Queens Community Board Meeting in Jackson Heights, photo courtesy of StreetFilms, 2013. 

The Design Trust Equitable Public Space Fellowship Program, established in 2016, supports the next generation of urban designers, architects, landscape architects, and planners in contributing to complex public space challenges in our global city. Jasmin Tepale is one of Design Trust's 2020-21 Equitable Public Space Fellows.

“It would be so much easier if they spoke English.” This phrase has had so many different meanings to me throughout my lifetime, but it was mostly the frustration of navigating systems that were never set up to assist immigrants, especially if they spoke little English or none at all. Growing up, like so many children of parents who spoke a different language, I often had to translate for my parents who spoke Spanish and very little English. To sum up this experience, Comedian Cristela Alonzo said it best in her 2017 tweet, “Shout out to all immigrant kids that serve as translators for their parents, especially when you’re a kid and have to try your best to translate words you don’t know yet. I always hoped I guessed right.” It wasn’t until I was older that I began to entertain a different thought, “Why is it this way?”

During my fellowship at Design Trust, I decided to explore that question. Through my independent project, I focused on celebrating our culturally and linguistically diverse communities. I want to address the need to disrupt common ideologies and practices around language, heritage, and culture within our design professions so that it can be a nexus to inclusive designs and policies. My project will create a publication of best practices for planners, architects, and designers to collaborate with more ethnically diverse voices that are representative of the neighborhoods they’re working in. As planners, architects, and designers, we can ultimately change the narrative that we are the gatekeepers to the design of neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, and towns. To begin thinking about this, we need to examine our current state and reflect on how we got here.

In the United States, we are struggling with our growing diverse demographic. The Brookings Institute examined 2020 population estimates from the census which revealed that “racial and ethnic minorities accounted for all of the nation’s population growth and were responsible for population gains in many states, metropolitan areas, and counties that would have otherwise registered losses due to declines in their White populations.” Year after year, the numbers continue to show upward trends that our cities and suburbs are homes to numerous people of various cultures. In fact, the census in 2015 reported that they’ve been able to document at least 350 languages that are spoken at home across the US. From a demographic data standpoint, we should all be used to having diversity by now.

In reality, people of different ethnicities, cultures, and skin colors are often still seen as “the other,” regardless of the length of time they’ve been living in the US, their ability to speak and understand English, and their comprehension of American norms and customs. The US has a long complicated history of suppressing minority cultures. In the 1800s while America was actively in the process of acquiring new land by whatever means necessary, they decided that it would be in their best interest to assimilate Native American children through boarding schools. Americans held this notion that Native culture and language were to blame for what was deemed the country’s“Indian problem.” The overarching goal of these institutions was to destroy and vilify Native culture, language, family, and spirituality. Following these decisions, there have been decades of policies on all levels to “solve” the problem of culture, heritage, and language. They include local governments issuing anti-bilingual ordinances, schools imposing rules that all teachings were to be conducted in English only, and even workplaces discriminating against individuals with certain hair types and styles. 

The fact of the matter is we’re not prepared for the growing number of people from various cultures who live in the US. Many local groups, organizations, and activists have echoed this for years. However, we continue to see disinvestment into ESL classes for children and adults, limited funding for translation and interpretation services, continued discrimination based on national origin in our workplaces, housing, and schools, and violence due to our ethnicity in our public spaces. 

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have grown up and still live in one of the most diverse counties in the US. Queens, New York is home to some of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods and it's said that about 138 languages are spoken in our borough. Culture is often celebrated through food where you can find almost every type of cuisine you can think of and yearly festivals that celebrate the Lunar New Year, Holi, or various independent days of different countries to name a few. Even with our incredible diversity, New York City, like many other cities and suburbs, still struggles on how to coexist with different cultures, heritages, and languages. We see it everyday in NYC when people can’t get proper healthcare because they can’t communicate to their doctors, receive legal assistance because legalese is hard to understand and harder to translate, and when zoning changes are being proposed and diverse residents who are trying to understand what’s going on, are forced to figure out zoning maps and codes that are available in English written for planners in short periods of time. 

It's an understatement to say that we need to find better ways to collaborate with our diverse communities to live more cohesively. I’ve always felt this to be specifically true for planners, architects, and urban designers, who are often tasked with designing neighborhoods and communities that will shape their future for years to come. We hold scheduled meetings and give people the option of letting the organizers know if they need an interpreter at the meeting. We translate flyers into different languages and post them in the neighborhood or on social media. When it comes time for the meeting, the diverse residents we had hoped would come, don’t. 

It’s easy to say that these issues of zoning or design don’t interest our diverse communities, that they have other priorities. It’s also easy to view culture, heritage, and language as an impediment or something we need to overcome in order for people to be more involved in our design processes because historically, that's how it's always been viewed. “It would just be so much easier if they spoke English”

I would argue that it's not enough that communities across the US are all able to hold and comprehend conversations in English to be a part of our design processes. This is a bigger conversation about communities’ access to the design of their neighborhoods but also the systemic processes that suppress minority cultures. As planners, architects, and designers, we have our terminology and jargon that only through college education and work experience, we’ve been able to understand. If you had asked me out of college what a stakeholder was, a term I currently hear weekly in work meetings, I wouldn’t have an answer. Come to think of it, I don’t know how to translate stakeholders into Spanish. Additionally, there are issues in how we conduct “traditional meetings”. Are we considering how one might use various modes of transportation to get to the site of the meeting like biking, walking, taking the bus or train? When I lived in Florida temporarily, I quickly learned that 15 minutes of walking to a store could lead me on the side of a small highway or through neighborhoods with no sidewalks. Are we considering that not everyone has traditional 9-5 jobs or often work multiple jobs? Are we also considering how we can help meet people’s basic needs like providing them with compensation for their time and thoughts or providing them with food? Lastly, communities have lost trust with many planners, architects, and designers because they’re often not an intentional part of the project and are often not understood as individuals but grouped into their race labels (i.e Hispanics thought of as a monolith when in fact cultures from Mexico differ from cultures in Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic). 

There is so much more to unpack as we continue to talk about providing spaces and uplifting our culturally and linguistically diverse communities. This research project hopes to add to the work of all the activists, planners, architects, urban designers, and urbanists who have been working to empower communities that have been systemically left out of the design of their neighborhoods.