‘Values, pt. 1: Positioning our Work’
The ‘Values Meal’ studio dinner on November 12 began a series of conversations about our individual values as designers and citizens and our collective values as the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio.
A community design studio must discover the best way to position its work. As part of our ongoing discussion, I drafted a diagram examining the position of the design studio in relation to other elements of society. (While I do believe that the design studio unites many of these elements, the diagram unintentionally makes it look like the center of civilization, which is probably an exaggeration).
The axes of the diagram represent two common dichotomies:
The x-axis ranges from the ephemeral/immediate (short-term) to the enduring (long-term). ‘Immediate’ means day-to-day things like work, conversation, television, and the need for food and shelter. ‘Enduring’ means lasting institutions like cities and religions, as well as universalities like the natural environment or the laws of physics.
The y-axis ranges from the private/personal to the collective/public. ‘Private/personal’ means individual responsibility and restricted ownership or access: private property, for instance. ‘Collective/public’ means collective responsibility and/or ownership: government, news media, and the environment are all part of the public sphere.
This arrangement naturally produces four quadrants:
Quadrant I is the civic quadrant. It includes those elements that are both enduring and in the public sphere. This could mean a tradition of public access, as with cities, or public ownership, as with many universities. Nations endure longer than individual governments; universities are more private (exclusive) than schools.
Quadrant II is the popular quadrant. Compared to Quadrant I, it includes those elements that are within the public sphere but are less enduring and more immediate. Television is more ephemeral than film. News is a very immediate, public form of information-sharing.
Quadrant III is the individual quadrant. It centers around individual people, whose needs and lives are relatively immediate, and their various private possessions and private enterprises. Homes are more private than buildings and more enduring than ideas.
Quadrant IV is the traditional quadrant. These elements are once again enduring, but they fall largely within the private sphere, maintained by individuals or groups of individuals rather than collectively. Religion is enduring as it survives when individuals pass away or governments secularize.
This is by no means a comprehensive, or even a very good, way of categorizing human activity. But it helps us understand where a community design studio fits in. Design involves compromise; it helps bridge the gaps between government and individuals, or between businesses and universities, or any number of other areas. It relates to the activities in each quadrant.
How do these dichotomies play out in real life? The GCCDS is a good example. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, its mission focused on immediate needs: assessing damage, gutting houses, providing people with shelter, and sharing critical information. Over the subsequent 40 months, its mission has gradually grown to address enduring, long-term issues: city planning, environmental protection, research, and preservation of community values. Few organizations must balance so delicately between short- and long-term activities.
Similarly, the GCCDS must balance the needs of individuals with those of neighborhoods, cities, governments, and even abstract issues of history, culture, and environmental preservation. Sometimes, individual property rights obstruct collective solutions to collective problems. At other times, governments or other public bodies may try to unjustly bypass the rights of individual citizens in the name of the ‘public good’. These are very real issues that come up in a studio that deals with building, permitting, zoning, and other activities that shape a community.
Where should we position our work? If we focus on ephemeral, immediate needs, we risk ignoring the deeper problems and losing the overall vision of how to create lasting change. Even rebuilding houses can be a ‘band-aid’ solution if the flood elevations that caused the destruction in the first place are ignored. On the other hand, a studio too focused on lofty, abstract ideas may not be able to do the real, practical work that improves people’s lives.
Along the other axis, a community design studio cannot stray too far into the ‘private’ realm; it must respect property rights and the legitimate operation of private enterprise. Most importantly, it must respect individual people, empowering them to improve their own lives without robbing them of their dignity or self-sufficiency. In the ‘public’ realm, a studio must cooperate with government, but it cannot take over the responsibilities of government or claim sole authority to decide collective public policy issues.
The community design studio is a middle ground: a relatively neutral place where various parties meet, relationships are formed, a community vision is developed, and — ultimately — where better buildings, neighborhoods, and cities are created.