5 Tips For Designing More Equitable Cities

The Cooper Hewitt’s new exhibition, By the People, shows what local communities are doing at the grassroots level to improve their cities.

As the curator of socially responsible design at New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Cynthia E. Smith is plenty familiar with how grassroots efforts can tackle a city’s most intractable problems. For the museum’s new show, By the People, she highlights 60 of these community-led civic projects from around the country in hopes that they’ll help inspire leaders at the local, national, and international levels.


Smith came up with the idea for the show while traveling with a previous Cooper Hewitt exhibition called The Other 90%, which explored socially conscious design around the world. On tour with the exhibition in 2008, at the height of the American recession, Smith started asking local groups and leaders about how their cities were dealing with poverty. She learned about projects that tapped into local strengths to address social issues in highly specific, but transformative ways.

[Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution]

“One of the key elements I took away was that poverty is hidden here in the U.S., and it’s not often what you think it might look like,” she says. “I started forming a working thesis on the intersection of poverty, prosperity, innovation, and design. Looking at those overlapping issues allowed me to throw a really wide net to see who was working on this arena and looking at different scales and geographies.”

After traveling more than 50,000 miles to cities, suburbs, and towns across the country, Smith narrowed the projects down to the 60 displayed in the exhibition. They range from large-scale initiatives–like in Detroit or Los Angeles, that rely on local government to develop a plan for the entire city–to small-scale efforts, such as a mobile app that dispenses information to expectant mothers.


Brought together, the projects form a sort of field guide to effective grassroots design in the U.S. “When I explained what I was trying to do and why I was trying to do it, people were always interested in what was happening elsewhere around the country,” says Smith. “I want [the exhibition] to create a conversation about how we can use design to bring these big ideas into form. We don’t have to continue to have people live in inequitable situations. We have a choice. People have agencies in their own communities, and that might be inspiration to other communities.”

Here, we’ve highlighted five key ideas from the exhibition for transforming cities from the ground up:

The reception desk is clad in recycled local street signs and welcomes the public. The adaptive reuse of the “big box” created a durable, efficient, and high-performance space. [Photo: © Scott Pease/Pease Photography]

Build On Existing Assets

In cities and suburbs across the U.S., big-box stores like K-Mart, Walmart, and Target have been closing or consolidating, leaving buildings that measure 20,000 to 300,000 square feet empty and unused. In 2010, there were 300 million square feet of empty big-box floor space nationwide.


On a visit to Cleveland, Smith discovered one such building getting a new life as a thriving community hub. Housed in a former K-Mart, the Collinwood Community Center is now used as a recreation facility and social center. Local architects stripped the outside skin but left the steel framework, dividing up the interior into an indoor track and basketball court, a learning center, and community rooms. The building was outfitted with smart sensors that reduce energy consumption, as well as other sustainable features like solar collectors and a photovoltaic canopy over the entrance that generates power. In the sprawling parking lot out front, part of the asphalt was replaced with trees and strategically placed bioretention basins that capture runoff water for irrigation.

The city of Cleveland led the initiative, which Smith points to as an example of what can happen when local leadership is open to innovative, multifaceted solutions. “That’s what I saw over and over again in these cities: People taking these potential assets and transforming them into usable community solutions,” she says.

Collinwood Community Center presents a colorful collage, both in form and function, with its diverse use of space and activities. A model of environmentally responsible adaptive reuse architecture, its high-performance design achieved LEED Gold Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. [Photo: © Scott Pease/Pease Photography]

Think Outside Of Real-Estate Investment

In many cities, low-income neighborhoods have plenty of convenience stores and fast-food options, yet little to no access to healthy and fresh food. One reason these so-called “food deserts” are so hard to remedy is that grocery stores are reluctant to pay the high real-estate costs without a guaranteed payoff. In Chicago, mobile food markets created out of refurbished city buses bring fresh food into food deserts without having to invest in permanent real estate.


In 2013, the nonprofit group Food Desert Action paired up with Architecture for Humanity Chicago to gut the buses and outfit them with a cash register, shelves, a counter, and scales. In 2015, the architecture nonprofit Growing Power worked with a local graffiti artist to transform more of the out-of-transit buses into eye-catching traveling grocery stores. The markets, which take link cards and sell local produce in neighborhoods in the west and south sides of the city, strive to make buying healthy food as as convenient and affordable as shopping at a bodega.

[Photo: © Smithsonian Institution]

To Improve Housing, Work Directly With Residents

In the 1960s, New York City built a series of low-income superblocks–large residential towers that stretch entire city blocks–in place of demolished working class neighborhoods. While affordable, the design of these superblocks cut off their tenants from the rest of the community. Over half a century later, the buildings are deteriorating. “It’s a problem here in New York City,” says Smith. “We have all this housing we need to improve, but where do you put all the people?”

In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, the housing nonprofit Community Solutions decided to take the opportunity in updating the Tilden Houses to reconnect it to the neighborhood and give residents a temporary place to stay in the meantime. They worked with residents to develop the Superblock Retrofit strategy, which creates new lanes and walkways through the housing complex–employing Jane Jacobs’s “eyes on the streets” strategy to increase security–and incorporates 155 new housing units for residents to stay in while their homes are improved.


The Tilden Houses are a prototype that Community Solutions hopes will be used as guidance for retrofitting superblocks in cities across the country. “Community Solutions embedded within the community and worked directly with residents,” says Smith. “A lot of the projects [in the exhibition] are about community engagement and involve listening to residents. There’s already so much intelligence in these communities,” says Smith–it just needs to be tapped into.

Rendering of new buildings and retrofits to existing Tilden towers. Ground-floor retail and community space activate the street and adjacent courtyard to improve security and add jobs. [Image: © Terrapin Bright Green]

Find Low-Cost Ways To Increase Neighborhood Resiliency

Before Hurricane Sandy devastated the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook in 2012, a nonprofit called Red Hook Initiative had started setting up a local digital communications network there–one network-access point connected to the internet, and the second allowed communication within RHI’s local mesh network. In the days following the storm, they proved vital to communicating with others and getting relief after the internet had failed. Recognizing that digital networks are key to a low-income neighborhood’s resiliency after disaster hits, RHI started a program training local youth to become “Digital Stewards” and help set up the infrastructure for high-speed internet and Wi-Fi coverage throughout the neighborhood.

[Photo: Stefanie Deji/courtesy of the Red Hook Initiative]

Let The Beneficiaries Be The Designers

In 2009 in Tuscon, Arizona, a group of grandparents who were all raising their grandchildren approached local housing nonprofit Primavera Foundation with a proposition. Many of them were on the brink of poverty and living in retirement homes that were not conducive to multigenerational families, so they proposed a new type of affordable housing that would meet their needs.

[Photo: © Poster Frost Mirto, Inc.]

The resulting community living center, Las Abuelitas Kinship Housing and Community Center, is designed to be accessible to the aging population as well as children–with design details like doors with low peepholes for wheelchair users and kids. A common courtyard allows for the entire community to look after kids at play. And the brand-new center benefitted the surrounding neighborhood, replacing abandoned lots and making it a safer place with older residents keeping watch.

“It’s a really good example of people having agency in their own lives,” says Smith. “But it wasn’t just smart for that particular group of people who needed it, it also transformed a blighted block and helped open up the center to the community. It ends up helping the entire city.”

[All Photos: courtesy Cooper Hewitt]


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.