Harvard class takes unusual approach in designing solutions for segregation, housing in St. Louis | St. Louis Public Radio

Harvard class takes unusual approach in designing solutions for segregation, housing in St. Louis

Jan 18, 2017

Daniel D’Oca, a professor in the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, recently turned his Fall 2016 Urban Planning and Design Studio into a case study in making accessible solutions for fair housing and urban segregation — in St. Louis.

He and a group of students studied the history of housing policy in the metropolitan area and how segregation contributed to the protests in Ferguson.

Then, he and the students made a field trip to St. Louis to meet with community groups like Forward Through Ferguson, Voices of Women, Beyond Housing, the City of St. Louis’ Planning and Urban Design Agency, the Sweet Potato Project and the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council.

Students involved with the class collaborated with Forward Through Ferguson’s fair housing initiatives and set to the task of “affirmatively furthering” fair housing in St. Louis through different design initiatives.

The results were varied and unusual for what you might consider urban planning fare. Instead of typical engineering schematics and zoning ordinances, the group of students proposed everything from curriculum on the history of segregation, to a graphic novel explaining racial zoning ordinances, to proposals for residents of a gentrifying neighborhood to benefit from the gentrification.

“In design school, we go out of our way to make our work inaccessible,” D’Oca said. “In this studio, we try to deal with complex issues in sophisticated ways, but the work we do is going to be understandable to anyone.”

D’Oca, whose urban planning work deals with race, place and power, said it is the responsibility of educators to teach future architects, urban planners and landscape architects about pressing issues like race and segregation because they impact the build environment.

“Designers have good intentions but don’t understand problems on the ground,” said Astrid Cam Aguinago, a native of Peru and a student in D’Oca’s class. “So we spoke to a lot of people. They told us first-hand about their problems: problems in the neighborhood and how that impacted families and grandchildren. We try to take those things into account when designing for them: when you understand what’s going on in that neighborhood, you can inform your design better.”

"Designers have good intentions but don't understand problems on the ground."- Astrid Cam Aguinago

Aguinago’s design concept came to her after speaking with Forest Park Southeast community group Voices of Women. Gentrification around The Grove was a primary area of concern for the community group, who felt in danger of being displaced. 

“The [residents] wanted to stay, they liked the development but didn’t feel like they were part of it,” Aguinago said.

So, she designed a project that would fund “accessory dwelling units” on buildings so that old residents of the neighborhood could rent the spaces out to new residents, thus ensuring an income for old residents and allowing them to stay in their houses.

Ruben Segovia took on the history of racial zoning ordinances in St. Louis — he chose to use a graphic novel to present the story. Another student crafted a K-12 textbook about segregation in St. Louis County.

Now, D’Oca and his students are continuing to work with Forward Through Ferguson to develop the design projects and distribute them in the St. Louis community. You can learn more about those projects here.

D’Oca hopes to return to St. Louis next year to continue the work his class started last year. In the meantime, he has started a similar project in East Boston which, like Forest Park Southeast, is experiencing gentrification but is also coupled with the threat of sea live rise.   

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