Designing the equitable city: A conversation about the value of local and global exchange

How can design help us build more equitable cities? This conversation between Nina Bianchi, a partner in in the Detroit-based design firm The Work Department, and Graig Donnelly, director of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows program at Wayne State University, highlights the value of local and global exchange, particularly between Detroit and Medellín, Colombia, where Bianchi has been traveling to since 2009 as part of her efforts to develop a network of social impact design leaders across the U.S. and around world.
Graig Donnelly: What does it mean to you to have equitable development, and why is it important today in cities like Detroit and Medellín?
Nina Bianchi: This is the question. All over the world and right here in Detroit, a lot of people and organizations use the term "equitable" without a shared definition of what it means in practice. Does it mean preserving cultural assets? Implementing a certain kind of inclusive process? Or an evidence-based policy with data-driven outcomes like a commitment to X percent of healthy and affordable public housing? Could it increase safety and security by ensuring that residents' needs are considered a priority?
We are in the midst of significant urban transformation around the world, and I believe that now is the time for cities like Detroit and Medellín to step up and lead a more inclusive conversation. We cannot miss this moment, this opportunity to establish a shared practice of equitable development. A city's identity is in the hands of those who have access to the processes of making both policy and physical places. Our two cities, with all of their beautiful and shocking and sordid histories, should lead a network of 21st century cities that harness people-centered design power to catalyze a better world.
In his 1962 speech "The Ethical Demands for Integration," Martin Luther King Jr. defines freedom as the capacity to deliberate or weigh alternatives, the capacity to make decisions, and the taking of responsibility for the decisions made. Let's take his lead. With residents included in our cities' decision-making processes, we'll be off to a great start.
GD: What lessons do you think Medellín's leaders have to offer Detroit's leaders? And vice versa?
NB: Good leadership comes in many shapes and sizes, and often it's from unexpected places. Our challenge is to create more opportunities and resources that make it easier for people to consider their options, make decisions about their future, and stay involved in the implementation. It means connecting leaders who are willing to collaborate with people who are willing to share their needs and ideas.
In Medellín, leaders at the government level have been modeling a new kind of design, planning, and development process with (not for) communities. Deepening my relationships through tours led by resident leaders, I explored from their perspective a range of popular public projects that were developed from the outside in: starting away from the downtown zones and investing in the perimeters of the city where the most vulnerable residents live. One of my favorite examples is the popular escalators in the Comuna no. 13 San Javier neighborhood, one of the lowest income boroughs in the city. The escalators, which people ride free of charge, were built to ease residents' strain of commuting up and down the mountainside. The project has garnered tremendous attention in the global design community and resulted in new levels of tourism. Residents have taken this opportunity to start small businesses and grow a new type of local economy. We would surely benefit from learning how this type of work can get done, but also about how the needs and desires of local residents are balanced with the influx of new economic forces.

Escalators in Medellin's Comuna no 13 San Javier neighborhood
I have also had the opportunity to share with Medellín the terrific work our community development leaders in Detroit do to document complex ideas and make big picture strategies more accessible and actionable for ordinary residents. The leaders I met with were inspired by Allied Media Project's network of creative media makers and technologists, WE Global Network's Immigrant Policy Playbook, and Detroit Future City's big collaboration on the Field Guide to Working with Lots. More and more tools are coming online, like the Greenfield Development Guide created by Michigan Community Resources, thanks in large part to new approaches in philanthropy such as Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit.
The need for more tools that everyday people can use to shape the future is abundantly clear in both Medellín and Detroit.
GD: So it's also about the need for equity in how we value design alongside the important work happening to improve our communities?
NB: Absolutely! The two should have a symbiotic relationship with each other. To me, design is a kind of plasma that creates a container that holds lots of moving parts in the appropriate balance with each other.
But I'd also like to throw that question back at you. Isn't that a major consideration of, or maybe even the foundation for, your work with the Revitalization Fellows and The Alley Project?
GD: Yes, it is. Thank you. We see the people that interact with our programming, or that live and work in our neighborhoods, as experts and specialists in their own life experiences. It's crucial that we give those experiences as much weight as the expertise of the designer and vice versa. It means a very specific point of view and actions around what civic engagement means: we have to give the people affected by decisions being made in their own communities full access to the decision-making process. It doesn't mean that all design decisions are made through a vote, but it does mean that all community members are given the opportunity to authentically participate and that their roles in the process are clear all the way through. And, just as important, it doesn't mean that the designer makes all of the decisions either.
We rebranded the Detroit Revitalization Fellows in 2014 with the help of some great partners: Good Done Daily as designers and EarlyWorks as branding and process consultants. From the start, we placed our Fellows' desires and insights about the program as most important. We, the staff of the program and especially me, had some preconceived notions about the words in the name and the aesthetic of the program's logo that proved to be a little bit misaligned to the experiences of our Fellows. Had we not authentically engaged them in the decision-making process, we would have never known and we wouldn't have the same equity in our brand. As we simultaneously prepared to launch the process of finding our next cohort of Fellows, we also engaged Feagin Media Group to help us understand how people in many of Detroit's communities viewed the fellowship. Through our process, it became pretty obvious how we should and should not represent the program. These rich intersections laid the foundation for us to attract the most applications we've ever had for our current 2015-17 cohort of Fellows, who just so happen (by design) to be an incredibly diverse group of talented leaders.

