Most good designers will tell you that design is not useful unless it directly serves the need of the end-user. And yet, finding out what the end user actually wants—and needs—is not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes, you need the end-user to be involved in the design process itself.

Enter the Hester Street Collaborative (HSC), a Lower East Side-based non profit that encourages under-served communities to participate in the process of designing, building, and ultimately transforming their own neighborhoods. HSC works with local residents and children to turn neglected public spaces into parks, schools, and affordable housing developments. Its design process makes the most of insights from locals, and encourages meaningful, lasting participation in a community. Its underlying principle is intuitive but often ignored by other urban planners: the greatest contributors to a new project are the people who stand to benefit from it.

IVY Magazine sat down to hear the insights of HSC’s fearless Executive Director, Betsy MacLean, whose work illuminates the tremendous potential of a community when it is given agency in its own future.

IVY: Describe how good design can foster lasting social change. What are 1-2 of your favorite examples?

Good design is not just about striking facades and beautiful building materials. Really good design is design that is by and for the people who live in and use the spaces being designed. Good design is participatory design—a kind of melding of technical design/planning/development know-how and community needs, priorities, and input. Good design is design that results in more equitable, resilient, vibrant places.

No one knows a neighborhoods better than the people who live in them. So when neighborhood spaces are designed by the residents who use them, most those spaces better serve resident needs. What’s more, residents are imbued with a deep sense of ownership that translates into long-term care and stewardship. And finally, communities are strengthened through the participatory design process. Nothing brings people together faster than working side-by-side towards a collective goal.

On top of that, there’s a ton of amazing work out there that shows us that good design has the power to change people’s lives – from natural lighting in schools leading to higher test scores, to energy-efficient systems leading to economic stability, to affordable, well-stocked, fresh food markets leading to improved public health indicators. When these kinds of socio-economic, environmental, and health considerations are baked into design from the very beginning, we can be super tactical about our work, mapping community needs and making targeted built environment interventions with a set of predictable outcomes. Given limited resources (because resources are always limited), this becomes a very powerful way to ensure that community needs are effectively addressed. And when those needs are fundamental—like affordable housing, job creation, safe streets, and good schools—those interventions lead to lasting social change.

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IVY: What do you think will be the biggest urban development challenges in the next 50 years, and what do you think are the best ways of addressing them?

Climate change, without a doubt, is one of the biggest, if not THE challenge we face as city dwellers. The density of urban areas intensifies the impact of extreme weather on people and property – from houses to schools to hospitals to jobs to transportation. Hurricane Sandy proved that here in New York, displacing thousands of families, causing billions of dollars in property damage, and paralyzing our city for weeks. Sandy has totally changed the development conversation, and, I would argue, in many ways, for the better. Let me be clear – there was certainly nothing good about the storm, or about the destruction it wreaked on so many people and their neighborhoods. However, now, when we talk about resiliency it’s about much more than sea walls and the Army Corps of Engineers. Now we’re talking about community resiliency – recognizing that the storm merely exacerbated persistent urban challenges like inadequate infrastructure, substandard housing, unemployment, and health disparities. True resiliency requires that we take a comprehensive approach that is community-centric and addresses both physical and social vulnerability. With the resources that are flowing into many low-income neighborhoods, it’s our chance to get this stuff right, and use those resources effectively and efficiently and address inequity at the same time we address resiliency.

IVY: What are some of the biggest controversies and debates you are seeing in urban planning?

The tension between development and consequent gentrification and, often, the displacement of long-time residents is a central issue in just about all of our projects. The Mayor’s Housing Plan is a really good example. The ambitious goal of dramatically increasing affordable housing is both laudable and necessary. From all of the data, as well as my personal experience developing affordable housing in East New York, the need is crushing. At the same time, the re-zonings necessary to increase density are causing a speculative effect on the price of housing in the target neighborhoods – exacerbating the affordability problem, at least in the short term. It’s thrilling that the Administration is so entirely committed to the creation of affordable housing. We’re all scrambling to figure out how best to provide the housing we know we need while ensuring that long-term residents are not forced out of the neighborhoods that they’ve built. We need to make sure that the process is transparent, inclusive and equitable, and that there are policies in place to ensure the City’s accountability to communities.

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IVY: For projects like the Lowline, how do you go about gaining community support (or even measuring community feedback)? At what point is the support “sufficient,” and how do you decide when to give the green light?

I would say that we are not trying to gain community support for projects but rather, working to ensure that development projects best reflect and represent the needs and desires of the community. Our community partners do the heavy lifting of reaching out to residents. Our job is to make sure that those residents have the information and inspiration they need to make informed decisions about placemaking projects, like the Lowline. We definitely recognize that we cannot reach everyone. However, we do our best to ensure that we reach as many people as possible through a variety of formal and informal engagement processes – from surveys to interviews to focus groups to community workshops to man-on-the-street activities. That, plus Good Organizing 101—so, making sure that we provide translation, food, and childcare at meetings. We make a concerted effort to reach those folks often left out of the decision-making process, including low income and immigrant communities. We hope to equip these stakeholders with enough information so that they can advocate and decide for themselves whether to give the “green light” to a project affecting their community or neighborhood.

IVY: What’s been the most rewarding experience on the job so far?

Only one? That’s tough. I really love my job. Working with communities to design and develop physical spaces—homes, schools, jobs, parks, whole neighborhoods—that work for them, really work for them is tremendously rewarding. Taking what we know about innovative and equitable design and pairing it with community needs and priorities is using our power for good and that feels, well, good. The first big project we’ve taken on since I came on board is out in the Rockaways and that work has been tremendously rewarding. We have a great community partner out there, Ocean Bay CDC – they’ve been doing great work with families in pretty dire conditions for a long time now. We worked with them to develop a design proposal for a grocery store and community center on a long vacant City-owned site. We then did some great community visioning and dove into some early neighborhood planning. It was super gratifying to provide a new set of tools to this excellent organization that has been serving their community for so many years. We were able to help expand their resources and therefore increase their impact. In a community with so much need, the more ways one can address complex and persistent challenges, the better. Now, if we can start actually building some stuff out there, I’ll be even happier.

IVY: What is one message you’d want to get out to the IVY Community? (and/or) What are the best ways members can support?

Become part of our community! Help us create the kinds of vibrant, sustainable, equitable cities we all want to live in. Donate! We work all over the city, and, increasingly, all over the country. These are exciting projects that are changing the face of the places we all live in. We need your help to bring our toolkit to new communities and to continue to innovate, to come up with new ways to engage residents and leverage built environment opportunities. Come to our annual event (in mid-May this year—date TBD—stay tuned!), bring your friends, meet us, learn about what we’re working on. We might very well be working in your neighborhood! Speaking of, we periodically have volunteer build days on our projects, on the East River Waterfront or a vacant lot-turned-community garden. We’d love for Ivy members to throw in on those. Everyone should sign up for our regular email blasts to learn more about what we’re working on, what kinds of events are coming up, and to become part of the “What Makes a Great City” conversation.

To learn more about Hester Collaborative, and ways to get involved, connect with IVY Member Olivia Song) on IVY. Hester Street Collaborative is a dynamic, non-profit, community planning, design and development organization that provides technical assistance and capacity building to low-income communities and community-based organizations throughout New York City and, increasingly, nationwide. The organization provide residents with the tools and resources they most need to shape their physical environment, with the goal of developing more equitable, sustainable, healthy and resilient neighborhoods where local residents lead the way.