Ethical Redevelopment Principle #5: Design

Design impacts a city as much as policy and governance do. Design dictates everything from the way your subway fare card looks and works to the layout of a city, which is designed by urban planners, often to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others. Good design and beauty are basic services that can be available to all neighborhoods, even the most disinvested and neglected. By valuing what others discard, creative people—including invested residents—can resurrect fallow spaces with poetic moments that make a place desireable. Design and aesthetics attract attention because they convey the care and pride present in a neighborhood, as well as the identity and character of the people who live there. Deciding the layout of a community garden plot, where and what a mural artist paints, and what your frontyard or apartment window looks like contribute to the design and aesthetics of a neighborhood.

Place Lab’s Isis Ferguson recently wrote in a FastCo article that more people need to be part of the design of cities and neighborhoods:

Asking the typically untapped people — artists, misfits, outsiders, elders, immigrants, people of color, and women — what the most joyous, liberatory, and authentic spaces are for them is a good start at imagining more for public life and for creating places of greater possibility for all in the public realm.
— Isis Ferguson, Associate Director of City and Community Strategy at Place Lab

With inclusive practices and thinking, design can offer multiple uses for public space, adapt to needs, and promote social equity in urban spaces.


American alleys are distinct from small thoroughfares in other parts of the world. While Europeans use them as pedestrian passageways and Japanese cities build small retail shops, the uses of alleys in the US are for behind-the-scenes activities like garbage collection, car storage, and loading docks. Alleys can take up a large amount of a city’s real estate—Chicago’s 13,000 alleys amass 3500 acres, among the largest in the country. The Atlantic's City Lab recently reported on re-imaginings and re-designs of alleyways in cities around the US—surprising and creative ways that benefit the city’s environmental ecosystem, the social and cultural lives of residents, and entrepreneurs and small businesses.

The Chicago Green Alley program covered the city’s alleys with permeable surfaces “that redirect storm water into the ground and away from Chicago’s ‘overtaxed’ sewer system.” In Seattle, the International Sustainability Institute (ISI) took advantage of the city’s restructured trash collection, which removed dumpsters from alleys and now rely on trash bags. ISI has since programmed alleys with “projecting World Cup games from the back of a U-Haul truck, to cat adoptions, to revolving art installations.” In Los Angeles, the East Cahuenga Alley went from being known as “Heroin Alley” to a pedestrian walkway with outdoor dining and a Sunday artists’ market, and idea that has spread to other cities.

The success of these projects shows how it’s possible to take a space that was once a liability, and turn it into a resource.
— Daniel Freedman, Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative, in FastCo


What design ideas do you have for your community? Share them in the comments below, and continue the conversation in the Ethical Redevelopment public forum.