Designing the equitable city: A conversation about the value of local and global exchange

March 1, 2016

How can design help us build more equitable cities? This conversation between Nina Bianchi, a partner in in the Detroit-based design firm The Work Department, and Graig Donnelly, director of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows program at Wayne State University, highlights the value of local and global exchange, particularly between Detroit and Medellín, Colombia, where Bianchi has been traveling to since 2009 as part of her efforts to develop a network of social impact design leaders across the U.S. and around world.

Graig Donnelly: What does it mean to you to have equitable development, and why is it important today in cities like Detroit and Medellín?

Nina Bianchi: This is the question. All over the world and right here in Detroit, a lot of people and organizations use the term “equitable” without a shared definition of what it means in practice. Does it mean preserving cultural assets? Implementing a certain kind of inclusive process? Or an evidence-based policy with data-driven outcomes like a commitment to X percent of healthy and affordable public housing? Could it increase safety and security by ensuring that residents’ needs are considered a priority?

We are in the midst of significant urban transformation around the world, and I believe that now is the time for cities like Detroit and Medellín to step up and lead a more inclusive conversation. We cannot miss this moment, this opportunity to establish a shared practice of equitable development. A city’s identity is in the hands of those who have access to the processes of making both policy and physical places. Our two cities, with all of their beautiful and shocking and sordid histories, should lead a network of 21st century cities that harness people-centered design power to catalyze a better world.

In his 1962 speech “The Ethical Demands for Integration,” Martin Luther King Jr. defines freedom as the capacity to deliberate or weigh alternatives, the capacity to make decisions, and the taking of responsibility for the decisions made. Let’s take his lead. With residents included in our cities’ decision-making processes, we’ll be off to a great start.

GD: What lessons do you think Medellín’s leaders have to offer Detroit’s leaders? And vice versa?

NB: Good leadership comes in many shapes and sizes, and often it’s from unexpected places. Our challenge is to create more opportunities and resources that make it easier for people to consider their options, make decisions about their future, and stay involved in the implementation. It means connecting leaders who are willing to collaborate with people who are willing to share their needs and ideas.

In Medellín, leaders at the government level have been modeling a new kind of design, planning, and development process with (not for) communities. Deepening my relationships through tours led by resident leaders, I explored from their perspective a range of popular public projects that were developed from the outside in: starting away from the downtown zones and investing in the perimeters of the city where the most vulnerable residents live. One of my favorite examples is the popular escalators in the Comuna no. 13 San Javier neighborhood, one of the lowest income boroughs in the city. The escalators, which people ride free of charge, were built to ease residents’ strain of commuting up and down the mountainside. The project has garnered tremendous attention in the global design community and resulted in new levels of tourism. Residents have taken this opportunity to start small businesses and grow a new type of local economy. We would surely benefit from learning how this type of work can get done, but also about how the needs and desires of local residents are balanced with the influx of new economic forces.


Escalators in Medellin’s Comuna no 13 San Javier neighborhood

I have also had the opportunity to share with Medellín the terrific work our community development leaders in Detroit do to document complex ideas and make big picture strategies more accessible and actionable for ordinary residents. The leaders I met with were inspired by Allied Media Project’s network of creative media makers and technologists, WE Global Network’s Immigrant Policy Playbook, and Detroit Future City’s big collaboration on the Field Guide to Working with Lots.

Click here to read the full article in Model D.
Nina Bianchi & Graig Donnelly, March 1, 2016, Model D