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3 Women Who Are Radically Rethinking Urban Design

These three Loeb Fellows at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design are addressing the most serious challenges facing American cities now.

BY Jackie Cooperman | Cities | Jul 26, 2019
Image from the Chouteau Greenway Design Competition in St. Louis. Photo courtesy of De Nichols

Segregation, climate change, food deserts and the downsides of gentrification: These seemingly intractable problems are stimulating and inspiring a new generation of design-minded leaders, including the nine just-announced 2020 Loeb Fellows at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. The prestigious fellowship includes a year of housing in Cambridge, access to Harvard and MIT classes and resources, a $52,500 stipend and a formidable alumni network.

The urgency of addressing urban challenges remains as relevant now as it was when the program was created in 1969, says fellowship curator John Peterson.

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“Fifty years ago, American cities were literally in flames over issues of race and equity, and the environmental health of the planet was an increasingly urgent concern,” he says. “Today, while cities in many ways are thriving, tens of millions of people throughout the world are living in informal dwellings, and issues of racism and the environment remain critically important.”

Worth spoke with three of the incoming Loeb Fellows: two urban planners and a social entrepreneur, all challenging assumptions, grappling with difficult questions and radically reimagining possibilities for American cities.

Beth Miller. Photo courtesy of Harvard GSD

Beth Miller

Executive Director, Community Design Collaborative, Philadelphia

A Philadelphian by adoption, Beth Miller brings a community focus and a shrewd sense of possibility to her work at the Community Design Collaborative, pairing some of the city’s leading architects and designers with nonprofit groups, many in low-income neighborhoods.

Working pro bono and donating services ranging from $25,000 to $40,000, the designers meet with community leaders and draft plans for local needs like health centers, school libraries and gardens. Miller and her team then help them apply for grants to build the projects.

In a city with a 26 percent poverty rate and 40,000 vacant lots, Miller has huge opportunities to make an impact, and no shortage of challenges. “Philadelphia is a city built for 2 million people, and we only have 1.5 million. There’s been a lot of deferred maintenance in places of public access. We want to ensure every neighborhood can be engaged in community design and be a place where residents can thrive,” says Miller, who has worked at the organization since 2001. The flip side of Philadelphia’s increasing development, she notes, is the risk of unchecked gentrification.

Moving forward, I’m asking how we can continue to work hand-in-hand with existing communities,” Miller says. “The key is development without displacement, with equity and opportunity.”

Among Miller’s most recent projects: Sacred Places/Civic Spaces, which paired a mosque, a Baptist church and a Methodist church with architects who helped them add affordable housing, health centers, meeting spaces and educational facilities for their congregations.

“More and more congregations are facing closure. Those are community assets, and if they become blighted, that’s a real negative,” Miller says. “Our question was, ‘Can congregants deaccession a portion of their properties in order to preserve the community outreach work they’ve been doing for generations?’”

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That project builds on momentum that Miller’s organization, launched originally as a pilot program in 1991, created when it began designing senior housing for the Mt. Tabor African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2005. Four years later, the facility opened with four floors of apartments and an emphasis on sustainable materials and encouraging residents, all of whom are older than 55, to embrace technology. Miller’s organization has also worked closely with leading sustainable architects like Brian Phillips, who in 2005 designed one of the city’s first LEED-certified affordable housing developments, a group of 13 three-bedroom units, in conjunction with a nonprofit community developer called Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha.

These are the kinds of projects, Miller notes, that have strong backing not only from her cadre of volunteer architects, contractors, engineers and landscape designers, but also from Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney.

“Our mayor is investing in rebuilding, in pre-K, parks, rec centers and libraries through community-engaged design and community-based partners,” she says. “He has the right idea, which is to invest in public spaces and public assets, and to do your best to make the city a level playing field.”

All of her work, Miller says, comes back to one essential challenge: “Having an idea is interesting, but how do you implement it so that there are no losers?”

Deborah Helaine Morris. Photo courtesy of Harvard GSD

Deborah Helaine Morris

Executive Director of Resiliency Policy, Planning and Acquisitions, New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, New York

Deborah Helaine Morris oversees flood planning for New York City’s 520 miles of coastline—more than the coastlines of Miami, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco combined. Among the challenges: Many of the city’s most vulnerable buildings predate the city’s 1983 adoption of flood hazard maps and building code changes. Currently, Morris notes, New York is in the process of adopting new flood maps, and the change poses a stark scenario.

“If you consider the expanded risk of the city’s 500-year flood plain, the area includes approximately 1 million people and 20 to 25 percent of the city’s housing stock,” she notes.

“We have over 8.5 million people, but on any given night, 60,000 people are homeless and the majority of them are families. To know such a large proportion of existing housing is at risk of being vulnerable to use makes housing very much a social equity issue.”

