An Urban Designer Who’s Focused on the “Long Game”

Next City isn’t just a news website, we are a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire social, economic and environmental change in cities. Part of how we do that is by connecting our readers to urban changemakers and holding an annual Vanguard conference bringing together 40 top young urban leaders. Mallory Baches is a member of the 2013 Vanguard class.

Mallory Baches

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Next City isn’t just a news website, we are a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire social, economic and environmental change in cities. Part of how we do that is by connecting our readers to urban changemakers and holding an annual Vanguard conference bringing together 40 top young urban leaders. Mallory Baches is a member of the 2013 Vanguard class.

Name: Mallory Baches

Current Occupation: Urban designer and civic specialist with The Civic Hub, a firm I started in 2013. The Civic Hub is a social capital incubator, and we partner with individuals, groups, organizations, municipalities and even other design professionals to help kickstart community-building.

Hometown: St. Charles, Illinois

Current City: Beaufort, South Carolina

Twitter Tag: @mallorybaches

I drink: skinny latte, extra shot.

I am an: extrovert if I know you, introvert if I don’t.

I get to work by: walking upstairs, unless I’m headed to a site (I work from my home office).

The area I grew up in: was rural then; it’s suburban now. The transformation began around when my family first moved there, so I was able to witness it. I may be overstating it, but I think my views on the built environment were heavily influenced by witnessing the evolution of the town, from farm town to Chicago suburb.

What was your first job? My first design job out of college was at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. I have no doubt that without that experience, I wouldn’t understand the built environment the way I do today. Part of the learning is just a result of the intensity of the work, the expectation of project success and the demand that representing the name “DPZ” puts on you. But a much larger part is that Andrés and Lizz [the firm’s partners] are so unbelievably generous in sharing their knowledge.

SOL Square in Christchurch, New Zealand, designed with DPZpacific. The design introduced an activated mews between existing heritage buildings, fronted by shops and restaurants and including an outdoor performance space. Due to damage from the February 2011 Christchurch Earthquake, the space is currently closed and awaiting renovations.

What is your favorite city and why? This is impossible for me to answer! I’ve had the good fortune to travel to dozens of the world’s great cities. I think that my favorite experience, so far, was in Tokyo because as a white girl from the Midwest, I was so out of place … and I loved that. That experience, of truly being outside your own system of operation, is so valuable because it opens your eyes to the fact that there are many ways for massive numbers of people to come together and operate systematically.

What do you do when you are not working? Move! Play with my daughter, walk the dog, ride my bike, go for a run. One of the hardest parts of design is the sedentary nature of content production. I tend to be very good at focusing on the task at hand, but when that task requires sitting at my desk, it means that many (many) hours can pass before I come up to take a breath.

Did you always want to be an urban designer? I always knew that I loved the built environment, and I wanted to be a part of creating great places. Still, even while I was still working toward my B-Arch, I knew I wanted to cast a net wider than the scale of the individual building. Thankfully, I was in a unique program — the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture — where urbanism is presented as inextricable from architectural design, so I had a strong foundation when I set off to practice as an urban designer.

What is the coolest project you worked on? I’m in the middle of a project that I absolutely love, actually: the revitalization of the shuttered Chronicle Mill, a textile mill in the tiny town of Belmont, North Carolina, not far outside Charlotte. I love the project because it ties history and culture and economics and design and development and community together, in a single property. That the project is even being undertaken symbolizes our changing values in urban design, I think, and it’s incredibly rewarding to be a part of that shift toward inherent, rather than manufactured, value.

Design for the revitalization of Chronicle Mill in Belmont, NC, designed with Metrocology, artwork by Wassell Design. The proposed renovations to the historic textile mill incorporate a basement-level brewery, upper-level office space, and event center with outdoor amphitheater.

What are the hard parts about your job? The hunt for great projects is always a challenge, especially when you are a small shop. But more philosophically, I think that the biggest challenge I face is an unwillingness to learn. Fundamentally, design is the practice of learning: for the designer, learning everything about a problem or circumstance in order to find a response, and for the user, learning how to experience something in a more useful or pleasing way. Designs will always come up against those who are unwilling to learn, and the effect is like sucking oxygen from a room, whether it comes from an unappreciative user or an uncompromising collaborator.

What’s your BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal)? I’d like to develop an educational program that helps create better citizens. The community patterns of the past fifty years have inadvertently broken down a lot of the shared knowledge we had developed, as a society, of how to work and play and live together. I think that we need formal means to help teach the practices and values of urbanism, if we are going to meet the challenges our communities face.

What’s the best professional advice you have received? Work smarter, not harder. If I’m totally honest, I have a long way to go to have that one figured out, but I’m working (hard) on it!

Who do you most admire? I admire the people who built our greatest cities more than a century ago, with their own bare hands. When you walk through some of our nation’s most captivating neighborhoods — Brooklyn, Society Hill, Hyde Park, Georgetown, Charlestown, Harlem — you can feel the personal investment that went into building these places generations ago. My grandfather was a brick mason, a trade he learned from his father. He only had an eighth-grade education, but there is such dignity to the legacy he was a part of and the hard skillful work that he did.

What do you look for when hiring someone? When I hire someone, I’m looking for two seemingly opposing traits: creativity and focus. I want someone who will approach work with the spirit of exploration, but I also want someone who isn’t going to get lost along the journey.

What career advice would you give an emerging urban leader? Be in it for the long game. I’m still young compared to many, but I’ve been at this long enough to appreciate that while change can be exciting and empowering in the short term, it’s the evolution of place over the long term that really matters. I remember working on projects where I would try to control for every detail that was available to me, when I began my practice. Somewhere along the way, I had a realization: the design decisions that would successfully endure once I was completely out of the picture, rather than the ones that would be perfect in the moment of completion, those were actually the design decisions that would prove success.

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