Urban Design Challenges: Past and Present

14 Jan

It has been very interesting to follow the evolution of some of our city’s most storied communities. Neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant, the South Bronx and Harlem. Growing up in the 80s, forced to tag along with my Mom who worked in neighborhood-based planning, I witnessed the severe blight in many of these areas, with entire blocks abandoned, burned out, and boarded up. – Fodder for nightly news programs admonishing the poor for the inevitable social and economic breakdown resulting from landlord abandonment and neglect, and divestment of federal dollars in cities in favor of infusion of resources in the suburbs. This occured via federal programs like FHA working in sync with real estate and brokerage firms. A system to secure wealth and prosperity for some. And well for others, I’ll let you fill in the blank.

Today these formerly “undesirable”, “unbankable”, “red-lined” neighborhoods are storied for their ever-rising property values, with plans for rezoning in these and other gentrifying areas around New York City.

Concerned about unheard voices in urban design, my colleague, Architect and Housing Policy PhD candidate, Anze Zadel and I launched a project to offer design support to low-resourced residents, whose businesses and homes are targeting for rezoning (largely “up-zoning” to attract developers).

This participatory action research and design project puts residents in the driver’s seat whereby they interrogate problems, develop research questions and design solutions and take leadership in implementation and evaluation of the project.

For me, this project is an exciting culmination of several years of advising, facilitating and teaching community-centered urban design approaches and the impact of design on housing quality, jobs, education, environmental conditions and other factors.

Historically the struggle has been to bring in capital through grants and federal subsidies to keep these communities afloat. Now the fight is to fend off an influx of aggressive capitalistic tactics aimed at displacing long-time residents.

Below is an article that the brilliant young writer and philosopher, Anthony Schiappa, and I worked on a few years ago for executive director, Donald Notice and his team at West Harlem Group Assistance, Inc., as they celebrated their 40th Anniversary.

The piece is a retrospective on the socio-economic factors and politics with which WHGA had to contend in re-designing severely blighted buildings and blocks throughout Harlem over the past few decades. Though very community-centered but not radically participatory (yet!) WHGA has pushed through many hurdles to secure a future for their constituents.

WHGA’s story is the is the story of over 3,000 such community-based organizations. More importantly this is about the impact of policy and design on millions of low- and moderate- income tenants and homeowners, small business, disabled persons, seniors, immigrants, the working poor and unemployed poor and many other vulnerable groups that comprise our cities. People for whom design can be remarkably uplifting or unimaginably oppressive.

Feedback welcome.

Continue reading

New Year, New Futures: Young Strategists in the Making

2 Jan


kappa iv project based learning .jpg

Harlem middle school youth health sciences classrooms present on the community garden they created with City College-CUNY students.

Education must provide the opportunities for self-fulfillment; It can at best provide a rich and challenging environment for the individual to explore in [their] own way. – Noam Chomsky

Happy 2016!

It’s been a long while since my last post in May 2015. The next few posts will give you an idea of what I’ve been up to.

In today’s post, to counter the cluster-fluff of injustice, intolerance and subsequent destruction happening around the world, I thought I’d share projects that offer promise for a newer, more productive and equitable future.

Children’s talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives. – Maya Angelou.

New Year, New Futures*

Beyond endurance…

Youth from underrepresented groups around the city are being mentored to play leading roles in social, environmental, economic and education justice from designing cars and appliances for renewable energy consumption at Green Ready Alternative Energy Program, carving out their niche in tech solutions for social change at Enza Academy, addressing food systems justice at EcoStation:NY and youth justice activism at Brotherhood Sistersol.

Below are some photos and videos highlighting their programs. I have the honor of working with these organizations in various capacities. I welcome you to join us as a volunteer, supporter and/or advocate!

Green Ready Alternative Energy Program (GRAEP) 

Launched through the Digital Media Training Program (see below) youth from Harlem’s public housing are engaged in intensive project-based STEM learning. Black and Latino students are introduced to scientists of African ancestry and engineers past and present. Students see themselves in the shoes of todays leading engineers solving health, environmental and quality of health challenges in their communities.


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Photo above: Youth learn about wind turbines in Green Ready Alternative Energy Program

Video of Green Ready Alternative Energy Program

Digital Media Training Program 

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Photo Above: Harlem Youth win White House Student Film Festival March 2015

Harlem high schoolers are nurtured in creating media for their community, working alongside a long-time award winning news editor, Columbia University professor and founder of the Digital Media Training Program in Harlem, Melvin McCray.


