Public Interest Design: Summer
Course Series

06.02.11–07.07.11
University of Texas at Austin

Conner Bryan
Graduate Student
Architecture
j.conner.bryan@gmail.com

Lauren Bennett
Graduate Student
Community and Regional Planning
bennett.laurend@gmail.com

photo of the four design-build projects that were completed during the program

“Good design has the potential to benefit more people than it currently does. De- sign can play a direct role in addressing critical social issues we face. The process of creating the built environment can allow communities and individuals to improve and celebrate their lives. It can help solve their struggles by reshaping their existence.”
—Bryan Bell,
Expanding Architecture

In the design profession, too often the needs of the underserved go unnoticed. Equity, one of the three fundamental factors of the triple bottom line of sustainability (economy, and environment being the other two), is frequently ignored and poorly understood by the decision makers and stakeholders in the design process. In today’s age of rapidly depleting natural resources, famines, natural disasters, and political tension, we can no longer ignore the fact that in order for us to advance and continue to prosper as a human race, we must transition to sustainable communities that are healthy, prosperous, and equitable places where people can live, work, and socialize.

In the United States, architects have been given an exclusive responsibility and right to practice through licensure. In return, architects have the responsibility to create the physical world in a way that improves conditions and makes progress towards the greater public benefit, serving the general public just as other professionals do. However, the profession has largely focused on a small part of the population and a very limited set of issues, and it is currently the wealthy, the powerful, and large institutions that are involved in design decisions.

There is an opportunity to change this now. The green design movement has opened a door. The public has realized a critical link between design and the environment, and between design and the future of our planet. The realization that design can play a role in addressing critical environmental issues crates an opportunity to go further: to show how design of the built environment can address important social and economic issues as well. It is time for the green design movement to realize its full potential: to take the best ideas of the leading practitioners and from the most effective products, and shape these into accessible and transferable tools for the general public to use to make the built environment more socially and ecologically just.

Program Brief

The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, in collaboration with Design Corps, offered the first five week Public Interest Design (PID) course series in the summer of 2011 in Austin, TX, which connected advanced students interested in the built environment and public service with leading practitioners in public design. The program equipped students with the tools needed to create beautiful, sustainable, and community-enhancing spaces. During the program, we developed skills to leverage the practical and ethical complications of public service as a means to heighten the quality of our work by seeking innovative design solutions that positively impact larger social problems.

Our cohort was comprised of various backgrounds and fields of study. Graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Texas at Austin were joined by students from schools including the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Georgia Tech University, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Syracuse University, the College of Charleston, Iowa State University, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, forming an interdisciplinary group with backgrounds in architecture, landscape architecture, planning, urban studies, geography, political science, policy studies, economics, and sustainable design.

The PID program offered us the opportunity to investigate what it means to be a public servant. Much like public health is to medicine, this program aimed to contribute to the emerging understanding of the civic role of design professions. It aims to contribute to the larger national discussion about how public design might be better interwoven into the architecture curriculum, operating in dialogue with other similar emerging programs. The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture hopes to serve as a hub for innovative thinking about the nature, ethics, and boundaries of public design, and to contribute to the larger dialogue already in progress as evidenced by exhibitions like the Cooper-Hewitt’s Design for the Other 90% and the Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement exhibit at MOMA.

The summer course series emphasized the public nature of architecture and asserted that there are critical links between design and the environment, and between design and social and economic well being, on both an individual and community-wide scale. This emphasis provided us with the tools needed to integrate equity as a necessary component of sustainability into our work which is too often overlooked in design coursework, and also provided us with practical experience in the field and with connections to leading practitioners in public interest design across the nation.

Curriculum

The PID course series was comprised of two courses: a research seminar and a service-oriented practicum, which were held in tandem over five weeks of the summer session. The courses were coordinated and taught by Bryan Bell and Barbara Brown Wilson, and also included an array of special guest lecturers from across the country, from the University of Texas faculty, and from the local community.

The seminar course was taught over five weeks, during which students gained an understanding of how to evaluate, analyze, and integrate public design theory and practice. Topics included: critical assessment of service-learning design/build projects, survey of public architecture, systems approaches to design thinking, bio- regional design, project management, and measuring results.

The service-oriented practicum was taught simultaneously to the research seminar during the summer session. The focus of the practicum was allowing students to explore built forms through a design/build project. Students led a series of discussions between various community members while constructing small-scale community improvement projects in Austin. Topics included: engaging the public through a design process, educating the public on the value of design, construction, detailing, and materiality.

Each week a leading practitioner in public design served as a visiting instructor, actively participating in the program to enhance student knowledge and understanding. Visiting faculty were renowned leaders in the field of public interest design and provided students with an enhanced understanding of not only the theory and application of public design, but also the challenges and opportunities of integrating public interest design into practice. The series of distinguished guest lecturers served as a weekly catalyst—an infusion of outside energy focused on a specific aspect of public interest design.

