Former Fellow Lee Altman writes about a recent publication of student work: Justice in Place: Design for Equity in the Hudson Valley, a result of a series of urban design studios Lee taught at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP). Supported by AIA and Columbia’s Urban Design program, the goal is to facilitate future work on spatial justice issues in the Hudson Valley, through a more inclusive and diverse discourse in the field. The proposed strategies draw on a range of topics, challenging various aspects of justice in place to illustrate visions for improved places, services, and opportunities for residents, economy & environment.
“All who are oppressed, subjugated, or economically exploited are to some degree suffering from the effects of unjust geographies, and this struggle over geography can be used to build greater crosscutting unity and solidarity” (Edward w. Soja, in Seeking Spatial Justice).
Justice is more clearly understood where and when it is denied. If injustice is embedded in geography, as Soja suggests, it is also embedded in the socio-spatial networks that produce places over time. The process of identifying the built injustice and calling it out as such, from the obvious highways cutting through and displacing vibrant black communities in Montgomery, Alabama, to the subtler and yet as effective--lack of parking or public transportation at certain New England public beaches, is a critical first step in understanding the potential impact of otherwise seemingly practical planning decisions.
There is a clear disconnect between design and planning professionals, and the communities they aim to serve. A combination of exclusionary practices that systematically keep women and people of color from positions of power or out of the disciplines altogether, along with an internal language and discourse that limits others’ ability to participate and impact the conversation, result in projects conceived and decisions made on behalf of residents and not by them. The responsibility to do more lies with the design community – it is part of our role to transform our process into a more open and inclusive dialog that invites and engages others with the spatial and social knowledge of their own neighborhoods, to become active participants in the process of change.
TEACHING DESIGN JUSTICE
Between 2014 and 2018, I collaboratively coordinated and taught a series of urban design studios at Columbia University’s GSAPP. The study area specifically focuses on small and medium cities in the Hudson Valley, like Newburgh and Poughkeepsie that share the scars of urban renewal, the burdens of concentrated social services and criminal justice facilities serving larger counties, and the disinvestment and lack of funding resulting from a tax base that fled to the suburbs and surrounding towns.
An Ivy league institution may not be the most intuitive place to try and promote diversification of the design field. That said, the institution is in a unique position to reach out and work with communities that are typically not on the radar of designers and planners. The projects were tasked with starting conversations and opening new ways of thinking about the future of Hudson Valley communities. None of these projects are “shovel ready” nor are they intended to be.
As part of the studio’s learning experience students were tasked with designing an interaction – a physical means by which they could start a conversation with passers-by and engage them in a meaningful exchange around topics raised by the residents or the students. Some of the impactful, personal conversations allowed students and residents to see and feel the link between the failures of social and physical infrastructures, and everyday challenges they face as its consequence. At the end of each semester we organized a small event – where students and faculty share the semester’s results with our local partners and participants. Although these events are often exciting and very rewarding for all involved, they unfortunately do not leave local partners with an actionable record of the work.
The featured project proposals address some of society’s most challenging and persistent systemic problems, and try to address them through the lens of projects that combine design, policy, and advocacy. Each of these projects offers some food for thought – a compelling idea, a novel combination of programs, an exciting visual that can ignite an innovative idea or support a grant application.
Food & Agriculture: Many Hudson Valley residents suffer from a lack of access to fresh produce, despite being surrounded by small and medium farms that are struggling for resources – food deserts in the land of plenty. Focusing on food justice, students developed approaches to supporting the valley’s farms, addressing the access gap in lower income neighborhoods, and considering the environmental impacts of dairy farming.
Ecology & Health: Extractive practices, polluting industry, and carbon-intensive transportation infrastructure have left their mark on the valley’s landscapes, impacting quality of air and water, leaving behind contaminated soils. Inextricably linked to physical and mental health, these impacts disproportionately harm lower income communities of color. Projects tackling these issues focused on restoring the valley’s biodiversity through restorative practices, while leveraging the same efforts to promote environmental education, create sustainable energy sources, and find employment opportunities for individuals struggling with homelessness and mental health challenges.
Culture & Art: Building on the valley’s growing art community, students proposed a series of indoor and outdoor collaborative spaces, and a series of installations in vacant lots along Main Street in Poughkeepsie designed to activate and enliven the street. Leveraging the existing investment in the film industry in Newburgh, teams identified potential education and economic development opportunities that would engage and employ local teens and residents rather than leaving them behind.
Incarceration & Education: The ingrained discrimination prevalent in the American criminal justice system, interconnected with challenges of recidivism and lack of opportunities for re-entry were tackled through a neighborhood designed around an alternative to incarceration--a community designed to ease the return of recently incarcerated individuals into the workforce, and alternative education system which uses project-based learning to break the school-to-prison pipeline.
Jobs & Economy: Thinking beyond current industries, teams envisioned economic development strategies structured around nontraditional businesses such as cannabis farming and distribution, and developed new approaches to older industries by building on existing assets such as apple farming and construction materials. While cities like Newburgh and Poughkeepsie are surrounded by more affluent suburbs and towns, the Hudson Valley’s suburban & rural landscape contain rural poverty hidden in plain sight. With little access to jobs, services, or resources, rural communities rely on strip mall landscapes dependent on private vehicles and increasing gas costs. Students envisioned different scenarios for the valley’s big box landscapes, where future development is concentrated within specific growth corridors and oversized retail and parking gives way to mobile services.
A key part of the studios’ pedagogy is to help students recognize that residents and communities who are excluded from the discussion and decision-making processes that impact their daily lives, are at a constant disadvantage; this includes groups not typically reached using standard outreach strategies or groups that have learned over time that their participation does not result in any beneficial impact. The studio’s format relies heavily on partnerships built with residents, organizations, and municipalities, who contributed their time, energy, and local knowledge to benefit the students. To continue and advocate for these efforts of knowledge sharing, and follow the path we outline for our students, it is our responsibility (as educators and as professionals) to make such collaborative outputs accessible for others to build on. It is our hope that these resources would support and amplify the efforts of all contributors we met over the course of these five studios.
Download the free PDF here.
The publication is also available for purchase here