Funding Received: 2013
New York, NY
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
June 4, 2014

By Laetitia Wolff
AIGA/NY Design/Relief Program Director

Design projects that give voices to places
Over the last couple months we have entered the implementation phase of Design/Relief with teams’ design concepts becoming more and more real in their community contexts. We have also been busy with the production of events, both in the places where our three teams have been working—Red Hook, Rockaway and the Seaport—and in the context of NYCXDESIGN, the citywide design festival, which has taken over the city and our lives this month.

First of all, we are proud to announce our Design/Relief projects’ respective concepts and objectives. Finding the right words and crystallizing the elevator pitch has been a challenging exercise for our team as we approached a more public phase of the project development. And despite the embedded storyteller, it has proven difficult for them to agree on a simple definition of their “design thing in the world,” to quote a playful yet evocative expression that project board members Manuel Miranda and Glen Cummings often use in our conversations. What emerged as common threads weaving through our three placemaking interventions are projects that address public spaces in which community information and communication are shared, in crisis and non-crisis conditions.

-- The Red Hook team designed a 21st C. bulletin board. The Hub is a strategically located public information system that collects and displays information based on hyper local community needs. The Hub will provide different kinds of information in digital and/or analog formats, mediated and curated by a coalition of designated local partners.

A group brainstorming inquired with the youth of the Red Hook Initiative’s Digital Stewards how they envisioned the future of community information 

-- The Rockaway team conceived a dynamic community narrative, “Dear Rockaway,” a campaign to foster the spirit of goodwill and connectivity that emerged across the peninsula in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The collection of 100+ recorded interviews with residents from the area and different walks of life, provided content for the “Dear Rockaway” project, which includes guerrilla-style stencils, poster campaigns, and inserts in the weekly newspaper.

A stencil workshop was organized with Rockaway Artists Alliance and Rockaway Youth Taskforce on Sat. Apr 26; photo by Sophia Skeans 

-- The Seaport team created an interactive storytelling tool entitled Catch – & – Release, a design project that aims to make visible the hidden, forgotten history and culture of South Street Seaport, which has long served as an iconic fixture of Manhattan’s river front. The first phase of Catch — & — Release focused on building an interactive installation to make visible the social bonds within the Seaport post-Hurricane Sandy. The second phase, in development, through a collection of personal anecdotes and reflections, aims to distill and share the collective memory of the community via audio tours, breathing new life into the Seaport.

Josh Treuhaft, co-community outreach strategist in conversation with a workshop attendee on mapping exercises 

Event Mania
Seeking a more direct engagement with the Seaport community than what the phase 1 installation allowed, the Catch&Release team organized a charrette on March 22, held at Pace University. That afternoon 60+ participants, composed of old-time activists, residents, business owners from the community, as well as young designers from the AIGA/NY network, were invited to map out, on oversize blank maps, what they considered local treasures. They were then asked to write stories on a postcard to an imaginary recipient, as if to “sell” the Seaport as a worthy destination. This collective exercise of imagining the Seaport’s future, while making an objective inventory of the present assets, seems simple, yet yielded some cathartic moments for a community who tends to hold on tight to information and stories, often scattered and circulated only within its quarters.

To pursue our Creative Placemaking talk series, the charrette was preceded by an amazingly inspirational presentation by Susan Silberberg. The critically acclaimed, Boston-based city planner and author of a recent MIT study, “Place in the Makingexamined the interactions between placemaking, inclusive participation, and the expanding ways communities are collaborating to make great public spaces. Using a few case studies developed through her private practice, Civic Moxie, Silberberg focused on relevant historical quarters’ revitalization projects and highlighted strategies of creative placemaking centered on talent-based economies, a tactic not really tapped into in the Seaport, despite a history of the neighborhood hosting many artists. Silberberg’s pedagogical approach convinced Catherine Hughes, the active district manager of Community Board 1, who then invited Silberberg to speak at a community board meeting. The outcome of this charrette was a fruitful download of treasures identified—whether historical, cultural, architectural and otherwise—potential programming opportunities, especially suggestions to activate overlooked spaces, and the identification of areas of trouble to tackle. All of this information is now feeding into phase 2 of Catch&Release.

