“‘Asset-based design’ is borrowed from a community-development approach practiced by John Kretzmann and John McKnight. It offers an alternative to the traditional needs-based approach, which can disable clients by overlooking the capacities of local leadership, ignoring root problems caused or complicated by systemic injustices, and insisting that clients position themselves as ‘needy’ in order to receive services. In contrast, an asset-based approach works with communities to identify their skills and capacities, and invites them to play an active role in the renewal of their environment.
“This approach says that all communities have assets. The needs-based provision of services really only addresses the symptoms of the issues without doing any deeper social analysis to uncover the root problems. If joblessness is linked to a lack of educational activities, well, then that is the root issue. We’re not saying designers can come in and fix all of those problems; we are saying that designers themselves have a particular asset to contribute, which is their professional expertise at creating beautiful spaces and using design to involve the community in discovering and expressing who they are.
“For example, in the Asheville neighborhood of Shiloh, where we worked, residents spoke again and again about the importance of youth to their community life. They expressed great concern about the health and well-being of their children and grandchildren as they grew up in an increasingly complex world, situated in a neighborhood where drug use and dropping out of school are all too common. Instead of looking just at that, we focused on the community’s well-articulated love of their children as central to building a better future. Focusing on this asset, we invited the youth to participate in the design of a bus shelter by creating materials that were incorporated into the final product. The bus shelter literally bears the imprint of Shiloh’s children.”
How to practice design that builds on a community’s strengths and priorities:
1. Identify your community partner. Target a specific organization to partner with, whether it’s a design center, a development corporation, a block association, or a nonprofit. By honoring the community building that has already taken place, you will also attract less suspicion as a new face. Begin a dialogue to find a design project.
2. Immerse yourself in the life of the community. Spend time or consider living there. Find out where people like to eat and hang out, what kind of meetings they go to, and what places have a lot of energy—perhaps an arts or a recreation center. Find out what the kids are excited about. Connect with community leaders. Go door-to-door if necessary.
3. Conduct a social analysis. Who has power? What are the challenges facing the community? What are its demographics? What are its core values? Who makes the decisions, and who benefits from or bears the costs of them? It helps to understand how the neighborhood came into being, its history, and the larger town or region in which it is situated. Map existing assets and discover the skills people have.
4. Identify their priorities. Reflect back to them what you are hearing. Although often focused on one particular issue (say, youth programs), the community may be in the process of discovering other priorities (better housing, perhaps). Ask questions and listen to the themes that recur. These themes should match and inform the design project you have chosen. If not, consider changing the project.
5. Enter the design phase.Add color, texture, form, and style to the information you have gleaned. Make room for the community at your drafting table. This is the fruition of the relationship that you’ve devel-oped. Use design workshops, site-reconnaissance visits, scavenger hunts for materials, public-art field trips, and other creative ideas to involve the community in the design process.
From the Notebook of Teddy Cruz:
As architectural activists go, Teddy Cruz is a firebrand. His passionate sermons begin with the observation of injustices along the Tijuana–San Diego border, but in his broad geopolitical gloss, urban inequality divides along a global north-south axis associated with immigration between richer and poorer countries. His presentations could be boiled down to a protest against the imbalances created by the restricted flow of labor between nations. But the spirit of his message is revolutionary rather than reformist, calling for a restructuring of the entire social, political, and economic order instead of better immigration laws. “As architects, we could be designing the ways in which institutions, jurisdictions, bottom-up grassroots organizations, and top-down political power can be redeployed,” Cruz says.
But if Cruz’s rhetoric is reminiscent of Latin-American liberation theology, the pragmatic side of his work is local, small-scale, and specific. Estudio Cruz’s ongoing pilot project for an immigrant neighborhood in San Diego confronts common constraints on affordability. The standard lot size in the San Ysidro neighborhood requires a scale of building that exceeds the ability of poorer residents to get loans, so Cruz has been advocating revised zoning guidelines and working with community-based nonprofits to rethink lending practices. “I can design the coolest-looking building, or I can engage the fact that the minimum parcel size is huge and the economic and political logics have been inflated to benefit privatization,” he says. “Without advancing housing and lending policies and subsidies, we cannot advance design.” —Stephen Zacks