Design professionals discuss how to make room for all races in Philly public spaces

Sitting in front of a crowd of over one hundred, Tya Winn asked a row of audience members to stand.

“There are about 25 of you standing,” the president of Philadelphia’s chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (PhilaNOMA) said. “There are 25 licensed black architects in Philadelphia.”

A murmur rolled through the diverse crowd of design professionals, city planners, students and teachers — not a gasp of disbelief, so much as a beleaguered sigh. Winn’s demonstration provided a cutting visualization of one of the many challenges facing design professionals working in a minority-majority city like Philadelphia: It’s difficult, if not impossible, to design public spaces for a diverse community when public spaces are rarely designed by a diverse community.

Winn, director of project planning at Habitat For Humanity Philadelphia, was leading a panel discussion on race and public space at Pipeline Philly in Center City. The event, hosted by PlanPhilly, Urban Consulate, PhilaNOMA, Community Design Collaborative, and Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, kicked off a series of public conversations around race and design in Philadelphia that will be held, quite deliberately, outside of Center City, in the neighborhoods where the disparity between the mostly white planning professionals and the mostly black residents is most stark.

Wednesday’s panel discussion focused on how designers can widen their focus beyond mere aesthetic concerns.

“I believe that good design involves those in proximity to whatever is being designed,” said panelist Majeedah Rashid, chief operating officer at the Nicetown Community Development Corporation. “As far as we’re concerned in Nicetown, that’s number one. We want to engage the people that live there, work there, have businesses there.”

“I’m all about this shift from placemaking to placekeeping,” said panelist Dave Kyu, an artist working with the Asian Arts Initiative. “I think the placemaking moniker is about taking these places that are nothing and putting applied designed and making them active and used and great.”

“That assumption — that nothing is going on [in those spaces] — is dangerous. It ignores that it is already a public space,” Kyu said, arguing that, very often, “placemaking” means redesigning a space for the middle and upper classes, often to the exclusion of the lower classes.

That need not be the case; the panel seemed to agree that the renovated Dilworth Park provides a rare space that works for all classes and races. But pulling off equitable design like that requires more work, said panelist Ian Smith, an independent architect.

“[We need to] talk to more people, right? [We need to be] having good discussions that are tough. Don’t be afraid to get into it and be passionate,” said Smith. “I find in the public sphere, it’s hard to be oppositional. But it’s the power of opposition that creates new meaning. We know that the dialectic is what creates meaning.”

Race + Public Space panelists Ian Smith, Tya Winn, Majeedah Rashid and David Kyu (L to R)
Ian Smith (left) in December with fellow Race + Public Space panelists Tya Winn, Majeedah Rashid and David Kyu. (Leah McGlone | Witty Gritty)

During the audience question-and-answer, one self-identified Templetown resident questioned whether talking was enough.

“[Temple is] about to build the football stadium — with communication…. It means nothing. They’re still going to build the stadium; we don’t want it. They’re not listening to what we’re saying,” he said. (He later declined to provide his name for the record, noting that he was a city employee unauthorized to speak on the sensitive matter.)

“So, to me, in theory what you’re saying works, but, in actuality, it doesn’t. So what do we do?”

Organize and educate, the panel responded. Kyu noted that Chinatown was already well organized when it fought off a series of existential threats: proposals for a stadium, a casino, and a prison all in the heart of the vibrant immigrant neighborhood were all shot down over the years thanks to fierce community opposition.

Winn noted that organizing, alone, isn’t enough. “You[‘ve] got to educate yourself about the [building and development] process,” she said. “Philadelphia is a city where it’s actually really easy to insert yourself into the process.”

Still, the idea that lower income, minority residents can oppose deep-pocketed developers or an entire university struck some in the crowd as a bit pollyannaish.

“We can’t be honest about this without naming white supremacy,” said Hakim Pitts. “Asking people to show up when they’re trying to survive, that sounds unrealistic.”

Pitts urged the room — diverse racially, but almost uniformly middle class — to help the less-privileged build the capacity to have their voices heard and listened to. “People don’t want just representation, they want to be in the room,” he said.

Towards the end of the discussion, Antonio Wooten, an industrial design student at Jefferson University (neè Philadelphia University), stood and thanked the panel for bringing race into design conversations.

“How do we bring questions like this to the classroom?” the sophomore asked. “These are not conversations we’re having.”

Again, the panel urged organizing — specifically, using student groups to pressure faculty — to unite many disparate voices into a more powerful clarion.

PlanPhilly and its partners are soliciting feedback and questions from our readers to help plan the subsequent workshops in this series — email Community Engagement Editor Diana Lu. A video recording of Wednesday’s discussion is available here.

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