Making the Seaport charrette and talk took place at Pace University, an academic venue near the Seaport 

Meanwhile in Red Hook, our team continued its engagement with community stakeholders while testing the HUB’s prototype in its physical and digital manifestations. This team is the one among our three that has most clearly defined its alliance with a select number of partners, among which, Digital Stewards, a program of Red Hook Initiative, Good Shepherd, as well as the local public library. Placing a deliberate emphasis on engaging the 85% of low-income housing residents of Red Hook, our team has selected social service organizations that mainly serve this population. An intensive brainstorming session with the partners was held at Good Shepherd headquarters on March 31, other smaller group workshops and meetings were held over the past 2-3 weeks with various key players, including the Red Hook Coalition, a community group that's helped organize long-term, post-Sandy recovery efforts and which might be able to advocate more funding toward our project. Seeking additional resources to further the digital aspect of the HUB, the Red Hook team attended a couple hackathons (one held at Pioneer Works on April 18-19 and another at RHI on May 10). Building the backend infrastructure of such bulletin board requires programming expertise and much more work than the team had originally anticipated, which is, unfortunately a typical design problem.

Invited by the Civic Design platform of Parsons DESIS Lab and NY Future Lab at Metrotech last April 3, I presented the Design/Relief initiative to illustrate the social dimension of resilience, to smart junior civil employees, eager to bring change in agencies such as DDC, DOT, City Planning, Health Dept., etc. What was most interesting was the opportunity to present a model of engagement, a creative methodology for agencies to connect with the neighborhoods they serve and provide inspiration in modeling hands-on ways to support communities, while echoing the current Mayor’s agenda.


To celebrate the launch of the “Dear Rockaway,” campaign, our team opted for a community event on Saturday May 3, that would both honor participants in the recorded interviews they had conducted for the past 2 months and which turned into worthy quotes about Rockaway, and announce the campaign to locals who had not been aware of it yet. This event production brought its fair amount of surprises: headquartered at "The Wave," the team had assumed we would use their street-level space, left empty and unrepaired since Sandy, but the ongoing partnership with the publishing business did not translate into obtaining a community event space, which had served as our temporary recording studio every Friday since February. We ended up renting the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, a cool outdoor venue, which attracts local surfers, where delicious food was served along with music by local guitarist and Wave editor Dan Guarino, young rappers involved in the Rockaway Youth Taskforce, one of the lead partner organizations on the project. The gallery/bar featured the “Dear Rockaway,” posters, and a stencil workshop had kickstarted that morning around the Elevated train, teaching youth about tactics on how and where to best locate the spray-painted tags on public property.

May 10, May 13, May 17, May 20
Taking an active role in the city-wide design festival, NYCXDESIGN, Design/Relief was invited to be one of the lead exhibitors at a newly opened venue called Industry City. Located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn the venue demonstrates its own creative placemaking efforts in tapping into local creative entrepreneurs to hopefully turn this impressive 30-acre industrial warehouse into the next innovation hub in the city.

Our exhibit, entitled “Making Place” celebrated the results of Design/Relief and was up from May 10-20. IC was the inauguration venue for the festival, which on May 10 drew some 2,500 visitors. Our Design/Relief banners provided visually based case studies for each place (Red Hook, Rockaway, Seaport) while marking the celebration of the project as our teams reach their end goals. Our project highlighted a community-centered practice of design, unlike the typical product design shows that prevails during design week. On Saturday May 17, a related program, eponymously entitled "Making Place" invited each of the team leaders to present their project process and takeaways, along with a few community partners engaged in the initiative. Speakers offered a first reflection on creative process, challenges of creative placemaking, and thoughtful learnings, which will be fleshed out in further reports. The main message that prevailed through our program was the idea that designers had conceived their project with, by and for their respective community. During that design-packed week, our Red Hook community engagement strategist James Andrews and program director Laetitia Wolff were invited on May 13 to present at the Center for Architecture in the context of the Town&Gown applied research platform. The conversation addressed the growing role of design in changing neighborhoods, and specifically the necessity to redesign altogether the participation process on community boards. Tomorrow, May 20, Design/Relief will be part of a cross-industry Design Forum, which concludes the NYCXDESIGN festival, aiming to open the conversation around the future place of design in the city.