Visiting lecturers included:

Week 1 - David Perkes: Methods
Week 2 - Victoria-Ballard Bell: Materials
Week 3 - John Peterson: Design Matters
Week 4 - Steven Moore: Civic Environmentalism
Week 5 - Jess Zimbabwe: Design at the Scale of the City

Asset-Based Design

The summer program was engaged in an asset-based design approach. Rather than focusing on communities’ needs and problems, asset-based design focuses on the positive assets, skills, and capacities of communities in order to allow them to become an active participant in the design process itself. In school, we often hear that a top down approach to design and planning does not produce the best results, but rarely are given the chance to lead our own community engagement efforst. We learned that in order to create truly important, influential, and meaningful projects that there must be an ongoing dialogue and participation with community members, allowing them to voice concerns and give constructive feedback. This collaborative process empowers others through design; it shows the public that they are designers in their own right and that they too can create positive change in their own environments and communities. We were also invited to share our personal assets and core beliefs with fellow classmates in a “This I believe, This I can do” format. Through this personal sharing experience, we were asked to looked within ourselves and share with the group our deepest held beliefs and the values we put forth in our work. This exercise not only gave us the space to look within ourselves, but to also build trust with one another through sharing our own stories. This highly charged, emotional experience set the tone for the remainder of the studio.

Process

The Studio began by leveraging the established relationship that the Center for Sustainable Development, the Austin Community Design and Development Center (ACDDC), and the Alley Flat Initiative (AFI) had developed over time with the Guadalupe Neighborhood. This relationship was a critical first step in the project as we were able to build upon the strong foundation of trust previously established through the AFI projects.

Brochures advertising free student design services were distributed throughout the area and residents were encouraged to call if they were interested. Through this solicitation, we met with various residents to learn their personal story and discuss what ideas and projects they had in mind. The alley projects emerged from the common concerns and issues that residents shared about the alleys behind their homes. Because of this, a small group of us were drawn to the projects as a way to bring the community together around a common cause and strengthen the sense of community among multiple stakeholders. After the initial series of resident meetings, we formed teams and proposed design solutions that focused on the community concerns we had heard. Those ideas were then presented internally within the studio along with a discussion based on the merits of each idea. After this round of design proposals, the best ideas were selected for further discussion and refinement. We then presented refined concepts to residents for feedback through on-site meetings with sketches, pictures, full-scale mock-ups, and renderings. Beyond merely requesting approval for our designs, we had the opportunity to engage residents in a conversation about the intent of the design. For example, when we presented our pavement marking idea, the residents were asked not only what they thought of the actual graphic design, but also about how graphics could work as a traffic-calming measure and place-making element for their neighborhood.

After presenting the first design iterations, we then held a “neck down” event, or a volunteer workday, where we cleaned two alleyways in the Guadalupe neighborhood. One Saturday afternoon was spent clearing brush and debris, cutting back plants, and sweeping the alleyways in the neighborhood. The hope for the alley cleanup was that it would serve as a positive initial gesture and a catalyst for engagement with the community. The purpose was to not only clean the alleys, but more importantly, to show the public that our group of students was truly invested in the project and ready and willing to get the work done to effectively make positive change in the neighborhood.

At the culmination of the five-week course, we hosted an Alley Blitz. All stakeholders were invited out to the Guadalupe neighborhood to view the four projects and celebrate their successful completion. The projects varied in size and scope, but their goals were the same—to have a positive impact on the neighborhood and to provide designs that could be modified and utilized by various members of the larger community.

Projects

There were a total of four design-build projects that were completed during the five-week program.

1. Greening Alleys Project

Through a series of interviews, residents of the Guadalupe neighborhood identified issues, challenges and assets associated with the alleyways. Common issues in the neighborhood included traffic speeding, parking by downtown visitors on weekends, a lack of neighborhood identity and continuity. Assets discovered included enthusiastic neighbors ready to tackle issues as well as the alley being a great place to stroll through the neighborhood and/or walk dogs.

Through close involvement with alley residents and City of Austin staff, a design has been developed to address the stated concerns. A proposed alley address/garbage unit will aid in creating spatial organization for the alley, as well as creating a sense of identity and ownership. Additionally, it will increase safety in the alley, as emergency vehicles will benefit from the address markers. Also, super- graphic pavement markings for the alley were created to act as traffic calming measures to allow for safer resident walking and biking, as well as being a unique way to give the alley further identity and character.

In addition to providing space for mobility and waste collection, residential and commercial alleyways have great potential to provide ecosystem services through green infrastructure implementation. For example, rain gardens and bioswales along alleyways can be used to redirect filtered stormwater into the water table and away from the city waste stream. Also, permeable pavement materials can be applied to alleys to further reduce stormwater runoff. Additionally, planting particular plants can help sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Increasing alley vegetation can also aid in reducing the urban heat island effect. Alleys can also be used for food production; utilizing alley space for growing herbs, vegetables, and planting fruit trees can increase access to healthy, fresh foods and decrease grocery expenses. Residential alleys can also be considered as great places for pedestrians and cyclists to traverse an area in a comfortable, safe way. The more people choose these modes of travel, the less pollution from automobiles in the air.