Running the city’s $100 million property acquisition and buyout program is one way Morris is fighting inequities. “We purchase damaged property and convert it to open space use, and part of that is to not put people into hazardous situations and to allow the city to better accommodate risk,” she explains. “Storm-damaged property depreciates quite a bit, so this allows people to sell property for a reasonable amount.”

In a city as densely populated as New York, the solutions have to come through close engagement with residents, something that’s not always required in other parts of the country.

“The federal government sees flood risk in a very simple way. You can just lift up a house on a dune in South Carolina. That doesn’t work with 200-unit buildings on Manhattan’s Lower East Side,” Morris says.

Long-term social policies have shaped many current dynamics, she notes, and require complex thinking. “So many issues are based in historic housing policy, red lining and segregation, things that determine why people live where they live,” she says. “If you’re only looking at one problem, you’re missing how to deal with finding solutions.”

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Following 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, Morris pioneered the Resilient Edgemere Community Plan, an ambitious 10-year project to reinvigorate the city’s distressed Rockaway Beach neighborhood, which was pummeled by the storm. Included in the plan’s coordinated public investments: $60 million to renovate Bayswater Park, with the addition of a flood mitigation wetland; over $50 million to build a pair of 100-unit affordable housing developments (one has been completed, and the other is under development) and $68 million to improve four residential buildings and a community center.

Morris plans to use her Loeb fellowship as an opportunity to innovate products that facilitate property exchange.

“There’s a real opportunity to reflect on property acquisition and buy out programs and to look creatively at different kinds of pricing. We piloted a property swap program that was very challenging, because when people have significant mortgages and debts you can’t transfer them to the new property,” she says. “If you want to accommodate real changes in property ownership, you need products that don’t currently exist.”

Morris also wants to explore how design technologies can solve current and future flooding crises. “What is the sewer of the future? Could amphibious cars make us more comfortable in living with water? What could make life livable for a long period of time?” she asks. “In the dystopia of flood risk, there’s real opportunity for innovation.” 

De Nichols. Photo courtesy of Harvard GSD

De Nichols

Social Impact Design Principal, Civic Creatives, St. Louis

A 31-year-old powerhouse with both a design BFA and a masters of social work from Washington University in St. Louis, De Nichols says her upbringing in deeply segregated, rural Mississippi spurred her to be “very good at connecting dots that seem like they should not be connected. I was oriented to really hate segregation and separation of people, so I’m always mixing and merging things.”

A recent example: The winning plans Nichols and her colleagues entered for St. Louis’ Chouteau Greenway Design Competition, which will create a new greenway connecting the city’s Forest Park to the Gateway Arch. “Part of what set us apart was that instead of building it east-west, we decided to also go north-south, to bridge and create a connector between these two parts of the city that have historically been separated,” Nichols says. “It’s bold and risky. But we’re determined to with community leaders to really see how we can make this happen.”

Nichols’ firm Civic Creatives grew out of a design nonprofit she started while in grad school, creating what she calls “whimsical, human-centered design” to address problems of food access, racial, economic and social divisions.

Her projects have included working with medical students to create mobile farmers markets from repurposed city buses and adding produce-filled shipping containers at commuter hubs, which create pop-up markets to service urban food deserts. A former citizen artist fellow at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Nichols is currently consulting there, developing a “maker space” called Moonshot Studio as part of the center’s new REACH Campus.

As an undergraduate, Nichols developed programs for the Clinton Global Initiative, teaching design-thinking, entrepreneurship and civic engagement to elementary through high school students in Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri. The projects, aimed at cleaning up public spaces, repairing homes for the elderly and rebuilding local parks, included woodcutting and 3D design. Nichols, who identifies herself as “a queer person, a person of color, an artist and a foodie from a family of chefs” also founded a program called United Story, engaging students to discuss identity, sexuality and education through panel discussions and pop-up events.

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The protests that engulfed Ferguson, Mo., after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson clarified Nichols’ thinking about her work. I’d already been a community organizer. But being a protestor was different,” she says. “The media in many ways amplified the worst of what was happening on the ground, while what I was experiencing was a deep sense of multiple communities coming together to exert a core set of values.”

During her Loeb fellowship, Nichols will be developing a feasibility study assessing whether she can revitalize St. Louis’ Griot Museum of Black History, in the neighborhood that had been home to the city’s notorious Pruitt-Igoe public housing project. With the area now attracting developers, Nichols sees opportunity.

“The museum has suffered financial disinvestment and social disinterest, but there’s so much potential in the revitalization. We could have more programming, more partnerships and the museum director owns the plot of land,” Nichols says. “There’s going to be a resurgence of that area in the next few years, and the urgency is to position the museum in the midst of the changes. How do we create better cultural centers in communities experiencing rapid gentrification?”

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