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The Equity Factor

New Guide for Public Interest Designers Connects Equity and Empowerment

The Durham Performing Arts Center is a great example of successful public interest design, according to a new book on the concept. (Photo by James Willamor)

There’s a new book to add to your reading list, urban designers. Public Interest Design Practice Guidebook: SEED Methodology, Case Studies, and Critical Issues lays out comprehensive standards for working in underserved communities, complete with case studies from 18 countries. The book also gives tips for those who want to start their own business in the field and features an appendix of public engagement methods.

I spoke with co-editor Lisa M. Abendroth, who’s a founding member of the SEED Network (SEED stands for social economic environmental design), about the equitable development impacts of public interest design.

Can you briefly explain the SEED methodology?
We’re looking at ways in which a designer can solve a problem, but looking at it from the perspective of the social and economic and environmental pillars. They really allow the public interest designer to have a focus across many different sectors. When those three pillars intersect, we find an opportunity to do more with less. Very often we’re finding in this book that the social equity component comes to the forefront and manifests in the desire for, or actualization of, community empowerment through engagement, so it’s an interesting pathway.

Are there any equitable development case studies in the book that really jump out at you?
Yes. There are quite a few. The Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) really was a very robust demonstration of benchmarking, direct community involvement with stakeholder groups, and employment of minority- and women-owned businesses. The case study and essay for DPAC are both filled with great examples that [writers] highlighted from an issue-based perspective, addressing employment opportunities, downtown renewal and brownfield remediation.

Lisa M. Abendroth (Credit: MSU Denver)

What might some of the perceived barriers be to public interest design businesses?
In the chapter, “Designers Engaging in Business Development” [the authors] really tackle some of the hard issues of how to go about setting up a design enterprise that effectively serves the public, that understands and is savvy and nuanced enough to respond to the various and diverse needs of the people that we serve.

When I say the people we serve, so often in this practice our intent and focus is to vocalize the voice of the underserved, the under-resourced, the marginalized, and to empower them. And in so doing, we believe in long-term and lasting impacts that can evolve.

Are there best practices in empowering local community groups to initiate design efforts?
We’ve tried very hard to make a text for practitioners who are looking for something to enrich their practice or make a change to their practice and move towards one that is informed by the public. Some of those include our recommendations for direct participation, the evaluation of the effectiveness of our design solution-making, inclusivity and defining that, and then also looking at impact.

How did you, personally, get drawn to the field of public interest design?
I started researching and working in this arena back in 2005. I curated an exhibition here in Denver called “Substance: Diverse Practices From the Periphery.” It was an interdisciplinary design exhibition that really sought to highlight the work that was happening outside of the core of communications design, industrial design, architecture. … I’m not an architect. I come to public interest design from my own field of communication design. My role within the SEED organization has been to take an interdisciplinary approach to looking across the combined fields of architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture and industrial design to try and create a unifying vision for what a public interest design practice might look like.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Tags: urban planningurban design