FORWARD: Issue #4: Redefining Sustainable Design in Indian Country

From redlining to red tape, unwinding our way to a just society

For the City of Oakland 90th Avenue streetscape redesign, the City collaborated with young designers to make this busy street safer, more accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians, and more culturally resonant with East Oakland. Photo courtesy Original Scraper Bike Team.

How designers and civic practice artists can guide America back from bureaucratic racism and injustice

by Jeremy Liu

Communities in the United States find themselves being offered some of the largest planned public investments in history—with $550 billion of spending on design-intensive projects over the next five years included in the infrastructure bill—and facing the existential threats of climate change and a four-centuries-in-the-making racial reckoning. Under these circumstances it makes complete sense for communities and racial and social justice organizations to wonder how these billions might be marshalled to overcome these threats and not exacerbate them. On the cusp of the signing of the infrastructure bill, Transportation Secretary Buttigieg commented on a number of past project decisions about highways that “obviously [reflect] racism that went into those design choices,” and he added, “I don’t think we have anything to lose by confronting that simple reality.”

Form follows bureaucracies. While designers of buildings, places, services, and infrastructure are often creatively sculpting forms, using as their “material” the very limitations created by bureaucracies, they are also often too polite, to the point of being complicit in bad policy. They have “sculpted” according to bureaucracies' worst tendencies and intentions, including redlining, public surveillance, invasive and destructive highway planning, and the siting of toxic facilities in poorer neighborhoods and in neighborhoods where more people of color reside. Design has accepted too readily the one-purpose brief, constructing the fiction that efficiency and safety overrule equity, diversity, and justice.

Design has accepted too readily the one-purpose brief, constructing the fiction that efficiency and safety overrule equity, diversity, and justice.

The Oakland community demanded and designed a more locally specific solution for bike lanes as part of the 90th Avenue streetscape redesign. While there previously had been community opposition to bike lanes due to the perception that they represent an attempt to gentrify, the city's Department of Transportation hired the Original Scraper Bike Team to advise on the redesign, empowering the local community, who use the street daily. Photo courtesy the City of Oakland.

But design can resist this paradigm, and artists can help. One example, from Oakland, California, involved the community-based artistry and creativity of a youth-development organization that, instead of carrying out a traditional public art project like painting a mural, demanded and designed a more locally specific solution for bike lanes. In the redesign of 90th Avenue, the City collaborated with these young designers to make this busy street safer, more accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians, and more culturally resonant with East Oakland through its homegrown bicycling culture, known for its artistic scraper bikes. According to Tyrone “Baybe Champ” Stevenson Jr., aka the Scraper Bike King and founder of the Original Scraper Bike Team, “A scraper bike is a piece of art. Every artist builds up their bike from scratch using different material and different colors to customize it to fit the artist inside.”

The City had faced opposition to bike lanes from the community of East Oakland in the past due to the perception in the neighborhood that bike lanes represent an attempt to gentrify by attracting outsiders. The City of Oakland Department of Transportation hired the Original Scraper Bike Team to advise on the 90th Avenue streetscape redesign, empowering the local community, who use the street daily, and who ultimately rejected the standard, bureaucratically imposed designs codified in the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Instead, what would otherwise have been yet another street with green-painted bike lanes on the periphery of the road was given a center bike lane that, as it expresses the scraper bike aesthetic, is simultaneously more functional for and culturally resonant with the neighborhood.

More than a mural indeed. According to Axel Santana of PolicyLink, “Fostering leadership within communities will lead to self-sufficiency and more accountability. It also leads to more creative and localized solutions that work for residents.” By disrupting the existing rules and standards of street design and engineering, the Original Scraper Bike Team may have literally paved the way for more equitable bike lanes and possibly even the creation of community-driven bike lane design standards to guide future changes around the country.

Most bureaucracies—their rules, regulations, processes, and people—enshrine mainstream society’s mores and values and therefore many of the racist, classist, and White European norms and beliefs we are all increasingly recognizing in mainstream society. Two examples: the definitions of “religious institutions” in most zoning codes do not specifically name mosques, the traditional Muslim places of worship, and some communities use this historic omission to deny rights to the Muslim community; and single-family residence zoning excludes the construction of multi-unit buildings often more affordable to people with lower incomes and creates a race-to-the-top, first-one-pulls-up-the-ladder incentive that results in wealth concentration.

Detail from a one-pager on the redesign project, put together by the Original Scraper Bike Team and the City of Oakland DoT. The flyer described for the community multiple details of the plan, including “Before” and “After” imagery. Image courtesy Original Scraper Bike Team.

East Oakland is known for its artistic scraper bikes and homegrown bicycling culture. According to Tyrone “Baybe Champ” Stevenson Jr., aka the Scraper Bike King and founder of the Original Scraper Bike Team, “A scraper bike is a piece of art. Every artist builds up their bike from scratch using different material and different colors to customize it to fit the artist inside.” Photo courtesy Original Scraper Bike Team.

Photo courtesy Original Scraper Bike Team.

