Funding Received: 2013
New York, NY
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
March 11, 2014

Design/Relief has recently gotten more public; our teams are now able to share the fruits of their ongoing work in the communities of Red Hook, Rockaway, and South Street Seaport. They have definitely reached a catalyzing moment over the past weeks, both fortifying early findings with even wider participation from their community stakeholders, as well as gaining new opportunities to publicize their design process through public programs, community forums, and in the media. We are starting to see the seeds planted a few months ago in terms of trust building, community endorsement, and public credibility . . .

After a soft launch scheduled before the holidays, our South Street Seaport team officially inaugurated their “Catch & Release” installation on a foggy Saturday January 11 afternoon. Local residents, business owners, guest designers, and tourists were invited to partake in a ritual, which consisted of raising their gratitude and publicly acknowledging the resilience of the Seaport community. Thank You cards, locally printed at the Seaport Museum’s Bowne Printers, were filled with thoughtful messages, then hung on pulleys to create an intertwined installation—a visual metaphor of human connections—beyond the apparent divide and current polarization around the neighborhood’s upcoming land development.


Hot cider was served around heat lamps while Design/Relief Program Director Laetitia Wolff gave an overall introduction of the initiative followed by a few remarks from the Seaport team, which then opened to questions from a diverse assembly.

Open to the public since then and with a staff person greeting visitors and guiding participants through the “ritual,” the installation has collected about 100 cards. The slow accumulation demonstrates a sense of unity, shared visions, and the social network of the South Street Seaport community. As this first chapter closes soon—coincidentally with the March 1st art crawl festival at the Seaport—the team is now strategizing about phase 2 of the project. “Catch & Release” will continue to focus on cultural placemaking, but now the emphasis will shift to raising the visibility of the other treasures within the Seaport, not just human connections.


The Rockaway team held a second community workshop Monday February 10, inviting stakeholders from YANA (You Are Not Alone, our venue host), Rockaway Arts Alliance, and local newspaper and project partner The Wave. Additional representatives included a new initiative called Rockaway’s Global Resilience initiative, focused on sustainability. Earlier participants from The Rockaway Youth Task Force and Edgemere Action Center did not attend this time around. The conversation focused on detailing some of the concepts unearthed during the last workshop, identifying strategic places in and around B90th Street, notably the elevated subway infrastructure (a.k.a. the El), and in the rest of the peninsula, as well as key players to interview for the project. The concept “Dear Rockaway,” is a guerrilla-style messaging campaign that aims to capture and amplify oral histories and everyday wisdom from local neighbors. The Wave, along with other stakeholders, welcomed the idea, but encouraged the team to think big and mobile, analog and digital, in order to have maximum impact in this ripped open urban fabric.


Meanwhile, the Red Hook team continued its community outreach, across multiple organizations and political representations. On February 12, they hosted and facilitated an overflowing design charrette at the Miccio Community Center (NYCHA), following up on a month of community meetings, workshops, presentations, one-on-ones, site visits, and field research. The charrette featured participation from members of the Municipal Art Society (MAS), South West Brooklyn IDC, South Brooklyn Community High School, Carroll Gardens Association, Miccio Center, Red Hook Initiative and the RHI Digital Stewards/Red Hook Wifi Program, Red Hook Star Revue, Gowanus Bay Terminal, Rebuilding Together, Pratt Graduate Design Studio, Good Shepherd Services, the Brooklyn Public Library and members of the MGMT. design studio. Additional feedback and insights were provided by the office of 7th District Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (Dan Wiley), the Red Hook East and West tenant councils, and local business owners. Andrew Shea’s Pratt Institute Creative Placemaking class is also conducting supporting research as part of our academic partnerships. Based on this cumulative feedback, the Red Hook team was able to validate and hone on their initial concept of HUB.


Mapping out the multiple connections and interactions has grown over the recent months as the Red Hook team leads an active community engagement. The Red Hook team strategy has been to “plug in” whenever possible with existing community events, such as the Red Hook Tenant association Wednesday meetings or the NY Rising monthly community charrettes, while opening up the conversation to city-wide stakeholders.

HUB is a strategically placed public information system that aggregates and circulates vital information, based on community need. The Hub will provide different kinds of information in digital and/or analog formats and be mediated by a coalition of community members. Supporting elements include a graphic campaign and deployable emergency pop-up planning kits.

