The Design Difference: How You Can Propose Ideas for Brownsville

In the final piece of our series, we report on the proposed ideas for an underserved urban neighborhood and show how designers can get involved.

GOOD was asked to attend The Design Difference, a charrette held by the Japan Society, Common Ground, and the Designers Accord. In this series, we're examining design solutions to social problems and ways for designers to contribute pro bono work for the proposed solutions. Read the first and second posts in the series here.

In early November, dozens of designers, activists, and urban leaders convened for The Design Difference, a problem-solving workshop to develop fresh ideas and creative thinking for Brownsville, an underserved urban neighborhood in Brooklyn.

The Design Difference brought active local community organizers together with attendees from as far away as Tokyo for the two-day event. First we headed to Brownsville where we saw its seemingly-intractable urban problems, but heard loud and clear from residents that "Hope Is Inside." We then met at the Japan Society in Manhattan for a day to brainstorm creative solutions. In this final piece in our series, I'll outline the ideas and show how designers can get involved in their implementation.

Armed with the 27 concepts across six categories like health, food, and retail, Valerie Casey, who led the charrette, met with stakeholders from Common Ground to refine the concepts into five "priority areas." Common Ground has been working on the ground in Brownsville for years, and its founder Rosanne Haggerty, who was named as a 2001 recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Grant, is well-known for her transformative nonprofit and its innovative methods for battling homelessness.

But these solutions for Brownsville were even broader and more imaginative than she expected. "Many proposals went beyond design as an aesthetic intervention, to design as a way of improving the flow and functioning of community services, and enabling civic participation," she says. "It completely opened our thinking to new ways of making Brownsville safer, healthier and more prosperous."

Five Opportunities for Change

The priority areas will serve as a map for future action, a way of organizing the broad concepts that emerged from the charrette into a series of actionable projects where people can focus their efforts. Here are the five priority areas for Brownsville, as outlined and written by Casey and her team:

1. Branding Brownsville

This concept is perhaps the most difficult and important one to execute. For that reason it should come first. It sets the stage for all the other concepts, involvement, and work. This "branding" is not only a logo but a new identity, language, and strategy that surrounds the community, affecting the way Brownsville is perceived both from the outside and by its own residents. This concept development should use the Brownsville Partnership's slogan "Hope Is Inside" as the launching point for this part of the process. This branding process could culminate in a concert or event to launch the brand.

2. DIY / Community Involvement

This concept centers around trading services and collaborative consumption. It will create a system that encourages residents to swap skills in housing repairs, etc (i.e. These interactions could take place by creating a central hub in the lobbies of the buildings or in other unused community spaces. Potentially incentives could be used to get residents to enroll and participate in the program, ensuring a more successful initiation of the concept, for example, a concept like a "Brownsville Cooks" cookbook.

3. Aesthetic Transformation & Redefining Public Spaces

This concept focuses on creating "welcoming spaces" combined with "community porches" that become destination points for the residents. These spaces may be an update or improvement of the already existing concierge/lobby security room in public housing. This concept embraces the idea of collective efficacy, where trust between Brownsville residents will increase through the act of sharing a space.

4. Encouraging Outdoor Activities

This concept centers around marking the history and existing positive people and features of Brownsville. The creation of walking trails will highlight these features. The trails will promote health, and incorporate (and create) wayfinding and branding. The trails will also increase safety by creating shared, neutral spaces and paths and by populating the outdoor spaces with more people and activity.

5. Economic Development & Bringing Resources to Brownsville

This concept involves creating a market that will create a community of vendors and provide a new retail experience in Brownsville. This could happen daily, weekly, or monthly and may draw more people with music, cheap coffee, food, and other offerings. This could also capitalize on the idea of a "district experience," establishing Brownsville as the place to go for a certain product or service. For example, Brownsville was once famous for selling furniture and tailored suits—can this be revived? The organizational structure or business model of this market could perhaps come from a student competition or through a challenge posed on GOOD.

Since this outline was created, some change is already happening, says Haggerty. "Since the charrette, we've zeroed in on making the assets and spirit of Brownsville more visible—a combination of "branding Brownsville" by getting the "Hope Is Inside" message communicated in all our organizing activities," she says. Brownsville has also started working on the "DIY/Community Involvement" front, says Haggerty. "Our amazing director, Greg Jackson, now organizes groups of young people each Saturday morning for a community clean up," she says. "The young people are proud to do it, and they are getting so much positive feedback from residents."

They're also trying to locate and design a more prominent hub for the Brownsville Partnership's activities. "We are looking for a space that can embody some of the excitement of Brownsville, and our comprehensive effort to make it a stronger, healthier community," she says, one that's closer to the housing projects, and has more of those "welcoming spaces" that are so needed.

How You Can Take Action

With the five priority areas laid out, the charrette has now moved into its most important phase: Engaging the design community in these solution areas. "We will need help in refining the ideas and figuring out how to implement them for little or no cost," says Haggerty. "That will certainly mean enlisting designers to contribute their talents, suppliers to contribute materials, and lots of people to contribute their time and concern in building up this special neighborhood." Common Ground is looking for creative input from designers and architects who can craft specific design responses to the charrette's findings. Here's how you can help:

If you're a design firm and you want to contribute pro bono work for Brownsville, register with The 1% and send an email to designdifference[at]japansociety[dot]org with the subject line Design Firm alerting our team that you're ready to be matched with a Brownsville client.

If you're a designer or architect and you want to submit a design proposal for one of the five priority areas, send an email to designdifference[at]japansociety[dot]org with the subject Design Proposal and include a brief summary of your idea for Brownsville, as well as a link to your work.

If you'd like to volunteer or if you have resources to donate for an upcoming workday to help implement one of the ideas, send an email to designdifference[at]japansociety[dot]org with the subject Volunteer and you'll be added to a future email list with more information about how you can get involved.

And if you're interested in holding a similar workshop for a community near you, the entire charrette process engineered by Valerie Casey, from the schedule to various worksheets, has been made publicly available. (In fact, the charrette format itself has already been used by one of the participants, R. Streitmatter-Tran, who adapted the Brownsville model to an exercise for his design students in Vietnam.) For more background, you can also read about our research trip to Brownsville, see photos of the charrette, and download the charrette materials yourself: Here's the Workshop Outline (PDF), the Brainstorming Map (PDF), and the Concept Worksheet (PDF).

Thanks again to the Japan Society for inviting GOOD to be a part of such a interesting experiment. And a very special thanks to Ayumi Sakamoto for her beautiful photos of the process. We'll be following this story, and what we hope are many exciting developments for the residents of Brownsville.

Photos by Ayumi Sakamoto

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