Photo courtesy Original Scraper Bike Team.

A person wearing an orange safety vest kneels in the middle of the colorful bike lane they are painting in the street

What would otherwise have been yet another street with green-painted bike lanes on the periphery of the road was given a center bike lane that, as it expresses the scraper bike aesthetic, is simultaneously more functional for and culturally resonant with the neighborhood. Photo courtesy Original Scraper Bike Team.

Photo courtesy the City of Oakland.

Photo courtesy Original Scraper Bike Team.

But form can follow community. And form can follow diversity. When community and diversity lead the way, the individual and the singular can also be manifold. Every neighborhood park can capture stormwater to prevent flooding, recharge aquifers, and improve air quality. Every new light rail streetcar line is an economic mobility connector, a cultural corridor, and an affordable housing catalyst. Every housing development anchors a cultural and ethnic community, is an incubator for entrepreneurs, and provides access to healthy food and fitness. Of course, the manifold can have a negative valence too: a school can be a place where children learn but also get separated from their inherited culture. Either way, this complexity—seeking it out, designing and creating with it, and fostering it—is the overarching design parameter of our times.

In one example of cultural strategists making affordable housing policy more effective, they also helped make it more meaningful to the entire neighborhood. San Francisco has grappled with an astronomical rise in housing costs for decades. This has fueled a powerful wave of gentrification, forcing residents, businesses, cultural institutions, artists, and whole communities from their homes. The Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), a long-standing economic development organization focusing on the needs of the Mission’s residents, and Galería de la Raza, a major cultural and arts anchor in the Mission, worked together to identify small multifamily apartment buildings that offered affordable rents and were also occupied by at least one local artist or culture bearer. They then utilized the City of San Francisco’s Small Sites Acquisition Fund to acquire these properties, simultaneously preserving existing affordable housing and ensuring that individuals and families who contribute to the cultural vibrancy of the Mission neighborhood help anchor other families and institutions there as well.

As strategic partners, the artists of Galería helped turn a single-purpose program, the Small Sites Acquisition Fund, into a tool for a more comprehensive and effective approach to resisting cultural and physical displacement. According to Ani Rivera, executive director of Galería, “Saving the buildings was more than just saving the units or creating below-market-rate opportunities; it was saving the cultural legacy of the Mission.” Ani and Galería helped demonstrate a new way for MEDA to fulfill its mission and for San Francisco to make its affordable housing funding policy doubly impactful.

Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color have suffered centuries of varied and lasting impacts caused by designers complicit in the mundane evil of bureaucratic racism that has at best been negligent, and at worst predatory. Bureaucratic racism can be described as a flattening of complex human, social, and neighborhood conditions into a monocultural pragmatism that believes all circumstances can be handled through the dominant white, middle-class, Protestant, northern European norms that form the basis of nearly all US public policy. Designers working with this context may have had benevolent intentions around infrastructure—housing, schools, supermarkets, highways—but bureaucracies’ narrow focus and dependence on singular-purpose policies have forced decisions resulting in multiple unintended and often negative consequences. The standards in the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices prescribed the design of roads, optimizing for maximum safe throughput of vehicles, and became a de facto threshold to accessing federal funding. To this day, automobile turning radii, driver sight lines, ubiquitous parking and the like override considerations of shared use of the roads, the community’s characteristic mobility patterns, and local priorities, except in the most progressive of cities and towns.

The ways that designers understand and pursue projects are often prescribed by the roles they play within, or in service to, bureaucracy. Collaborating with artists, who are typically accustomed to creative, boundaryless play and process-based approaches, could benefit designers and help them overcome many of the limitations associated with the bureaucratic mindset.

While some designers have worked with artists, more often than not the interactions between them are transactional and, unfortunately, more about creating a veneer of creativity and community engagement than making real change.

Instead, artists, who are especially skilled at uncovering hidden connections, creating unexpected relationships, and crafting new beginnings and endings, can help designers better engage communities to take part in the planning of infrastructure projects, not just react to them. This is the decolonizing of infrastructure projects, and through it, design decisions can have extraordinarily long-lasting effects. Communities need both designers and artists to help repair the manifold impacts of design decisions of the past that did not, and were never intended to, account for the full scope of humanity and society. Beginning at the earliest stage of projects—the design phase—reparative design can create projects that “inoculate” communities (particularly BIPOC communities) and society at large against many of the overlapping evils that conventional planning has spawned.

Communities need both designers and artists to help repair the manifold impacts of design decisions of the past that did not, and were never intended to, account for the full scope of humanity and society.

In short, artists can be natural allies in community design, and this alliance can address complex community problems in unique and dynamic ways. Solving for climate change causes and impacts with a focus on also rectifying the egregious, neglectful, and mundane racism of historic design practices is an example of a nodal intervention in regenerative practice. The Sweet Water Foundation (SWF) is a community-based organization on Chicago’s South Side that “practices Regenerative Neighborhood Development, a creative and regenerative social justice method that creates safe and inspiring spaces and curates healthy, intergenerational communities that transform the ecology of so-called ‘blighted’ neighborhoods.”

