This month the Community Design Collaborative co-hosted “Design in Action 2011,” a three-day conference that brought more than 300 community design professionals and volunteers from around the world to Philadelphia to discuss public interest architecture.
The conference was intended to foster dialogue and collaboration between design professionals. The Community Design Collaborative, a volunteer-based community design center that offers pro bono preliminary design services to nonprofit and community organizations, made efforts to include the neighborhood organizations it has partnered with during its 20-year history.
To engage the community, the collaborative featured some Philadelphia-based design projects, hosted a public symposium with public interest architect Teddy Cruz and took attendees on a tour of affordable housing projects it has contributed to in North Philadelphia.
The conference kicked off with a public exhibition of more than 50 community design projects from around the United States.
Approximately half of the projects displayed, such as “Evolution of a Design: Julian Abele Park,” featured work that the Community Design Collaborative has contributed to in Philadelphia.
Darlene Branch Smith, who has taken on the roll of “Park President” of the Julian Abele Park, and her husband William Smith attended the exhibit to see “their park” on display.
“It was just empty houses and an abandoned lot,” William Smith said. “We started from scratch.”
In 2006, the couple and 10 to 15 neighbors got together to turn a large, stabilized lot into a park at 22nd and Montrose streets, the neighborhood William and Darlene have called home for more than 30 years.
“It’s nice because where we are the developers were building everywhere,” Darlene Branch Smith said. “It would have been more houses, more row homes.”
The 10 to 15 residents who became the Friends of Julian Abele Park dedicated the park to Julian F. Abele, a black architect who lived near 22nd and Montrose streets in the early 1900s. Abele contributed to the design of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia and other landmarks but received little recognition because of his race, Darlene Branch Smith explained.
In 2006, the Community Design Collaborative offered to help the Friends of Julian Abele Park develop a plan for the land.
“The Community Design Collaborative really played an interesting role,” said Geoff Kees Thompson, chair of the park’s design subcommittee. “It developed a plan that would have cost in the tens of thousands of dollars to create. We ended up getting [the plan] for free, so it really helped to kind of move the idea that a park should be there to the forefront.”
Since then the City of Philadelphia, various city departments and community organizations, including the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, have contributed to the park’s development. The Parks & Recreation Department helped the Friends of Julian Abele Park secure a $150,000 grant, and the Philadelphia Water Department has agreed to install a cutting edge storm water trenching system as well as new sidewalks and trees.
While the park is still a work in progress, it is bringing social and economic development to the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, Thompson said. He cites the filling in of all of the empty lots in the park’s immediate vicinity, restaurants and businesses relocating to the area and a summer jazz concert series as evidence for what drew new and old residents alike to the park.
The importance of such projects were the focus of the “Design in Action 2011” conference and to convey this theme to a general audience beyond the group of design professionals in attendance, the Community Design Collaborative hosted a public symposium with highly regarded, public interest architect Teddy Cruz.
Cruz gained significant recognition for his research on architecture and design in neighborhoods along the Tijuana-San Diego border and regularly speaks on creating affordable, quality housing and infrastructure in poor, urban, minority communities in the United States.
“He’s really world renowned for his willingness to cross boarders and serve traditionally underserved clientele,” said Beth Miller, Community Design Collaborative executive director.
To show how Philadelphia-based groups are putting these ideas into motion, part of the conference included a tour to sites including the Sheridan Street Houses, a LEED Gold affordable housing development and Mt. Tabor Cyber Village, a high-tech, green-roofed senior housing development in Northern Liberties. The Community Design Collaborative provided both of these projects with initial pro bono design work.
The tour was meant to share models for innovative architecture applications in low-income neighborhoods.
Linda Dottor, Community Design Collaborative program manager, said many of the conference attendees and those who went on the tour “are really pushing the limit of how community development has typically been done by looking at different housing prototypes and introducing new technology and practices in the areas that didn’t get it initially.”
Though these examples feature work in Philadelphia, they may prove to be models for change both nationally and internationally, at least that is the hope of guests Benje Freehan and Srini Murthy.
Freehan, an architect and project manager at the Dallas-based buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, attended the event to speak on behalf of two public interest design projects that his firm developed.
“It’s nice to be able to hang around with like-minded people, see some great projects, meet some interesting folks and [discuss] potential collaborations,” Freehan said.
Murthy, a member of the Foreign Office Architects’ board of directors, traveled from India to attend the conference. FOA, a London-based, internationally recognized architectural studio, has gained acclaim for projects such as the Yokohama International Port Terminal and yet-to-be-completed BBC Music Center.
Murthy, who said he believes collaboration is critical to the industry, traveled to Philadelphia to meet with other architects and designers and see the new and developing ideas they presented.
“I personally believe every city in the world is going through a reformation,” Murthy said. “You don’t want to invest in reinventing the wheel… What we are looking for is projects that would be applicable to other parts of the world.”