A designer, urbanist, and spatial justice advocate, Liz Ogbu is an expert on social and spatial innovation in challenged urban environments across the globe. She is the founder and a principal of Studio O, a multidisciplinary innovation practice that uses the power of design to catalyze social impact within communities in need. Liz spoke to the Reimagining the Civic Commons Studio event in Detroit last September.
Q: You’re an architect who recognizes the human stories underpinning physical spaces. How did you come to understand the importance of acknowledging people’s stories in your career? Was there a project or moment that brought it to your attention, or did your awareness of the importance develop over time?
A: I grew up in a family of social scientists, and the stories that we would discuss at the dinner table always had something to do with the stories of people in the places that they lived. As a child, these stories were a part of my understanding of place, and by extension, space. Yet many of the things I learned when I was an undergraduate and in grad school (editor’s note: Liz earned her Bachelor of Arts from Wellesley College and her Master of Architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard) about the skills one should know as a designer — be it how to draw or how to put things together — seemed divorced from this kind of thinking. They didn’t explain how places that I was keenly interested in — like public housing or the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, where some of my relatives lived — worked. So I sought out more information, and realized that understanding how these places operated was rooted in understanding the lives of the people who were moving through these spaces, who they were, what they needed, what they hoped for. And the better I understood their stories, the greater clarity I had around how people shaped these spaces as they moved through it.
Q: In your work with communities, you often talk about “providing space for pain and healing.” What happens when we provide space for the pain and healing of communities? What does that work entail?
A: At its basic level, providing space for pain and healing is about acknowledgement. A woman named Kimberly Dillon said it well, that everybody wants to be acknowledged and know that their stories have value. In just acknowledging people’s pain, in showing that we want to listen to their stories, we’re saying “you have a right to exist, and by extension, you have a right to exist in this particular place.” It’s powerful.
When I talk about providing space, I’m talking about both physical space and emotional space. We do physical healing through the design and emotional healing by listening fully. Even if it makes us feel uncomfortable. Even if we feel we have nothing to do with the pain. We have a responsibility to stand in the presence of it. It’s not just about a financial or physical investment; we must make an emotional investment as well.
For the past 5 years, I’ve been working on a project called NOW Hunters Point that is a good example of these principles in action. San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point had been home to industry for decades, including a power plant that community members successfully lobbied to close in the late 1990s. Once the site was remediated by the utility that owned it, my firm was hired to be part of a project team to activate the site with temporary uses that could provide a community benefit in the short-term and seed the imagination for more permanent community-serving uses in the long-term.
As part of this work, we embraced an interactive community engagement process as the catalyst for design. The neighborhood was and is incredibly diverse, including a historical African-American community, a still active industrial workforce, an artist community, and a growing middle-class community. It is rich in stories that mark its unique history and diversity — stories that had never really been shared or captured.
Our team partnered with StoryCorps to create a recording booth for community members to share their stories. We purposely didn’t ask them to tell us what they wanted at the site in the future; we just asked for the gift of their stories about their lives in this neighborhood. A lot of people shared joy. Some shared pain. It was not an either/or proposition but a both/and one. And it was only through creating space for the totality of people’s experiences in this place — good and bad — that our team and the members of the community could unlock the door to start thinking about what could happen here in the future.
Q: One principle of Reimagining the Civic Commons is to recognize the intrinsic value of existing buildings, assets, neighborhoods and people that others disregard. How are you doing this in your work?
A: Part of it is a re-framing of the questions and goals we build into projects. I don’t think about outputs (what gets built) but outcomes (the future people-centered aspirations we want to achieve). Everything I do is centered on how to best nurture the health of the community from now into the long term. Shifting the frame this way requires working with a deep understanding of what is here now, in the place we’re working in, and the degree to which what is here now needs to change, evolve or be strengthened, in order to get everyone to that desired future.
We also should think differently about clients. I always say that I serve two clients: the one who’s paying me and the communities who have to live with whatever I create. I think sometimes the latter client gets forgotten in projects, but I believe they must be the ones for whom we intentionally commit to creating significant benefit. It’s imperative that we think critically about who has been most marginalized and who has had the least access to the kind of spaces in which we work.
Once you set up these ground rules, then it’s important to think about process, particularly in terms of engagement. Too often, design projects do engagement for engagement’s sake. Yet the reality is that we can’t achieve equity in our outcomes unless we also achieve equity in our engagement processes.
To me, equitable engagement means ensuring that we hear from the broadest group of voices possible and that we meet people where they are. For the most marginalized, we have to make participation as welcoming and easy as possible — too many times these communities have experienced examples of how their voices are not welcome or their input doesn’t matter. So we’re rightly starting in a trust deficit.
To counter this, my project teams try to provide maximum opportunity for engagement. I don’t rely on community meetings, but instead look for ways to reach those who are time poor, not just time rich. We’ll do in home interviews, small group listening sessions, and interactive workshops throughout the project. I also frequently use activation-based engagement. Someone may not have time to attend a community meeting after a second shift at work, but they do like bringing their kids to a circus or attending a movie night. And while there, we have an engagement station ready to connect with them. Finally, it’s important that when people give input or feedback, it doesn’t just go into a vacuum. In my projects, we ensure that they always get a response, even if our answer is that we don’t know the answer yet, or the answer is not what community members wanted. The important thing is to embrace this as an honest ongoing dialogue, not a one-way conversation.
Q: What do you see as the role of public places to reconnect communities and foster trust? What strategies have you found most successful for creating a sense of welcome for all?
We’re living in an interesting time when African Americans in particular are increasingly getting explicit messages about how they are unwelcome in public space. We can’t barbeque, we can’t shop, we can’t sell water. These types of incidents are and have always happened in public space. So when we look at how to reconnect communities and foster trust in public space, we have to ensure that we make public space truly “public.” They must become places where everyone and their stories are valued, where everyone feels welcome, and where everyone can see themselves. And this needs to be both implicitly and explicitly communicated.
This is not something that can suddenly be fixed. There have been many decades of mistrust and bad deeds that have set up the conditions we’re experiencing now, not to mention an endemic condition of racism that we have yet to root out of our society. But a critical part of the solution is building trust. Building trust is a marathon not a sprint, and we constantly have to be doing things to show we’re committed to it. This means a level of transparency, a commitment in action — not just words — to bring communities along, and consistently showing up even when things are hard. Community members don’t have to accept or trust us, but for those of us coming into the situation with any degree of power or privilege, we need to continue to work for that trust anyway.
Q: What are the benefits to cities of this kind deep engagement?
A: It takes a long time to do development projects, often with significant and disparate input from a variety of stakeholders. Add to this complicated design, financial, and approvals processes that are typical to many of the projects we work on, and the result often is a long and protracted process in which those most impacted begin to feel disenchanted, or even hurt or angry. Many feel undervalued, because they spend a long time without seeing any change or when the change comes, it looks nothing like what they desired or believed was coming.
I believe that by rethinking engagement and its role in development, we can shift from transactional to more relational connections that can help all parties better weather the ups and downs of this process. We can also break down these long timelines into more discrete and shorter periods of time, in which there are tangible things happening sooner. This gives us a better opportunity to engage people continuously and deeply. And importantly, it also makes the design and development much more iterative. In the end, this could allow us to take more risks and test new ideas, bring people along in the process, and facilitate a more organic and responsive evolution to the project. The ultimate result could be a project that comes closer to actually meeting the needs and desires of people in the community.