Art Works Blog

Designing an America of the People, by the People, and for the People

By the People: Designing a Better America is a call to action to create more inclusive, equitable, healthy, and just places—to design an ecosystem of opportunity for all people across the country. By the People is the third exhibition in Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s socially responsible design exhibition series. The first, Design for the Other 90%, which opened in 2007, was a provocation to the design world—traditionally, professionally trained designers have only focused on a small percentage of the world’s population—that displayed design solutions to extreme poverty. The exhibition sparked an international dialogue on how design can play a critical role in addressing the world’s most pressing issues. The series followed with Design with the Other 90%: CITIES, which opened at the United Nations Headquarters in 2011 and explored a range of design solutions and strategies for the massive urban migration into informal settlements, a leading challenge for this century. By the People examines how innovative people- and place-based designs are emerging within our cities, small towns, and rural counties, spanning regions and borders, in response to decades of divestment, social and spatial segregation, and mounting climate challenges.

When I began my research, soon after the 2008 global recession, I was initially distressed at encountering blocks of vacant lots, houses, and storefronts. These were not the cities and small towns of my imagination—those cities were long gone, many for decades. Yet as I continued my exploration, meeting with local residents, designers, architects, artists, journalists, and advocates, transformations already underway were revealed. I encountered bold experiments challenging social and economic structures in barrios, neighborhoods, boroughs, reservations, along the border, and in counties and cities alike. Residents were collaborating with artists in St. Louis [,Missouri]; designers were moving back to Cleveland, Ohio, and Greensboro, Alabama, forming social enterprises; others were deciding to stay in post-coal Appalachia to restore the landscape with sustainable farms; another designer created conversations about innovation and design on her native Navajo land. 

head shot of Cooper Hewitt curator Cynthia E. Smith

Cynthia E. Smith. Photo courtesy of Ms. Smith

It was obvious that the United States is in the midst of a massive transformation—from an extraction-based to an innovation-based economy. Designing for shared prosperity in a climate-challenged environment will necessitate a systemic shift, from a resource-dependent consumption model to a circular-user model. A broader innovation system—one that is deeply democratic and regenerative—is required to close growing socio-economic and spatial-ecological gaps. Worker-owned enterprises, community land trusts, participatory budgeting, public utility broadband, and visualizations of data and policy involve a wider and more socially diverse citizenry in making informed decisions on ownership and public investments—important in distributing resources equitably. Productive landscapes, regenerative green and blue infrastructure, distributed renewable-energy systems, green-housing retrofits, affordable transportation alternatives, closed-loop products designed for disassembly and reuse, and local manufacturing networks sharing resources transform divested regions by creating green jobs, building assets, and closing the climate gap for healthier place-based connected communities.

We can begin by designing neighborhoods for social mobility. Establishing convenient neighborhood hubs co-located in schools and fire stations to provide cradle-to-grave services—childcare, healthcare, social, educational, community, and probation resources, work-force development—for underserved families. Locating services within and around police stations to radically improve social interactions between police and neighbors. Stabilizing neighborhoods by preserving, retrofitting, and investing in affordable mixed-use housing developments linked to transit and other primary services. Designing and investing in multiple modes of transportation—from bus rapid transit to high speed rail—that connect people to jobs in the region. For rural areas, designing ubiquitous broadband systems for e-work and returning to regional food systems to provide economic opportunities.

a girl in a Mardi Gras Indian costume

LaSalle Cultural Corridor. Tulane University and Louisiana State University with Tulane City Center, Mardi Gras Indian Council, New Orleans Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, LSU Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, and Harmony Neighborhood Development. Central City, New Orleans, Louisiana. 2014-present. Photo courtesy New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council

Public and private investment in system-wide solutions, sustained over time, are required to meet the challenge of decades of divestment and structural poverty to create lasting change. Designing socially diverse engagements, organized around shared values, helps alter long-held beliefs, change perceptions, and break down structural barriers. As important as the design outcome, a fair and just process benefits a community by creating equity, building capacity, and cultivating leadership to advocate for social change.

By the People calls for bridging divides for a shared prosperity. Design brings form to ideas and provides the necessary tools for people to advocate for their future, which is increasingly important as the United States confronts multiple challenges in the new century. Communities and designers are not deterred—they are already envisioning, designing, and building a more just and equitable America, by the people.

Cynthia E. Smith is Curator of Socially Responsible Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. This is an excerpt from her essay included in the exhibition’s fully illustrated By the People catalogue.

Please join us for a free webinar on arts.gov today, Wednesday, October 19 at 3:00 pm ET to discuss how designers are collaborating with communities to challenge social and economic equality across America. Register here

Interested in more stories about communities and design? Visit Exploring Our Town.  

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