Greeted by the hopeful cacophony of construction and the glare of a late October sun, Loeb Fellows past and present reconvened at District Hall in Boston on Friday for the 45th Anniversary Celebration of the Fellowship. The importance of the collective voice and individual empowerment, emphasized by Caledonia Curry the previous evening, was echoed by every speaker. The morning’s first Interchange, Innovative Approaches for a Just City, set the pace and the tone for the day’s activities.
Before the Interchange got underway, Sara Myerson, GSD graduate and head of the Imagine Boston 2030 Initiative, welcomed the Loebs and issued a call to action: “Go to where the people are.” As acting executive director of the Office of Olympic Planning this summer, Myerson witnessed the widespread lack of popular support for Boston’s Olympic bid. As a result, she pushed for refocusing on community engagement within the Mayor’s office.
Peter Park (LF ’12), professor of urban design and former planning director of two major US cities, was moderator of the first interchange, and agreed with Myerson’s engaged approach. He opened the panel presentations with a meditation on innovation and collaboration. “To make innovation sticky,” Park asserted, “we must create opportunities for people to empower themselves.”
Harriet Tregoning (LF ’04) reiterated this sentiment, reminding the audience of the dangers of blindly believing that the United States is a meritocracy. Citing her experience in community planning and economic resilience, Tregoning outlined the frustrating inefficiencies of existing Low Income Housing Tax Credit incentives, and lamented the fact that the current system consistently funnels subsidies away from the people who need the most help. “It’s like having affordable foods from affordable farms - it’s a whole different system that can only be navigated by experts,” explained Tregoning. When only experts have a voice in policy and design, the needs of most people are not met.
Daniel D’Oca (design critic in Urban Planning and Design) expanded on Tregoning’s sentiments, citing exclusionary zoning in Long Island as evidence of a rigged meritocracy. Established as a white middle class suburban enclave in the 1950s, Long Island codified racism and classism, laying the foundation for future segregation and lack of mobility and housing options. This history, D’Oca argued, has created a “fundamental imbalance between the needs of a changing demographic and the built environment.”
Nigel Jacob, director of Boston’s i-Team, offered concrete lessons in combating the myriad challenges of the built environment, including crumbling infrastructure and climate change. His prescriptions were simple:
- Build things that people want and need
- Take it to the streets
- Encourage and enable civic behavior.
To accomplish these tasks, Jacob reiterated that all innovations must “move past the transactional to the relational.” In other words, designers must go to where the people are, and connect on a personal level to the everyday struggles of those for whom they design.
Marketed as Boston’s new home for innovation, District Hall was perhaps the perfect venue for a gathering of optimists intent on improving the world through design. The first completed project of the Seaport Square initiative, District Hall is intended as a space for inventive collaboration, and it embodies the bold mutability of innovative thinking. Highlighting the location’s industrial past, the building proudly features unfinished plywood, exposed ducts, polished concrete and an open, spacious interior equipped with mobile and flexible furnishings. The very walls encourage rapid, creative thinking with a dry erase finish that invites communal scribbling and visual problem solving. This last design detail was seamlessly incorporated into the programming of the day: the hand-written twitter handle #loeb45 floated above the speakers, a neon orange reminder of the strength of instant communication and collective voice.