Also see the Student filmmakers on MSNBC with Melissa Harris Perry

Enza Academy: Design Your Revolution 

Founded by college students at City College-CUNY, Stanford and Columbia University, Enza Academy, is also concerned about the lack of diversity in the tech and works to level the playing field by engaging public school youth from underserved communities in design and building applications that respond to pressing social challenges in their communities. Mentors and judges of their bi-annual hack camps at Columbia University and Stanford University hail from Google, Facebook, Okay Africa, General Assembly and NYC Mayors Office.

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Photos above: Enza students present their ideas for mobile apps at December 2015 competition


See the future of Farmers Markets on summer Saturdays with EcoStation:NY. Produce grown by high school youth at Bushwick Campus High School, Latino and Black farmers (owning their land and operations) sell the collection of edible flowers, honey and greens in Brooklyn. During the “off-season. ESNY hosts Calabeza Fest on Los Dios de Muertos and engage high school youth in food justice forums around the city.

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Photo above: Bushwick High School Youth Food Council leaders, Supported by EcoStation does Press Conference on School Food Budget

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Photo above: Edible Flowers at ESNY Farmers Market November 2015

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ESNY Promotes diversity of local New York state owned famers at its markets, November 2015


For over 20 years Brotherhood Sistersol has brought youth development, after school education and international travel programs to youth in Harlem. I had an opportunity to co-present with the youth at a food conference I co-hosted in early 2015, where they shared their recent triumph in their participatory budgeting process that will allocate thousands of dollars to their green house education center in Harlem (part of a $3 million development with housing and community facility).

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Brotherhood Sistersol students presented their design of the green house lab funded through the NYC Council participatory budgeting process. 

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Brotherhood Sistersol youth-managed farmers market at Johnny Hartman Plaza on 143rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem. 


In order for critical pedagogy, dialogue, and thought to have real effects, they must advocate the message that all citizens, old and young, are equally entitled, if not equally empowered, to shape the society in which they live. – Henry Giroux

*I borrowed my blog post title from this month’s First Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum!

Food in Focus Series: Future of Food in Harlem Highlights!

24 May
Veggie Jamz _ Armando

Armondo Batista, Veggie Jamz, brought hired for the event though Localtarian

Shadaya Jackson of Hot Bread Kitchen does M'smen demo

Shadaya Jackson of Hot Bread Kitchen showed us how to make M’Smen, a Moroccan Flat Bread.

Valentina, Localtarian Chef makes Healthy Snacks

Valentina, a Localtarian Chef, made Bruschetta and other snacks loaded with veggies.

See the photo blog post with highlights on the Future of Food Event in Harlem on May 2015. With Brotherhood- Sistersol, Corbin Hill Food Project,, Harlem Grown, Hot Bread Kitchen, Localtarian, Nanny’s Kitchen at the Polo Grounds, NYCHA, NYC Department of Environmental Protection and more!

Event Description and Highlights 

In the shadows of Harlem’s a bustling food economy, are thousands of low income families with children that barely earn enough to prepare healthy meals daily. Members of working age in these households lack access to quality education, training or resources to participate as investors or skilled laborers in Harlem’s bustling tourism and hospitality industry -a local industry  expected to continue to grow exponentially over the next few years.

Harlem residents and community based organizations gathered for a three- day event to explore solutions and problems with Harlem’s local food system.

The Future of Food conference hosted last week by Connect, Harlem Grown and West Harlem Group Assistance, Inc. brought together community leaders, affordable housing and social service advocates, health service professionals, city agencies, research students and community chefs.

The organizations coordinating this event sought to highlight problems and solutions in tackling healthy food access for low income families that struggle to find food that is both fresh and affordable in their community.

Event highlights include a keynote panel presentation and a series of demonstrations lead by local community organizations.

During the panel presentation on Thursday May 14, 2015, Dennis Derryck New School University Public Policy Professor and founder of Corbin Hill Food Project presented a powerful presentation on their flexible affordable community supported agriculture (CSA)  model, whereby members receive “shares” or baskets of produce harvested from local farms. Professor Derryck urged the audience to “work towards an alternative narrative about our community, that highlights community assets” that can be strategically marshaled towards effective food systems change that ensures broader access to healthy affordable food to low income families.

Last year Corbin Hill Food Project distributed 1,100 Farm Shares through their Community Support Agriculture program, linking farmers upstate New York to downstate markets in underserved communities like Harlem.  Corbin Hill Food Project also distributed close to 4,200 shares through their Community Health Partners program to Head Start daycare centers and food pantries in collaboration with local Community Based Organizations.

Youth leaders from Brotherhood Sistersol showed a film on their work and announced a recent award of $46,000 through a Harlem youth-led participatory budgeting process through Council Member Mark Levine’s office for a youth-designed hydroponic greenhouse project on city land.

