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GOOD Design NYC: The Big Apple, Better

Earlier this month, we hosted a double header of events in New York City, GOOD Design NYC I and II. In partnership with our friends at Nau, who...

Earlier this month, we hosted a double header of events in New York City, GOOD Design NYC I and II. In partnership with our friends at Nau, who hosted us at their incredible Soho storefront-which was part community center, part sustainability showcase-we put together two evenings that celebrated the unique ways that designers can serve New York.

On the first night, Design and the City, we had presentations from six teams that had designed solutions to improve the urban experience. We heard from Robert Sherman and Gideon D'Arcangelo on their collaboration for MercyCorps' Action Center for World Hunger; Allan Chochinov, School of Visual Arts professor who talked about the Prosthetics Project; Mark Galbraith from Nau, who held a sustainability fashion show; Karin Fong of Imaginary Forces about a new Times Square visitors' center opening any day now; John Mangin of Center for Urban Pedagogy and Glen Cummings from MTWTF, who worked on CUP's Affordable Housing Toolkit; and Michelle Mullineaux, who previewed some exciting designer-nonprofit partnerships happening at DesigNYC. Check any of the links for more information about these exciting initiatives that designers are making happen in the city.

The second night, New Ideas for New York, required some additional work from the design teams, who were paired with urban leaders who had proposed city problems they'd come across in their work. After working several weeks to tackle the problems, the design teams each had 10 minutes to present their solutions.

Jake Barton of Local Projects was paired with a request from Rick Bell and Sherida Paulsen of AIA NY: How can we get more people to ride their bikes? Even though cycling has become more popular of late, and cool infrastructural improvements like better lanes have been added, New York still hasn't reached the critical mass of, say, Amsterdam. Barton proposed that the real problem with biking is a physical one: People don't like to go to work sweaty. Barton pointed to Cool Biz, a program that's already underway in Japan and in other places like Denver, making it culturally acceptable to dress down in the workplace so buildings don't have to keep the AC cranked. The same dress code changes could be made to allow people to stay cooler after they biked to work, reasoned Barton. Mayor Bloomberg (above) would start sporting shirtsleeves to set the standard for the city.

But just looking cool and classy while cycling was one solution, said Barton. Bikers also need to know that they're part of a larger community. Barton proposed an iPhone app that could help connect nearby bikers who could ride together and also help explain the benefits of a biked-in commute, calculating not only time and money saved, but carbon saved as well. Interactive bus shelters that broadcasted the information of those biking by would serve as an effective marketing tool. The shelters could also recognize that you're riding by and flash bits of information, like how much gas money you'd saved, motivating cyclists even more.

A very different problem was tackled by Geoff Cook and Tom Greenwood of Base Design. Benjamin de la Peña from the Rockefeller Foundation called for an overhaul of a messy, broken and outdated piece of New York life: the New York City sewer system. They glossed over some of the more obvious but impossible solutions ("Send it to Jersey!") and toyed with some composting programs that are working in other cities. But Cook and Greenwood (who were wearing lab suits, by the way) thought an even more effective way: Sell New York's crap to tourists. Hence the effective brand name: NYBM.

A massive campaign to sell New York turds-including certified celebrity waste-to tourists, along with a series of urine-filled snowglobes had the crowd rolling, and Cook and Greenwood deadpanned all the way through the Q&A, claiming that their "number two solution" was the best. But de la Peña actually saw real value in their idea, thinking that the NYBM logo could be made into a sticker that could be placed in all New York City toilets. The awareness could hopefully get people to think about where that waste would go when they flushed-and might make them flush less, or find out about the aging sewer system and take action.

Brett Snyder of Cheng+Snyder and Guy Zucker of Z-A paired up to take on the Times Square Alliance's challenge to help make way-finding easier for people in crowded spaces. Basically, when you have as many people as you do in Times Square, signage becomes obsolete. Snyder and Zucker proposed instead that any kind of way-finding, anywhere in the Square, be integrated directly into the urban infrastructure. A range of tactile, material pathways installed throughout Times Square would help give directional information to bikers and walkers, and also define places like wifi zones or play areas.

And, oh yeah, to help pedestrians get their bearings even more in Times Square, Snyder and Zucker thought they should build upon the street closures that were made earlier this year: No more cars allowed in Times Square. At all. That would free up more space for, say, speed skating when the Winter Olympics came to New York. Snyder and Zucker also hoped to synchronize the massive Jumbotrons and electronic billboards in Times Square to give a more unifying sense of place for the area, allowing movies or sporting events to be broadcast. While the Alliance's Glenn Weiss and Jose Soegaard said they, too, had fantasies of turning Times Square into this pedestrian "canyon," they agreed that no cars was probably not viable. But this seems to be a popular fantasy: New York Magazine recently asked three designers to reimagine Times Square, with even more wild ideas.