One of Sweet Water Foundation’s focuses is on water equity and inequity. In an interview with the cofounder of Sweet Water, Emmanuel Pratt, journalist Alex Priest writes: “I was reminded by Pratt how water at 57th Street and Perry Avenue [the home of the foundation] holds memories associated with redlining—water is infrastructure controlled by the federal, state and city governments and [lack of] clean water and water access is one of the many environmental injustices caused by these policies. But, importantly, water is also a source of life.” In 2021, SWF worked with artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle to create an art installation, Hydrant, 41°47′22.662″ N – 87°37′38.364″ W, that served as a water supply for the SWF gardens as well as access to free drinking water for neighbors and the public. The project was paired with another installation, at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago in a nearby, more affluent neighborhood, Water Table, 41°47′36.993″ N –87°36′0.726″ W. The contrasting forms and contexts emphasized the existence of unequal access to water because of different, past infrastructure decisions.

SWF doesn’t just produce meaningful artistic statements about water inequity, though. Its members are preparing their community to do something about the inequity. Their exhibition well · ness at The Commonwealth gathered art, artifacts, and historical documents about the inestimable value of water as the source of life. It raised awareness and served as a sort of living instruction manual or self-help exhibition, catalyzing activism around water inequity and helping community residents who are experiencing vulnerability to build and use tools like sump pumps and hydroponics to increase their water resiliency. This kind of artist-designer-activist cooperation is all the more needed as the $550 billion of infrastructure spending begins.

The designers and artists who are interested in community and community development offer hope in these times. These community designers, design justice practitioners, and restorative designers are increasingly pulled and pushed to serve new and different purposes, like addressing community trauma, environmental justice, and infrastructure racism. Artists are integral to upstreaming the role and influence of design to achieve equitable development, reparative approaches to infrastructure, and justice for past harms.

Artists are integral to upstreaming the role and influence of design to achieve equitable development, reparative approaches to infrastructure, and justice for past harms.

Performance group Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) and designer Rosten Woo created an exhibition entitled How to House 7,000 People in Skid Row and How to Fund It. The project aims to realize “Skid Row Now & 2040,” a community-generated alternative development plan designed for and by LA’s Skid Row neighborhood to challenge proposed upscale development and resist displacement by the LA Department of City Planning’s DTLA 2040 community plan. Jeremy Liu interviewed the creators about how their project challenges assumptions and ways of working within the community planning and affordable housing sectors. Photos courtesy Los Angeles Poverty Department.

To sum up: “Building Back Better” isn’t better if we don’t build back together. We must design in collaboration with the communities who have been, and could be, most negatively impacted by infrastructure or the lack thereof. PolicyLink’s Creating Change through Arts, Culture, and Equitable Development: A Policy and Practice Primer highlights both promising and proven practices that demonstrate the effect of equity-focused arts and culture policies, strategies, and tools across nine infrastructure sectors to create communities of opportunity.

We will need community-based and community development–focused designers and artists, as well as communities and organizations who are willing to work with them, to collectively turn back the creeping racism of bureaucracy. One of the best ways to do this will be to move upstream from project-based engagements to policy-based engagements where designers, artists, and communities can have a positive impact across many projects.

PolicyLink’s Creating Change through Arts, Culture, and Equitable Development: A Policy and Practice Primer highlights both promising and proven practices that demonstrate the effect of equity-focused arts and culture policies, strategies, and tools across nine infrastructure sectors to create communities of opportunity. Cover image courtesy PolicyLink.

Bio

Jeremy Liu

Liu is an award-winning artist, social impact strategist, and real estate developer with a successful track record of developing “Community Benefits by Design” real estate projects. As the Senior Fellow for Arts, Culture, and Equitable Development at PolicyLink, he has shaped and is guiding an initiative that integrate arts and culture into the work of equitable development.

In 2004, Jeremy created the National Bitter Melon Council with his longtime collaborator Hiroko Kikuchi. The Council, which promotes the literal and poetic potential of bitter melon (Momordica charantia) and continues to operate as a vegetable promotion board, received the Artadia Artist Prize and has performed, practiced, exhibited, and promoted in neighborhoods, communities, museums, and venues around the country. As a community developer, he has led two different affordable housing and community economic development organizations responsible, eventually, for overseeing a staff of 110 professionals, 1,400 apartments in 16 properties home to several thousand families and residents, 250,000 square feet of commercial space, an operating budget of over $12 million, and assets in excess of $150 million.

He is also the cofounder of Creative Ecology Partners, a design studio and incubator for urban, economic, and community development innovation that has advised purpose-built social enterprises in real estate, systems engineering, consumer packaged goods, workforce development, urban agriculture, food retail, mobile banking, green infrastructure, and arts and culture. He is a board member of the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the New England Foundation for the Arts, and has served as an advisor/panelist for a range of organizations, including the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Science Foundation, ArtPlace America, the Institute for the Future, the Oakland Business Development Center, and the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives.

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FORWARD: Issue #4

Redefining Sustainable Design in Indian Country

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