Ensuring buy-in and genuine support from the community
The commitment level of community partners is hard to predict, and often our team felt a lack of consistency in their response to their own needs, especially as they were reaching the final implementation stage of their project. The lesson is that it all depends on the level of personal involvement that some of the stakeholders have shown throughout the project. In Red Hook, Tony Schloss who heads Digital Stewards (a special program of Red Hook Initiative), and Reginald Flowers, community manager at Good Shepherd, have both shown an incredibly generous and sustainable support of our team efforts, and have also facilitated the participation of their youth constituency as well as managed to leverage other local groups' funding resources. Whereas in Rockaway, the partnership was much looser and less reliable with unexpected charges; the team relied on few committed individuals rather than official institutional support. The oral history component of the "Dear Rockaway," project also catalyzed a number of latent hopes in building out the Rockaway museum, an archive of printed records, memorabilia, and other ephemera from the high days of Playland that had been seriously damaged by Superstorm Sandy. The oral history component of our project successfully revealed the need to celebrate the glorious (and recent) past of the Rockaway, yet did not generate the infrastructure necessary to revitalize and maintain the cultural project of the Rockaway archives as a proper museum project.

Perhaps an informal contract with selected partners in the future would help solidify our working partnerships, especially as it spans so many months of collaboration and design requires a constant back and forth.

Community Engagement Strategist Daniel Latorre discussing the creative placemaking takeaways for the Rockaway team 

Designer-led vs. Community-led
In the Seaport, the challenge has been mostly related to the team itself and less about its relation to local partners. Because of the nature of the phased project, the Seaport team had the challenge of processing lessons from its first public interactive installation (Dec15-March15) and then figure out how to translate the information gathered from a public charrette (Mar 22) to really start imagining phase 2. As a byproduct of this internal tension, the Seaport storytellers decided to abandon the project mid-way, not finding satisfaction in the way the project was developing. The charrette yielded a rather objective inventory of local treasures, identified by the community for the community, but those assets appeared so obvious to our team at first sight, that the recognition of this collective knowledge did not seem valuable enough to them, and therefore its dissemination not emphasized amongst participants. It was interesting to observe the push and pull between design thinking/making and community-led engagement playing out throughout the Seaport phased project. Their creative placemaking solutions always seem to demonstrate a stronger artistic gesture than the other Design/Relief projects, an interpretation of a community spirit rather than be directly informed by community engagement like in the Red Hook HUB.

Design students are not sociologists
At the beginning of Design/Relief, we had hoped each team would be supported by an academic partnership, in the end only the Red Hook team benefited from such alliance. Working with a Pratt Institute’s advocacy-themed design class led by professors David Frisco and Andrew Shea, expectations of the graduate communication design students were high on the agenda of our team. The Red Hook team had planned to use the student research to ratify the best location for the HUB. Students were initially requested to sample 100-200 respondents, focusing on low-income residents, predominantly living in the Red Hook houses (approximately 80-85%). Students did an amazing job as participants and in visualizing the survey results conducted under the “spiritual guidance” of Jan Gehl, the Danish expert in placemaking–the online data visualization they created turned out to be truly gorgeous–however the data itself was not reflective of our team’s targeted constituency, and would have misled the substantial work done thus far. However, from a storytelling and pedagogical standpoints there is great value in assessing such collaboration with a school like Pratt, which prides itself on its commitment to civic engagement. Although the curricular experiment did not yield the expected data, this academic partnership remains relevant as it provided students with an opportunity to rub their shoulders against those of savvy professionals, while testing their agency to make a difference in a New York community. As they prefaced when presenting their final findings in a website format last March, sorry but designers are not trained as sociologists.


