On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked to Damon Rich, a designer and urban planner in Newark, New Jersey. He received a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship, which includes a $625,000 stipend – commonly known as a “genius” grant. He was cited for originality and creativity in the field of urban design. In 2015, he co-founded an urban design planning and civic arts studio called Hector. Rich grew up in Creve Coeur.
Q: How do you intend to use the $625,000 stipend?
Rich: They [MacArthur Foundation] do you a favor and parse it out like paychecks over five years. For me, both my partner and I at Hector, we’ve spent time working in the public sector, in local government. You are, whether you want to be or not, in the middle of people’s discussions, debates or fights. One thing that we’re really grateful to the foundation for is giving us a little bit of license to figure out is ‘how can this kind of set up work,’ now that we’re within a private studio — where we don’t have the convening power or the modest resources of a local government.
Q: As part of your work, is universal design something you’re mindful of?
Rich: It’s not controversial to say, that the decades of activism that went into passing the laws in the ‘80s that led to real requirements and now greater aspirations around universal design, were one of the most successful campaigns to really generate interest in and to push change in terms of how we collectively set the rules for the places we live, work and hang out. These kinds of stories of people struggling to create the built environment, the physical environment that they want, that’s the tradition I as a designer hope I can make some sort of contribution to.
Q: Are you familiar enough with today’s St. Louis to say how you might apply the work you’re doing here?
Rich: I can’t say that I’m educated well enough to give any specific advice. I can pick up enough that I know that some of the challenges in cities where I’ve worked are quite similar and familiar to people in St. Louis; struggles against disinvestments and uneven development; struggles against long periods of time when the capital markets did not put much money towards certain parts of St. Louis, while pouring money into other parts. The questions that deal with inequality in our society, especially as expressed through the built environment, remain really central to me. It’s always fascinating, although usually depressing, to hear about the latest discussions around city-county integration of governance and therefore also of tax systems; it seems like it’s something that comes up every 10 or 15 years, only to be shot down pretty quickly.
Q: What kind of work did you do to help improve the Newark community?
Rich: The biggest victories I think we had during my time were number one, the result of lucky timing on my part. For example, I was able to work a lot on the city’s very first riverfront parks, which also included a large-scale rezoning of land along the river, and a couple of other municipal actions. Another example is that we were able to revise, for the first time in 50 years, the zoning laws of the city.
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