Why design?

In order to preface our upcoming registration deadline (May 2, 2016) for the Urban Arboreta Student Design Competition, I thought we should emphasize the importance of design. No small task, especially for someone who wouldn’t consider himself a “designer,” for right or wrong.

I go to a Design school. As an undergrad, I was a studio art major. Yet, when posed with the question: “Why is design important?” I don’t have a quick answer. I like to believe that I can appreciate great design and rebuke poor design when I see it, but getting to the heart of design is another beast. It seems like something grandiose, too big to tackle, too theoretical. For that reason, I appreciate when design is practical, grounded in place, and comprehensible.

Design is central to the Urban Arboreta project, both when considering the sites themselves as well as the overall strategy. The multi-faceted nature of this venture, which includes nursery production, jobs skills training, and community open space, demands alternative thinking and a creative prototype to interweave all components into a viable and hopefully, inspired solution.  While Urban Arboreta launched last year with the support of the Knight Foundation, its inception is many years in the making. Beginning with the citywide Philadelphia LANDvisions process and the international ideas competition – Urban Voids: grounds for change, City Parks Association has been committed to stimulating discussion around Philadelphia’s vacancy issues in ways that promote new ideas, while encouraging designers to be resourceful.

In Philadelphia, we are fortunate to have the Community Design Collaborative, which offers a great example of the power of design to positively impact communities. The organization and its network of pro bono designers operate under the mission of “strengthening neighborhoods through design.” In the Collaborative’s publication LEVERAGE, Brian Phillips and Todd Woodward ask the questions: “As designers, are we going to be stylists or strategists? Are we advocates for our own egos or advocates for a better future?”

While it is likely a little of both, I appreciate the call for bottom-up design that is a partnership between neighborhood stakeholders and skilled design professionals.  This collaboration has the potential for transformative design that has even greater public impact than traditional pathways.

In thinking about designing for vacant lots, I cannot help but think of Stewart Brand and his belief that great design is adaptive. While his focus is on buildings, vacant lots – the spaces left by the absence of buildings or a designated use – offer another platform for this argument that are even more ephemeral. Vacancy is never the intended outcome for a site; it is an intermediary state that screams both misfortune and opportunity. How can good design help spur change in these urban gaps? And what does that look like?

For this, we are looking to students for thoughtful designs that reimagine the future Urban Arboreta sites in West Philadelphia. We are asking that the design of these landscapes consider the synergy of different kinds of plant production and ecological performance, community involvement and education, revenue generation, job training and new forms of civic engagement. While many of these components have already been incorporated into the business model and strategic planning, the site design will be equally pivotal in launching the project. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post when we discuss the specifics of site design prior to announcing the competition winner.


Competition entrants! Please note the official competition deadlines has been extended:

  • Registration and payment of entry fee – Monday May 2 at 5:00 PM EDT
  • Submission – Friday May 20 at 5:00 PM EDT

NOTE: to be considered for the competition, payments must be made by the May 2 deadline.

Also note that in addition to individuals, charrettes, and studios, student teams with a faculty adviser may enter the competition.