Design Activism: Public Domain

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By Jordan Kushins
Though it’s quite popular to proclaim that design can change the world, even the best-laid plans aren’t enough to make a difference on their own. We spoke with three leading design agitators about how and why we all need to get involved.

Bryan Bell is the founder and executive director of Design Corps, a nonprofit organization that provides architecture and planning services to promote positive development in communities. He is also on the steering committee of a new network called SEED (Social, Economic, and Environmental Design).

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"The link between design and critical community and global concerns­—–job creation, disease prevention, rebuilding after natural disasters­—–is becoming clearer. Further establishing that connection will create a whole new field of relevant design. "I think that we’re going to start to see more designers who aren’t waiting to be asked to solve a problem or for an invitation to act; when they recognize a need, they will craft a built response to it. But you can’t get it right unless the client and community are involved. Each of us has an asset we bring to a project, and when you put those assets together to effectively resolve an issue, that’s incredibly powerful. We’re not just looking for a practical solution; we’re looking for poetry."

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Fred Kent is the president and founder of Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization committed to helping communities develop their local public sites into people-friendly hubs. "The role of public spaces—–libraries, hospitals, courts, streets—–is up for grabs right now. Rather than being defined solely by their intended functions, these spaces can, should, and, I believe, will become more holistic, multiuse environments. Good public spaces are accessible; there are things to do in them; they’re places where you feel like you can socialize.

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"The architecture profession has to stop focusing on building iconic buildings in lifeless areas solely to make big debuts and win awards. Instead, we should all be engaging the idea of ‘architecture of place.’ Identify what you want to do on that site and then design to support that purpose, or modify what already exists there to foster civic engagement: Start a market, plant a garden, or install a bench."

Richard Reynolds is the author of On Guerrilla Gardening, a practical, tip-filled guide chronicling the history of and modern motives behind the "illicit cultivation of other people’s land." He speaks to aspiring green thumbs around the globe about how to get gardens started.

"The Internet has turned what was once a very disparate activity into a movement, and I urge people to utilize all the available online tools to document their gardening projects. It’s also important to engage your community in good old-fashioned conversation, which, in this case, begins with direct actions rather than just words. These different forms of propaganda help to raise awareness, encourage more people to join in, and show landowners and communities what can be achieved on neglected land.

"There’s a group in the UK called Incredible Edible Todmorden that focuses on growing local food, and their mission is to make their town self-sufficient by 2018. Though their efforts began as a form of guerrilla gardening, the group effectively convinced the local authorities that they were full of great ideas, passion, and determination, and now they have full civic support.

The ultimate goal is to get more people involved; I don’t believe that it has to be a constant battle."