Urban Design and the Color-Line

“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.” – James Baldwin

We cannot talk about physical infrastructures in the United States without also talking about race. Questions thus arise about the main beneficiaries of infrastructure reuse projects: How are contributions to (or detractions from) the public sphere measured? Under what conditions might well-designed public spaces, ecologically-informed or otherwise, produce or strengthen urban inhabitants’ “right to the city,” and at what scales will such outcomes materialize? What other conditions – social, spatial, political, or economic – must also exist to ensure socially just outcomes through infrastructural reuse? In this research and design seminar students examine the role that race and class have played (and will continue to play) in the design and production of physical infrastructures. They engage the problematic either-social-impact-or-design binary in two fundamental ways: (1) Interrogating design’s contributions to, and complicity with, structural and infrastructural racism; and, (2) Developing intentionally anti-racist, equity-focused research and design methodologies that produce more equitable public spaces.

The High Line is New York City’s much celebrated – and in some corners, much reviled – infrastructure reuse project. Although the citizens who led the struggle to repurpose an abandoned rail infrastructure into a public park may not have fully foreseen the project’s larger gentrification risks, they soon understood these and other undesirable impacts. Reflecting on the High Line’s social and economic challenges, in 2017 Friends of the High Line (FHL) established the High Line Network (HLN), a peer-to-peer community of infrastructure reuse projects that spans the United States. Network partners at various stages of development lend their technical assistance and advice to one another about how to advance equity in their respective communities. This “trans-local” advocacy network disseminates knowledge on avoiding failures and missed opportunities that plagued the High Line’s advocates from the beginning, ranging from ensuring social inclusion, managing gentrification to avoid displacement, institutionalizing public programming, and negotiating city revenues for project development.

In this project-based course, students will partner with HLN organizations and contribute to an Equitable Impacts Framework (EIF) pilot — a cooperative effort with the HLN, GSD CoDesign, and Urban Institute – conducting research, readings, writings, discussions, and producing graphic materials in collaboration with HLN partner organizations. It is organized into three parts with the expectation that students will work in pairs to sustain focus on two of 19 US-based infrastructure reuse projects:
– Part 1 – Cultures of Racism: Students will research histories of inequity in each city through the HLN’s six equity indicators, asking: Why are these six indicators important for assessing and addressing equity?
– Part 2 – Geographies of Racism: Students will map present-day manifestations of historically-based inequities in each city, with emphasis on dynamics of race, class, and power, asking: Which indicators are particularly relevant to each HLN city, neighborhood, and project?
– Part 3 – Infrastructures of Racism: Students will research examples of good practices in equity planning and development, incorporating goals that the HLN organizations have set for themselves and proposing equity agendas for, and across, HLN projects.



    Note: the instructor will offer live course presentations on 01/19-01/21. To access the detailed schedule and Zoom links, please visit the Live Course Presentations Website. If you need assistance, please contact Estefanía Ibáñez