging word, financial support, help with anything; we step up and pitch in. Seeing how that can work in family gives me hope for the ability of communities to take care of each other as well.

That model of collective generosity has really informed my approach, it is a little less heroic. I am always reminded that I can’t do this work alone. Like with my family, all of our staff and partners bring something important to the table. It also reminds me of the generosity of everyday New Yorkers after Hurricane Sandy. The groundswell of New Yorkers helping each other out is a testament to the power of grassroots action. When each person is able to give and receive, everyone is supported and no one is left behind.

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