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Interview with Designer Damon Rich: involve energetic community-based organizations to successfully implement urban landscape programs

EMI interviewed Mr. Damon Rich, Designer and Artist, currently working for the city of Newark New Jersey as the city's first Chief Urban Designer, about challenges in his daily work, how to connect architecture with politics and differences between European and American cities.


What are the main challenges in your daily work as a Chief Urban Designer?

Rich: ‘I'm in the 5th year of working to establish a viable public urban design function for municipal government while dealing with a more-or-less constant stream of planning crises and conundrums. That means that I spend significant team leading detailed design negotiations with private developers, especially when the public sector is an investor. In New Jersey many of the challenges involve persuading stakeholders to make buildings that connect to the public realm. These conversations are an education in the motivations of the market and the real estate formulas that operate large sections of American landscape.’ The other large part of Richs work for the city government is overseeing the design of public improvements, ranging from public art to parks to the public realm. Rich: ‘these projects are chances to create active city creation cultures that absorb and amplify the verve and eccentricity of contemporary Newark.’

Could you tell us more about how the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) connects architecture with day-to-day politics and the build environment?

Rich: 'I founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) in 1997, to find ways that thinking from architecture might be put to work in the day-to-day politics of the built environment. Since then, the organization has thrived thanks to the hard work of an amazing staff, helpful board members, hundreds of collaborating artists, designers, students and advocacy organizations. Under the leadership of our fantastic Executive Director Christine Gaspar, this has continued to lead to increasingly impactful work putting whimsy to work for popular education about housing, finance, urban infrastructure, and other central elements of urban life. For example, when New York City decided in 2001 to close its only residential landfill, CUP worked with the alternative high school City-as-School to investigate the flow of garbage and the surrounding business and politics of waste management. The results of the investigation where presented through a 30-minute video, an exhibition, and a series of super-sized information graphics on topics including "Incinerators vs. Landfills" and "Who runs the New York City Garbage Machine?".

CUP also operate Community Education Programs to create collaborations between community-based or advocacy organizations and designers. For example, our Making Policy Public posters are produced by designer-organization teams together with CUP staff. These posters are about topics organizations want to explain to their constituents. For example the New York City juvenile justice system through a comic format, the status of rent-stabilized apartments after the 2008 crash with a window poster of a building-eating serpent, and the rights of street vendors with an illustrated ‘how-to’ guide.


How to stimulate collaboration between policy and society in public space?

Rich: ‘As a designer, for me public space is primarily about the orchestration of program and activity. In cities like Newark, where scarce resources make the creation of high-budget spectacular spaces difficult, our resource is the vitality and spirit of our citizens. Our culture, like all cultures, is quirky, complex, darkly humorous,  and enthralling, and the question is how to hitch that culture to the forces of design and development. So, for example, we seek out energetic and innovative community-based organizations as implementation partners for our urban landscape programs. These partners play a role in the design but also the maintenance and programming of the space.’

Rich: ‘Another way to weave together policy and society in public space is to leverage the educational potential of design and development processes. Discussion and debate about investment in the built environment is a deep resource for teaching young people and adults about politics in the world. The rising popularity of Participatory Budgeting, where residents develop public projects with city agencies and then vote to award funding, also demonstrates the power of making design and development public.’

EMI's guiding principle is to bridge the gap between research (academics and research institutes) and practice (city policy makers). What is according to you an effective way to stimulate policy makers to involve citizens in design processes?

Rich: ‘Resident demand most often precedes any policymaker's stimulation. I therefore advocate investments in popular education around built environment policy and processes that aim to engage and activate specific groups whose interests overlap in a place. To find answers for Europe will require a serious commitment to understanding the changing constitution of the public and bringing that cultural literacy to bear on those who are already reasonably disillusioned about the openness and benevolence of European planning and design.’

How do American cities differ from European cities when it comes to urban design processes? What can we learn from each other?

From an American perspective, many of the reports I've heard of late from colleagues in London (Localism and Big Society) and the Netherlands (deregulation of Housing Corporations) sound like an amazingly well-developed welfare state being disassembled. Understandably, some are excited by the thrill of the change and its feeling of openness. But after 4 years in Newark standing up for even slim rights of the public in planning and design decisions, I worry that an impressive achievement is eroding, and that some of the US bureaucratic hijinx that appear so sexy from afar, like using air rights to preserve the High Line, are actually desperate settlements by a public sector negotiating from a weak position.