Harlem Grown shared their recent achievements in growing over 1,000 lbs of fruits and vegetables throughout their youth gardens in Harlem, which supplies fresh produce to families in need and sells a third to local restaurants.

Representatives from Hot Bread Kitchen provided an overview of their innovative programs that empower immigrant and minority women to become leaders in the culinary industry and support entrepreneurial growth in Harlem’s food industry.

Hot Bread Kitchen trainee, Harlem resident Shaddaya Jackson, guided participants through the step-by-step process of making Morrocan M’smen, a buttery-flaky, irresistible flatbread that’s made customers all over the city seek out Hot Bread Kitchen.

The event also featured other Harlem-based community chefs.  Localtarian, a new start up that allows members of their dining club to use their web platform to purchase meals cooked by community chefs. Two of Localtarian chefs Valentina and  Armondo prepared delicious veggie snacks.

Nanny’s Kitchen, founded by residents of the Polo Grounds, New York Housing Authority prepared low fat, low calorie juices and desserts in conjunction with the Northern Manhattan Steppers and Stop Diabetes campaign.

No event on food would be complete with out exploring environmental impacts of food.  Representatives from NYC Department of Environmental Protection were on hand announcing the Cease the Grease campaign, that seeks to educate New Yorkers on the negative impacts of discarding cooking grease down the kitchen sinks and the toll it’s taking on our home plumbing New York’s water and sewer infrastructure.
DEP’s youth intern Ashley White shared her journey into environmentalism and lessons learned on community  composting and gardening as a member of Green City Force.

Documentary screening of  Obesity: Killer at Large sponsored by Maysels Documentary Center. A film clip by Anne Dunnequois of Parsons School of Design Strategy was featured, entitled Fresh Kulcha Food Project 

WHGA Food Hub and Harlem Grown’s gardens were the sites of a pre-launch event on Wednesday May 13, 2015.

Next event June 13, 2015. All are welcomed to join Harlem Grown, WeACT for Environmental Justice, Brotherhood SisterSol on Saturday June 13, 2015  from 1PM -5pM on West 142nd Street and Hamilton Place for a Healthy Living themed Weekend Walks sponsored by the NYC Department of Transportation, coordinated by the Harlem Community Preservation Organization.

Food In Focus Series: “Looting” Bodies and Wages on US Farms

30 Apr
harvest of shame

Harvest of Shame Film, CBS 1960. 

“Farmer: We used to own our slaves, now we rent them.” (Harvest of Shame Film, Edward R. Murrow, CBS 1960) 

migrant farm workers planet matters and more

Migrant Workers.

While news and images of “looting” in Baltimore cram our social media feeds and television screens… there are other forms of “looting” that occur each day on US farms, factories, on construction sites, and even in homes, decades after the end of slavery in the USA. The theft of lives and wages of farm workers by US employers continue.

International Justice Mission noted that between 1997 and 2011 the Justice Department had prosecuted 7 cases of slavery, liberating 1,000 farm workers from forced labor.

And each day, one farm worker dies from work-related injuries. And because over half of all US farm workers are undocumented, these deaths (or any record that the laborer ever worked on the farm in the first place) go unreported.

While there is a long road ahead in addressing the plight of farm workers in the USA, promising models of for Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) have emerged in the past few years. For instance The Coalition for Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program has taken a whole systems approach. The group addressing abuses across supply chain:  galvanizing farm workers, Florida tomato growers and participating retail buyers towards educating, monitoring and reporting on abuses.

A Sustainable Food Lab is also underway with activists, civic organizations and heads of agribusiness firms working collaboratively on advancing and promoting fair labor, fair trade and environmental remediation and protection.

This is just scratching the surface in addressing centuries of “legalized”, looting in the form of land disposition, genocide of indigenous people, enslavement of over 10 million of African people (2 million died en route), abusive sharecropping schemes or “neo-slavery” post- Civil War and present-day abuses of undocumented workers.

Not to mention the ecologic damage done by soil degradation, biodiversity loss and fresh water contamination and depletion.

In the next post I’ll share the role of youth leadership and school children in food justice efforts in NYC.

This post was adapted from an article by Roque Planas in the Huffington Post.##

Food in Focus Series Part I : Future of Food in Harlem

23 Mar
Why the Food in Focus Series

I’ve found myself immersed in several projects concerning food access in NYC. I am excited to be a part of an upcoming forum in Harlem highlighting food disparities and lack of opportunity in the area’s booming food/ dining/ hospitality sector.

This is one of a series of posts on food that I’ll be writing leading up to the Future of Food in Harlem event on May 14th and 15th at Harlem’s Oberia Dempsey Multi-Service Center.

