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Answering a Call for Equality

“Leveraging the power of design to create a better world.”

Never before has the need to live up to that tagline been more urgent, especially for those of us in Baltimore.

As designers and residents of this city, we help shape its urban fabric. We play some small part in furthering Baltimore’s transition from fractured industrial hub to unified modern metropolis.

But what we have recently experienced has caused us to commit ourselves anew.

We have witnessed an eruption of unvarnished pain. We have seen a blistering of budding hopes and a display of human confrontation in its most raw and naked form. To observe such events is to behold something so overwhelming that it is barely comprehensible.

However, those who have lived here for any length of time knew it was destined.

For far too long, this city’s defining social feature has been the garish contrast between haves and have-nots, educated and uneducated, blacks and whites. And for far too long, design has been a part of the arsenal used to reinforce that social order.

In our office, we have long considered this city’s history in order to pursue more equitable and just design practices. Yet we know that inclusive design alone cannot solve Charm City’s problems. Police misconduct, economic policy, deindustrialization, education opportunities (or lack thereof), and so many of the other issues that have bubbled to the surface recently are beyond our purview. But design—with a more responsible and moral underpinning—can at least serve as a catalyst to help us better connect Baltimore, just as it once served as a tool to help carve up this city.

A Misguided Past. An Informed Future.

Make no mistake: wrong-headed design played a part in marginalizing a segment of Baltimore’s population. Roadways like Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard form border vacuums that cleave the city and separate those with means from those without. Monotonous stretches of identical row houses serve up what Jane Jacobs described in The Death and Life of Great American Cities as a “Great Blight of Dullness, (34)” which prevents any possible vitality. And, to further quote Jacobs, specifically on Baltimore, “’In-between densities’—too low for cities, too high for suburbs” create neighborhoods that are “abandoned by people with choice (357).”

We point out these blunders to remind ourselves how bad design can exacerbate a city’s underlying issues. For these decisions stemmed from misguided notions of urban environments and the diverse mix of people that inhabit them. And though they are very much of the 20th century, they are still negatively affecting lives in the 21st century.

In a sense, this is why the entire concept of the city, and how to reimagine it for today, is so important for Gensler. To reshape our urban landscapes, the firm has, for the most part, hewed to traditional partnerships with developers and local governments. But here in Baltimore, we’ve added another audience to the mix.

Creating a Self-Sustaining Undercurrent

Because we’ve seen such a profound need for social impact in Baltimore, we’ve looked at ways to engage traditionally neglected communities in the design process. Such engagement is intended not just to enlist communities as co-creators but to effectively allow them to drive the design. In truth, communities often have a good idea of what they need. For them, the sticking points typically arise when it’s time to formalize those ideas.

However, before design can begin in earnest, we must first listen. For listening is the basic material of trust. It is the mortar that holds together relationships. And taking the time to build a solid relationship makes the effort to understand the character and context of a neighborhood that much more meaningful.

As designers, we also turn to visualization tools to better understand the communities with whom we partner. One such tool, the community map, helps everyone visually understand a neighborhood’s social capital in a way that reveals new linkages and relationships. Those revelations ultimately enrich the community dialogue. When paired with platforms like neighborhood advisory boards and participatory design exercises, the end result is a malleable framework in which residents can find their own voice. Based on our experience, this approach creates a self-sustaining undercurrent that ripples on long after we’re gone.

So far, we’ve explored these tactics on a select number of projects. The question many of us are asking in the wake of all that has occurred recently is: How do we scale up our impact?

In a city where nearly 24 percent of residents struggle below the poverty line, and where many neighborhoods are stunted by unemployment rates above 40 percent (including Sandtown-Winchester, Freddie Gray’s neighborhood), how can we do more to provide a sense of ownership and hope?

Because there is no silver bullet, it’s going to take a multi-pronged approach. It’s going to require us to expand the network of change makers and anchor institutions that we partner with. It’s going to require us to help our private-sector clients see the value in community engagement strategies. It’s going to require us to keep the dialogue going across all the sectors of life that we touch in this city.

But those are all long-term efforts. We hope that others in the design community will embrace similar efforts as we design millions of square feet and thousands of hectares. And we hope to spark a conversation with other designers that revolves around one question: What small moves can we each make to affect the kind of change we seek?

What We’re Doing Today: Listening, Responding, and Collaborating.

Given that Baltimore’s frustrated youth were at the center of the city’s civil unrest, we’re reaching out to youth-focused charities with whom we have relationships. We want to find out how we can best help them impact lives right now. So we’re opening up dialogues with our friends at the Inner Harbor Project, the Baltimore Design School, Thread, the Baltimore Community Foundation, and BmoreUnited.

We’re also exploring how we might be able to support more design-focused organizations, such as the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC). The NDC sprang up in the wake of the 1968 Baltimore riots to provide pro-bono design services to communities. Since then, they’ve spearheaded a slew of community-betterment projects and served as a key partner in the development of our Southwest Baltimore vision plan.

Some of these efforts could require us to work outside the traditional confines of architecture and design. But as concerned citizens who are invested in the wellbeing of all in this city, we must embrace such endeavors. If we are required to roll up our sleeves to help repair a small business, volunteer our time to mentor youths, or help to raise funds for a non-profit, we will gladly do our part.

Because this is Baltimore. This is our home, and this our cause. This is how we will create meaningful impact.

What is your cause? How will you create impact?

Suggestions for Further Reading
Jim Camp is the Managing Director of Gensler's Baltimore office. He oversees the office's practice areas, including architecture, corporate workplace, financial services, secure environments and mixed/use retail. Jim is a member of Gensler's southeast executive and management committees, as well as the leader of the financial services practice area for the southeast region. He also serves as a board member for the Baltimore Design School. Contact him at Jim_Camp@gensler.com.
Peter Stubb is the Office Design Leader in Gensler’s Baltimore office. A multifaceted designer, he helped build an interdisciplinary studio where he partners with clients to deliver thoughtful, award-winning projects. Peter is also leading the development of methodologies for the firm that harness the power of design to positively transform communities. Contact him at Peter_Stubb@gensler.com.
Elaine Asal is a Design Strategist in the Baltimore office. She believes that positive impact comes from thoughtful, informed and tangible solutions, achieved when passionate people come together around a shared narrative and common goals. Contact her at Elaine_Aasal@gensler.com.
Prescott Gaylord is a Project Manager in the Baltimore office. His background in public policy, environmental science, and green construction gives him both a holistic and practical point of view when it comes to tackling design challenges. Contact him at Prescott_Gaylord@gensler.com.
Brenden Jackson is a Marketing Writer in the Baltimore and Washington, DC, offices. With a background in creative writing, journalism, and marketing, he oversees storytelling for Gensler’s southeast region. Contact him at Brenden_Jackson@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (1)

This is SO well summarized! Our long history with Baltimore began in 1963 when our cousin chose Loyola College, soon followed by our brother, sister, female cousin (CONDOMD) and in the next generation by our daughter and the children of those original cousins. They all remained and have made Baltimore their home. We have watched B'more grow and prosper, but only from the perspective of the "haves" and also acutely aware of the "have nots." It grieves us to drive past those decaying sections where both the people and the buildings are rotting away as BOTH have so much potential. We wish you good luck and fortitude as you attempt to begin to turn things around.
05.23.2015 | Unregistered CommenterYia Yia

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