Building on the projects implemented and the possibilities discovered through research, the team prepared a Toolkit that the neighborhood stakeholders, designers, and the City of Austin may reference for ideas in developing future alley projects and identifying potential resources for such projects. The Toolkit also connects them with the resources needed for such projects. As all alleyways are unique and present different issues, the Toolkit is a good starting point to generate discussion amongst community members and ideas for future alley improvement projects.

2. Five Mile Farms project

Access to local and affordable organically grown produce is a challenge for many neighborhoods in Austin. Five Mile Farms (5MF) is a decentralized urban farm that transforms underutilized yard space throughout Austin into productive farmland that provides nourishment and builds community. With a collaborative process with 5MF founder Randy Jewart, the students created a mobile farm stand, which is able to facilitate organic neighborhood produce sales in Austin. Eventually 5MF hopes to create more farm stands, each in close proximity to each 5MF plot in the city, which will aide in minimizing carbon emissions from food transport and improve access to hyper-local produce for the city of Austin. The mobile farm stand will not only serve as a local landmark for the 5MF network where community members can gather to teach, learn, eat, shop, and build relationships, but also provide a raised awareness of the community through maps and diagrams and prompt discussion about local food sources, encouraging and empowering visitors to become part of Austin’s local food movement. For more information about the 5MF network, check out their farm stand and visit their website at http://www.resolutiongardens.org/farm/.

3. SHED (+) project

The SHED (+) project was created in response to a number of interrelated community needs and opportunities. Conversations with individual homeowners, local property managers, and low-income housing corporations revealed that outdoor storage is a key need for many Austin residents. Additional research reveled that many homes in the area had large, underutilized yards, that could be more fully incorporated into a resident’s day-to-day activities, positively impacting their quality of life and increasing feelings of ownership, stewardship, belonging and engagement. This could be thought of as a “greening” of urban backyards through modular, customizable, SHED [+] systems. As the name suggests, the project provides increased opportunities for property upkeep and safe storage through provision of a shed. SHED (+) goes beyond the limits of the conventional shed, however; SHED (+) is a system of modular, customizable units that include add-ons such as vegetable beds, clotheslines, and a small chicken coop, which demonstrate how sustainable systems may be integrated with one another. The SHED (+) system is an educational tool, immediately available to the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation and their tenants, which demonstrates how an urban backyard can provide expanded social, economic, ecological, and health benefits to families, increasing the functionality and quality of affordable housing which are crucial components in sustaining a diverse community.

4. Heritage Fence Project

The Guadalupe Neighborhood of East Austin has been home to multiple generations of Mexican Americans since the early 1900s when social and economic pressures led many African Americans and Mexican Americans east of today’s I-35 Highway. Gentrification has been an on-going reality for generational homeowners in the Guadalupe neighborhood since Austin’s 1997 Smart Growth Initiative. Restoring community character and improving public and private spaces within the neighborhood is imperative to the preservation of this historic neighborhood.

The homeowners were interested in opening up their backyards to create a warm and welcoming space where neighbors could gather and that would also honor the historical legacy of their neighborhood. To that end, a team of five students worked with the homeowners and created a modular fence and sitting area behind their home. The materials for the project were a patchwork of found items from nearby neighborhood construction sites. All of the materials were consciously picked because they represented the history and culture of the neighborhood. Behind the heritage fence, a sitting area was created which, in combination with the fence, embraces and celebrates the rich history of its surrounding while also welcoming new residents and encouraging neighbors to interact and enjoy together. This project has also created an expanded relationship with city interest in developing strategies for greening alleyways and creating meaningful gathering spaces: public places that intertwine, embrace, and mobilize social interconnectivity.

Conclusion

At the conclusion of the five-week program, the class toured each of the projects to reflect upon the completed work. Each team described the process that they went through and the challenges that were faced. The four projects were complete successes; the stakeholders involved with each project were satisfied with the students’ hard work and the end result. The success of the projects has been positively recognized by the City of Austin. The newly formed Office of Sustainability, formed in September of 2010, is interested in using the projects as catalysts for future projects in Austin. Finally, as students, we walked away with one of the most intense and satisfying learning experiences of our academic careers. We were challenged daily and rewarded with new insights into and enthusiasm for our civic role as designers.

Public universities have a vested interest in building strong relationships with their surrounding communities. The importance of the role the University of Texas played during the summer program cannot be understated. UT provided the studio with credibility with the public from the outset of the projects, which set the stage for us to successfully engage with the surrounding community. The University partnership also provided us with a setting in which creative boundaries could be pushed. Additionally, UT was able to provide a wealth of resources in terms of the professors and practitioners that were brought together to guide our studio as well as the assemblage of a diverse group of students that were attracted to the program because of the reputation that precedes the University of Texas School of Architecture. As the inaugural group of students, we now have a specialized skill set in Public Interest Design that we will take back to our home universities, communities and design firms. Sharing this knowledge throughout the world will increase the scale and membership of the PID movement and in turn aid in the cultivation of more sustainable communities.

Our hope is that this program and the resultant projects, while small in scope and scale, are representative of a much larger movement of public interest design.

For more information on this (and the upcoming 2012) program, the projects, and to view on online report on this entire process, please visit the Center for Sustainable Development’s website at http://soa.utexas.edu/csd/index/.