Archive | January, 2016

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.

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New Year, New Futures: Young Strategists in the Making

2 Jan


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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!