On January 22, AIGA/NY hosted a public forum/panel that featured the three teams, for the first time, presenting Pecha Kucha style concepts and processes to an audience of designers and Design/Relief fans. A full and informal room at Bumble Auditorium allowed for a passionate Q+A, raising issues such as the level of community appropriation and stewardship of our projects; the geographic composition of Design/Relief teams; the necessary digital dimension in relief-centered design projects; the challenge to think of those Design/Relief projects as potential branding exercises for these three neighborhoods.

A few days later, AIGA/NY was hosting a Creative Placemaking crash course at our NY headquarters with none but ArtPlace: newly appointed executive director Jamie Barrett and deputy director Lyz Crane addressed notions of vibrancy indicators, impact measurement, success and learning. A welcomed conversation at such turning point as our designers seek a better understanding of their potential impact, and what and whose place they can really affect. The best takeaway of this session–other than inspiring bibliographies and references, and the confirmation that designers are increasingly becoming key contributors to the future shaping of communities–was the simple, yet refreshing, reminder that our designers should ask what to change and not just what to make . . .

These conversations and other exciting examples are featured in our newly launched Creative Placemaking Tumblr page, hosted by the AIGA/NY website (currently under renovation), which hosts our own, mediated reflection on what constitutes a design-driven creative placemaking effort.

Recent Wins
City Connections
The Red Hook team has been seeking support and insights from city agencies, such as DDC, NYC Parks and the NY Library System, as they anticipate the implementation of their HUB project. They’ve also managed to engage high profile New York-wide advocacy organizations, such as the Municipal Art Society, and political platforms, such as 7th District Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez office. The recent Community Board District 1 meeting, last January 21st, officially gave public recognition to the South Street Seaport team for Catch & Release’s cultural impact. Their Seaport/Civic Center Committee also considered inviting our team to facilitate a community workshop aimed to imagine the future of the area. This opportunity becomes even more significant as the Seaport mixed-use redevelopment project and the Pier 17 demolition, have been put on hold by the de Blasio administration.



Media Attention
The Catch & Release project gained much media attention, specifically in the local press: The Broadsheet and DNAinfo, provided exposure for the overall project as well design-focused media, such as Print magazine blog, and sister organizations, like the Design Trust for Public Space’s blog, whose initiative Under the Elevated echoes our Seaport concerns.

Design + Public Policy
Design/Relief’s director, Laetitia Wolff, continues a dialog with Town & Gown, the applied research platform hosted by DDC whose mission is to connect academic research, professional practices to city agency. This dialog around how design can trigger public policy innovation was engaged last year in the context of NYC&DESIGN, and illustrated by a series of panels, charrettes, and research projects. AIGA/NY is now discussing the possibility of producing cross-pollinated presentations this coming May around this topic, taking the Red Hook HUB project as an illustration.

Being seen from abroad
Gaining both local and international exposure, Design/Relief Seaport team is invited to present their project at BRAC (Bronx River Arts Center), on February 28 in the context of post-Sandy artistic responses, as well as at Singapore’s LaSalle School of Arts, whose exhibit this month features a selection of international participatory design projects exploring the reinvention of the city by re-imagining urbanism.


Trust building
Our teams have consciously or not acted as catalysts of existing desires and aspirations in the communities of Red Hook, Rockaway, and South Street Seaport. Their enduring efforts to familiarize themselves with community needs and engage local players have empowered them to put their fingers on the right project where design can be a true differentiator and a strategic lever. Our teams have become independent voices of reason, their outsider clairvoyant views respected by the community, enabling them to bring together diverse if not dissenting points of view.

Trust building in those communities takes many friendly, collaborative, open-minded sessions, a combination of one-on-one meetings and group conversations, catalytic and cathartic. Let’s not forget that time is a precious asset to community-centered, engaged design. Too often such initiatives are conceived in short time periods that do not allow for trust building.

Small and/or big
On the other side of the coin of the overwhelming community support for our Red Hook team is the fear to think too big, too long-term, and too high-tech, and we keep reminding them to not forget the mantra of “lighter, quicker, cheaper.” Better build a small prototype, and get it off the ground to not only crystallize but also visualize those common interests, rather than wait for larger funds and get lost in red tape and political decisions.

In response to this very challenge, our South Street Seaport team has shown by example that a small-scale, discreet, modest activation such of “Catch & Release,” can potentially become an inspiring model for other empty retail spaces in the neighborhood, plagued by 63% of vacant lots. The phase 2 of our Seaport project will be exploring this very direction, aiming to demonstrate that cultural placemaking can release, one empty space at a time, stronger place identity and economic vibrancy.