The Alley Project
We're also in the midst of a transformational moment at The Alley Project. With the support of a variety of local and national funders (ArtPlace America, Knight, Kresge, Surdna), we will be opening our first year-round bricks-and-mortar space later this year. Their monetary investments and, frankly, investments of their own time and talents are being leveraged in the middle of a residential neighborhood on the neighborhood's terms. We might have been able to access those kinds of resources years ago, but if we hadn't designed the system in which they should be invested with the neighbors and youth, the philanthropic dollars wouldn't be put to as good of use. It's the culmination of over a decade's worth of work with youth, neighbors, artists, designers, and visitors to the neighborhood where each party is valued for its own expertise. For this particular building, we are engaged with designers who are great at what they do and support each other's role in the process: the Detroit Collaborative Design Center for their participatory process and et al. collaborative for their expertise as architects who approach the challenges of rebuilding in Detroit's vacant commercial structures in creative ways.
GD: How can everyday people truly participate in designing the future of their cities? What are some of the unique ways you saw Medellín's most vulnerable residents engaged?
NB: In a recent conversation with Alejandro Echeverri, a leading participatory designer in Medellín, we exchanged the sentiments that we need to invest more time in making civic processes more tangible, transparent and ultimately more accessible. When process is made visible, it is easier for people to engage. One way to start making process more welcoming is investing in the improvement of the public places where people gather. In Medellín, you can see people gathering across a wide network of community hubs like the Corporación Cultural Nuestra Gente and Casa Tres Patios. You can also see unique intersections of designers, researchers, and cultural leaders coming together in places I connected with like URBAM. Each of these community nodes symbolizes a part of the city design process and brings communities together as a kind of nascent civic infrastructure.
A second way of making process more tangible, and perhaps the most important, is taking more effort to make information clear and make sure that it's actually reaching people, not just the most educated and wealthy. Whether it's creating tools that outline what it takes to apply for a social service in clear, concise visuals, or listening to and incorporating the priorities of residents into processes. Part of The Work Department's process is to listen to diverse stakeholders and better synthesize perspectives before taking action. In Medellín, I saw a lot of opportunity to better document information and was able to share stories about our work in Detroit to help distill resident-led visioning through projects such as Northeast Detroit (NED) supported by ArtPlace and Eastside Community Network's Neighborhood First Model (forthcoming) supported by the Knight Foundation.
GD: Talk about some of your favorite public spaces in Medellín. What are they like? How do they feel?
NB: In her Love in the Gardens piece, Zadie Smith writes that "In public parks, it's a little easier to feel you belong." I often wonder how much more we'd all feel like we belonged if we had a bigger say in how change is taking shape in our cities.
I love parks and I thrive on being in spaces that connect people to nature. While Medellín is very lush and known as the "city of eternal spring," there are surprisingly few parks and limited public green space. Regarding the green space that does exist, I was most impressed by a presentation given to me by Horacio Valencia, director of sustainable urban interventions at Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), about the "water tanks" project led by the Mayor and EPM, Colombia's primary public utility.
In multiple locations across the city accessible by public transit, municipal and utility leaders led a collaborative visioning process that lifted up resident's priorities to transform inactive utility infrastructure—big old water utility tanks that divided neighborhoods and limited access—into public green spaces that actually mean something to the people living in the neighborhoods. The best part is that, after each site is completed, the residents continue to have control over programming in the parks surrounding the water tanks.
One of the leaders I worked with in Medellín, Sara Amariles, said to me, "It is necessary to be creative with how we include community needs in the city design process. There's a need to communicate the process better. Communication allows for a certain kind of mobility that lets us connect ideas, people, and recognize our city as a whole organism." Design can help make this happen.
Bianchi is partner at The Work Department, a design studio that uses human-centered and participatory design to empower businesses and organizations to more effectively carry out their missions and realize greater impact. As a designer educated at College for Creative Studies, she has worked to amplify a wide range of community efforts in Detroit since 2000. Bianchi has been traveling to Medellín, Colombia since 2009 as part of her efforts to develop a network of social impact design leaders across the United States and around world. Her most recent trip, as a result of an invitation from Casa Tres Patios as part of the Museo de Antioquia's Historias Locales / Practicas Globales (Local Histories, Global Practice) program, took her to Medellín for a month in late 2015.
Donnelly is the director of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows at Wayne State University, a national model for programs that match emerging mid-career leaders with civic, community and economic development organizations at the forefront of a region's revitalization efforts. Trained as an architect at the University of Detroit Mercy, he is also founder of Young Nation and its signature initiative, The Alley Project, in southwest Detroit.