Recent Wins
Staying lighter, cheaper, quicker, really?
Paraphrasing the inspiring motto of PPS (Project for Public Spaces) we tried to emulate deployable interventions, and encourage our teams to not be afraid of staying small yet impactful. But then, what to do when a project scope shifts significantly to become a much larger initiative, like in the Red Hook case? As the team continued to engage with partners heavily invested in Red Hook’s future, it became increasingly clear that the HUB project could become a much larger, longer, involved and expensive undertaking, explains storyteller David Al-Ibrahim. A recent and encouraging conversation with NYCHA, the city agency that owns the Miccio Center property, a community center serving public housing residents in Red Hook borderline, where the main HUB would be located, revealed the exciting possibility of scaling up the project, while entering a potential red tape conundrum. Relying on the Good Shepherd’s insights on NYCHA’s administrative reality turned out to be too uncertain for such investment, especially when the city housing agency could perhaps cover proper de-installation costs, ensure maintenance and future buy-in at the city scale.

Calling AIGA/NY
The highest measurable visibility for Design/Relief is less a listing in media blogs, such as the recent dexigner coverage, than it is about my getting calls from people having noticed the Rockaway project on their streets: a local public school teacher having witnessed the wheat-pasted posters around her house wanted to engage her 1st graders in stencil-making classes; a Rockaway resident who attended our May 17 event at Industry City wanting to know more about the future of “Dear Rockaway,” in the peninsula.

Another measure of the Rockaway project impact might be the way interviewees took the opportunity of public recordings to broadcast their frustrations. Encouraged by our team to tell Mayor DiBlasio what was on their mind, participants repeatedly underlined the lack of consideration. “We heard a lot of people in the Rockaway say “Pay attention to us—we are part of the city,” said team designer Danielle Aubert.

With our exhibition “Making Place” we asked ourselves again and provoked our audience to think about how can graphic design positively transform communities and the practice of design at once? When entering this emerging movement of creative placemaking, we believe graphic designers brought their agile, creative energy, naïve yet rigorous process, while learning about the reality of multi-disciplinary collaboration, and acted unlike the singular gestures of artists and the long-term endeavors of city planners. Communication driven by nature, graphic designers successfully demonstrated how to articulate these places’ characters, what defines them and reminded us time and again for whom they are there – whether using typography, system thinking, or interactive installations. Information sharing and communication fostering have been concerns at the core of our three projects. Our teams have often acted as catalysts of latent desires, lingering community needs and long lasting aspirations. As agents of change, they’ve shown how to connect the dots while engaging communities in the creative process.

Revisiting the Design/Relief Manifesto nine months later, pregnant with ideas, aware of mistakes and epiphanies, as is the case in any experiment, with new practices built on the ground, AIGA/NY is proud to have engaged designers in tackling tough civic challenges and generated new knowledge about design as a creative placemaking tool. “Design/Relief marks a shift in AIGA/NY's mission to use design to engage the needs of people in the wake of climate, demographic, and economic changes that are affecting New York City. Each project not only prototypes a design object or system that serves the needs of these neighborhoods, but also posits a more active way for designers to respond to pressing cultural and ecological conditions affecting our city,” says Manuel Miranda, one of the active executive project board members.

Some of the insights, which will be developed and analyzed further in the final report, include the following:
-- Places are made by people.
-- Our placemaking projects have focused particularly on public spaces in which community information and communication can be shared.
-- Improving a place successfully comes along with social justice, inclusion and opportunity-building, as our creative placemakers remain conscious of the fine line between gentrification and displacement.
-- Community-centered design is about collectively identifying and addressing pressing needs, and there is never enough time for trust building!