Building community: How urban planning, design impact cities


The Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy hosted a special series of panel discussion talks this Wednesday with several professionals and professors within spatial planning and urban design. The panel discussion, called "Designing Value — The Impact of Design," focused on how design aesthetics blend together or clash with the needs of our various social and cultural heritages, as well as large institutional patterns. 

Charles T. Brown, a senior research specialist with the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center (VTC), demonstrated where urban planning and design can improve communities. In one instance, he displayed a view of a vacant street in central New Jersey, with limited sidewalks and housing. 

"What do you think is missing here?" He asked thef crowd. Some of the responses yelled out were “light, stores and playgrounds.” One woman spoke out, “people.” Brown immediately noted that "people" was the correct answer, emphasizing that most designers put too much investment on the environment, and not enough on the people in the space or the cultural/social history of a community. 

Brown's point stresses the importance of social history, allowing for an understanding of why gentrification happens and how it devastated or completely nullified the traditions of each area. "The people (living here) are Black, and want to remain Black," Brown said. "Your before and after pictures should keep the same demographics." 

Gregory Heller, executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and senior vice president of Community Investment at Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC), spoke about how the private sector and the public sector create trouble when it comes to stabilizing housing projects in Philadelphia, where his work is predominantly located. 

The economic flow of each city is an amount that stands in staggering contrast to how much housing demand there is each year. Some projects, taking the course of several years, call for hundreds of thousands in housing units. Understanding governmental subsidies and how private investment carries these projects forward is crucial to the development of future park spaces.

Sarah Haga, founder of real estate development company Urban Projects Collaborative, concluded the presentations with her own experience as her role within construction companies as a woman and also an architect. She pointed out the growing culture of trying to recruit more women into both construction and development management in a field that was previously vastly populated by men. 

The start of certain patterns, such as providing a gender ratio as well as better human resource management, pave the path for better representation in the workforce behind design and housing development. 

Haga also explored the endeavors in interacting with different communities, in particular with Korean communities in Queens, New York. Her response to the decreasing quality of the facilities that these areas are renting out spark a call for a more detailed and organized attentiveness when it comes to the design community. These communities in Sunnyside, Queens, interact with close to no funding streams, which mean no safety net or structural security in the resources. 

Brown emphazied how being in an urban or communal space is vastly different for different demographics, such as being a trasngender woman being able to walk through spaces safely, or a Muslim woman riding a bicycle in a town center. The effects of how even lifespans are affected by living conditions was a very impactful statistic. 

In one area in Mississippi, Brown pointed out that the average lifespan was 5 to 6 years lower than someone who lived in parts of suburban New Jersey. "Where you live also seems to determine how long you live," he said.

In light of the discussions being centered on aesthetic design and design values, the speakers pointed out that there are two mission statements for designers out in the world: changing the visible versus changing the invisible. Institutional disadvantages, as well as our modern form of segregation in today's cities that coexist with wealth and resource disparity, place aesthetic values in urgent social and cultural contexts. 


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