6 Takeaways for Creating Beautiful, Just, and Resilient Places in America

The 14-week “Inspiring Design” speaker series, a Rudy Bruner Award and Northeastern University partnership, concludes with a vision for an inclusive and equitable urban future.
01 Crosstown Concourse Theatre Stair Courtesy Crosstown Arts

Crosstown Concourse in Memphis reimagined a former warehouse as an inclusive place to foster connection and community through access to arts and culture, education, and health and wellness. Courtesy Crosstown Arts

Last month, our final Inspiring Design: Creating Beautiful, Just, and Resilient Places in America session reflected on our collective conversations about the role of design in this mission. Over 14 weeks, nearly 900 attendees joined us to listen to and engage with 42 dynamic speakers from 14 cities. Their presentations shared compelling stories and valuable insights about how people and places across the country—including a dozen RBA medalist projects—are addressing the nation’s most pressing economic, environmental, and social challenges.

Ted Landsmark, Director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center at Northeastern University and Myra Kraft Open Classroom facilitator; architect and urban planner David Gamble, Principal of Gamble Associates; Robert DeLeo, Northeastern University Fellow for Public Life; and I, director of the RBA; discussed our observations and lessons learned for placemaking in America in a post-pandemic world. We also considered the impact of President Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan, an estimated $2 trillion infrastructure investment addressing transportation, utilities, buildings, workforce development, and innovation.

Throughout the series, we heard powerful stories of how individuals and communities are reclaiming, reinvesting in, and changing perceptions of place. Today’s challenges require bold, visionary planning; collective and coordinated action; and deep and sustained investment in engagement and building social capital. With this in mind, what do these stories offer for diverse cities and communities across the country?

My colleagues and I agreed that we must collectively:

02 Falls Park Overlook Courtesy Bruner Foundation

In South Carolina, the City of Greenville is addressing decades of racial and environmental injustice through the realization of a century-old vision for a series of parks and public amenities along with development of new affordable housing. Courtesy Bruner Foundation

Think bigger

As Gamble observed, “big issues transcend boundaries.” Tackling today’s pressing urban challenges—the impact of climate change, the legacy of systemic racism, and growing socioeconomic disparity—requires individuals and organizations willing to create and advance bold, ambitious visions. Change happens when there is a strategic alignment and investment of government and community resources around a shared vision.

03 La Kretz Innovation Campus

La Kretz Innovation Campus in Los Angeles supports collaboration and efforts to make the city a leader in sustainability by bringing together community, government, and entrepreneurship. Courtesy Benny Chan/Fotoworks

Create conditions and systems for coordinated action and innovation

Transformative change requires working at multiple scales to connect and align resources—across neighborhoods, cities, and regions—and collaborative, interdisciplinary partnerships. Reflecting on his work to catalyze investment in Chicago’s neighborhoods, the city’s Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development Maurice Cox noted: “It takes a village…to build out the infrastructure to support equitable development and inclusive growth.”

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The Church Health teaching kitchen at Crosstown Concourse hosts classes for adults and students including those attending Crosstown High and Tulane’s Culinary Medicine Program. Courtesy Bruner Foundation

Generate social infrastructure

Developing human capital through public engagement and empowerment is an essential building block of change. This requires investing in infrastructure—not just physical roads and bridges, but also social systems and networks that provide access to opportunities and resources, build local capacity, and foster community. These form the essential fabric that connects us all and helps support and advance individual and collective aspirations. DeLeo remarked that “engaging and building consensus among groups of stakeholders within communities is key to success.”

05 Parisite Skatepark Tulane Studio Review Courtesy Albert And Tina Small Center For Collaborative Design

Engaging people in collaborative design processes empowers the community as well as future generations of designers, connecting people across power, race, and social issues. Courtesy Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design

Involve the community

Creating enduring places and system changes requires broad buy-in and participation fueled by inclusive, robust, and sustained community engagement over time. All of our speaker sessions underscored the value of community-engaged designers and their processes in fostering collaboration and innovation that generates inspiring, inclusive places. Projects that embrace, empower, and draw upon local stakeholder expertise are more likely to be more vibrant and resilient over time because of the community’s sense of stewardship. Landsmark observed that the strongest projects are those “where there is community-based capacity building and involvement in governance.”

06 Steel Yard Halloween Iron Pour Annali Kiers

In Providence, Rhode Island, The Steel Yard hosts events that attract people from across the region to celebrate the city’s industrial history along with its creative present. Courtesy Annali Kiers

Understand and embrace history

Ensuring that new development reflects community culture and values requires learning about and from the past. The City of Boston’s first Chief of Equity Karilyn Crockett observed: “Too often, the role of history is not brought to the understanding of space and design.” Speakers from several cities described the continuing impact of segregation, slavery, and redlining in their cities along with efforts to overcome them. Northeastern University’s Dan Adams reflected on the “importance of unearthing and sharing stories” and “grappling with complex histories including embedded inequities” to right previous wrongs.

07 Bostoncreates Cultural Plan Courtesy Leonardo March

The City of Boston used the creative placemaking framework to tap into the skills, creativity, and experience of its communities to ensure its “Boston Creates” Cultural Plan is anchored in local history and values and benefits area stakeholders. Courtesy Leonardo March

Embed equity into planning

Addressing equity throughout design and development, ongoing operations, and programming is essential to creating inclusive and resilient places. As Drexel University’s Jason Schupbach suggested: “Every process should be addressed through an equity lens.” Reflecting on lessons for Boston, Landsmark noted that “smart, seasoned institutions can and must learn from communities that are stakeholders in development. Anchor institutions, especially schools, have ethical and moral obligations to support and invest thoughtfully in adjacent communities as well as the region as a whole.” Looking to the future, he suggested that “Boston’s demonstration of willingness to collaborate with the city’s newest residents will be a significant step forward to overcome its reputation as a city insensitive to race.”

Realizing ambitious, truly transformative change—whether it’s to meet the goal of building a resilient park system that addresses long-standing racial inequities in Greenville, South Carolina; positioning the City of Los Angeles as a leader in clean technology and sustainability; or ending homelessness nationwide—is possible. But it also takes time—often a decade or more—such as the reimagining of an abandoned building in Memphis as an inclusive community, or realizing century-old civic visions for public green space in Boston, Greenville, and Houston.

In the inaugural session, Crockett described design as “an expression of intention, desire, and possibility.” As the RBA has learned from our 32-year inquiry into urban excellence in America, creating vibrant places that endure is a process requiring ongoing exploration and engagement. Crosstown Concourse Co-developer Todd Richardson talked about “using the word ‘building’ as both a verb and a noun”—highlighting the importance of not only the physical product or place, but also the creation of social infrastructure, capital, and community that lasts.

The Inspiring Design sessions were recorded live and can be viewed on the Myra Kraft Open Classroom and the RBA websites. The latter includes links to RBA case studies and other resources referenced by the speakers. APA and ASLA CEUs are available thanks to partnerships with the American Planning Association, Ohio Chapter and the Boston Society of Landscape Architects, with additional partnerships in development.

To learn more, visit our RBA Metropolis posts on these Inspiring Design topics:


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Categories: Cities, Planning