Future of Food in Harlem 
Harlem’s resurgence as a cultural mecca, brings millions of tourists each year. With the lion’s share of all storefront businesses in Central Harlem (let’s say within a half mile radius of 125th Street between 5th and St. Nicholas) established since 2010 all focus on food, liquor and dining . – Most of them catering to mid- to high- end clientele.

New businesses bring jobs and tax revenue that benefit those who are poised and most prepared to benefit from it, based on education, or prior access to the food sector and linkages to important social and economic networks.

Harlem’s illustrious food sector does not benefit the of majority of its citizens. And for far too many households in Harlem, accessing decent food that they can afford is a daily struggle. Low-income seniors and families with small children are especially vulnerable.

In response to these issues, several ad hoc consortiums have formed to research, report and address food disparities throughout Harlem. The results of these collaborations thus far and future programs coming down the pike will be highlighted at an upcoming forum at Central Harlem’s Obreia Dempsey Center this May 2015.

Hosted by Harlem Grown, Connect, Inc, Parsons/ New School design students and professors and WHGA, this two- day forum entitled the Future of Food: Towards Equitable and Sustainable Food Systems Change will feature presentations and interactive workshops lead by Harlem-based food justice activists, social entrepreneurs and youth- leadership organizations as well as partners in university and sector small business.

Major themes include:

Economic Development 
Using social media and web platforms to promote job and business opportunities for unemployed and underemployed residents who cook from their homes.

Creative Activism 
The role of artists and arts education across many forms and media in activating our communities around food systems change.

Corporate Social Responsibility 
How do we support small business while holding them accountable for food that they source, prepare and sell in our communities? How do we ensure fair wages, fair treatment and benefits for their workers.

How might Harlem’s food change agents join global efforts to holding agribusinesses accountable to inequities and and the policy makers that support them?

Fair Trade and Equity 
How we as ordinary citizens support food production that works toward fair trade and equity? (meaning fair wages for farm workers, fairness in land acquisition).

Using smart phones to engage communities in collecting and sharing information on food issues we encounter.

The event organizers hope to raise awareness of Harlem’s food disparity while highlighting the work being done to turn things around.

To attend and to stay posted on the presenters register here.

To learn more or to sign up as a presenter contact Tia Wiggins at WHGA , 212-862-1399 ##

Reaching Untapped Markets for Food Systems Change

3 Dec


Thought I’d leverage the #givingtuesday momentum and share students’ proposals for awareness -building platforms for food justice issues.

Who: Seven student teams in our Course Managing Creative Project Teams course in the Strategic Design + Management MS Program at the School of Design Strategies.

The Course Challenge: Students were tasked with innovating solutions for urban farms challenged by limited resources and low visibility.

Exhibits Overview: The exhibits listed below provide a glimpse into students’ collaborative design thinking processes in generating ideas and strategies for bridging gaps between city farmers and untapped social, cultural and economic capital.

Food 4 NYC
How can the city better leverage its infrastructure to promote healthy eating?

A Mobile Hydroponic Farm Cafe targeting underserved communities that actually generates revenue.

Urban Farming NY
What if there were an economic development organization specifically serving small urban farmers?

Fashion Fresh
How could the fashion industry leverage its vast cultural and economic capital in advancing food sustainability?

Subscribers to urban farms benefit from secret exclusive parties throughout the City.

Lunch of locally sourced food delivered in the heart of NYC business districts to urban professionals that support urban farms.

Farm Party
Nightlife Venues on City Roof Top Farms

Feedback welcome!

By Any Other Name… Design Thinking as a Framework for Strategic Innovation

26 Oct

This post was written for colleagues newly minted in Design Thinking Methodology. Enjoy!

By Any Other Name… Design Thinking as a Framework for Strategic Innovation

I imagine that the confusion and ongoing debate on the efficacy of design thinking is simply a messaging issue. Perhaps the key takeaway should be to employ design thinking and jugaad innovation methodologies when needed, but determine the language that best suits your firm (just call it something other than design thinking) and over time work to embed them as core values.


design thinking process

The articles below offer case studies in innovation across several firms. They are essentially employing design thinking methodology (although not explicitly described as such).

Key themes throughout both articles include Empathy/human-centeredness, ideation , cross pollinating (with specialists, decision-makers and customers) flexible incremental transitions (prototypes). – with brief case studies of world’s most successful and profitable firms, recession-resilient firms (Google, Apple, 3M, Proctor and Gamble*) as well as firms in emerging economies (employing “Jugaad” Innovation, which includes the principle of “good enough will do”, as taught through Eric Reis’ minimal viable product in LeanStartup ).

The Global Innovation 1000: Making Ideas Work

Change This Manifesto : Rebooting Amercia’s Innovation Engine

Indy Johar – Global Hub Network
(includes case studies of integrative thinking in problem solving)





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