The delightful Jennifer Daniel received her disheartening missive from the Regional Plan Association: New York is one of the most dangerous cities for pedestrians in the United States. According to this New York Daily News article, one in three people killed in a New York-area traffic accident is a pedestrian-three times higher than the national average. The real problem, Daniel said, was that New York is one of the few places that pedestrians really do rule the streets, and they get used to that. No matter what, they don't heed any kind of advice doled out by crosswalks. Pedestrians have no problem walking around cars and darting out in front of cars if they get in their way.

Instead, Daniel said, get rid of things like boring, outdated colored lights, which are flatly ignored by walkers, and come up with some imagery that might make New Yorkers halt in their tracks. So she created a new set of signals that included unbelievable real estate offerings and adorably-irresistible puppies. While the RPA's Jeff Ferzoco wasn't sure that would keep walkers safer-he was thinking more an overhaul of the crosswalk system-he did recognize the fact that walkers are king and that maybe streets needed to be redesigned to acknowledge that fact (or maybe we just need to get rid of all the cars in New York, like the idea above!). You can see all of Daniel's presentation graphics here, and also be sure to check out her work for GOOD.

Colin Brice and Caleb Mulvena of MAPOS were given their challenge from UPROSE, an organization working on environmental and social justice issues in Sunset Park. The neighborhood has a largely unprotected industrial waterfront in need of sustainable development, but any development also needed to be sensitive to rising water levels or storm swells due to climate change. Brice and Mulvena proposed a series of physical solutions that could help to alleviate the possibility of flooding, like a series of floating, barge-like parcels that could be rearranged to accommodate, say, a NASCAR track to bring income to the area.

But in reality, anything they could do to the waterfront would remain a knee-jerk, reactionary measure, they reasoned. Instead, New Yorkers should take some inspiration from Venice, Italy, where people just deal with rising waters by choosing to ignore it. The real answer, Brice and Mulvena said, is to Do Nothing. Yes, Do Nothing, a massive product launch where high-water "dN" waders would be passed out to celebs like Angelina and Leo, who could help show that doing nothing as water levels rose was indeed a better solution. The clever, tongue-in-cheek concept was solid: While it was valuable to think about a massive infrastructural change in the future, it was better to stop and do something about it now. Elizabeth Yeampierre from UPROSE was extremely excited about their ideas and MAPOS is continuing to chat with them about some (non-wader) solutions for Sunset Park.


A study of the Structures of Participation ( STROPs) in Museum from xDesign Project on Vimeo.

Finally, Natalie Jeremijenko of xClinic, The Environmental Health Clinic and Lab talked about her work to help improve the environmental health of New York residents. She's also studied the way that people discover and share information (video above) and proposed a way to bring those skills together with NYC 311, whose Chenda Fruchter passed along a list of challenges the government agency had, from finding out where icy sidewalks were to dealing with the top NYC complaint: noise. By merging the service-oriented part of 311 with more of an environmental health hotline, Jeremijenko thought that requests like "remove this tree right now!" might evolve into questions about "what kind of tree is this, and how much carbon is it removing from the air per day?" To make the service even more community-oriented, Jeremijenko proposed that 311-answering duties would be required for New York citizens, much like jury duty. New Yorkers would be responsible for helping to solve their neighbors' problems, thus making them more empathetic to their communities. Fruchter loved the idea, but laughed at some of the irony of the solution-a lot of people already do call 311 to ask how to get out of jury duty, she said.

The last presentation was a perfect note to end on, as these events always seem to close with designers asking how they can find some urban problems to solve. I thought that listening in on 311 calls throughout the course of a day would probably be a great way to get the pulse of the city's problems. But this week I stumbled across an amazing list of complaints that had flooded the New York Times inbox throughout the year. For any designer hoping to make a real difference in New York, that article should give you more than enough challenges to get started!

Thanks to everyone for coming, especially my co-host Scott Stowell of OPEN and everyone at Nau for coordinating such incredible events. For more color from the evening, check out this lovely video shot by Kristen Taylor, Digital Content/Community Manager of PopTech. We're looking forward to seeing you at the next one-this time we're heading to the Sarasota International Design Summit in Florida!


GOOD NY Design Event, December 3, 2009 from PopTech on Vimeo.

Read more recaps of the evenings at PSFK (I and II) and Base Design.

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