Jacqueline Cooksey and Benjamin Winter / Welcomesburg
Welcomesburg: Gentrification Offsetting
Parsons the New School for Design
Welcomesburg: Gentrification Offsetting
Welcomesburg is interesting because it addresses a relevant urban problem assuming an original point of view and using design to trigger and organize social conversations in a challenging way.
In order to do that, it combines playful provocation and critical humor with a human centered design approach.
The project background analysis is interesting and the proposal and the touch points are well conceived and presented. Less clear is how the initiative could be implemented and what are the foreseen next steps.
Welcomesburg: Gentrification Offsetting
WELCOMESBURG is a service design initiative. It is a mobile workshop that stimulates discussion and awareness around gentrification. The project enables a better understanding for collaboration in order to solve a problem of such complexity. The project is inspired by the popular carbon “footprinting” and “offsetting” schemes and consists of a range of services designed to confront new residents with the unintended consequences of their presence in the community. By playfully challenging neighbors to directly support each other’s best interests and 'offset' their 'gentrification footprints'. These offsets range from supportive to downright ridiculous.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
Gentrification is a paradoxical urban phenomenon wherein the improvement of living standards in a community results in the dislocation of low-income residents. When more affluent residents move into a poorer neighborhood they bring with them new economic, social, and cultural realities that might exclude those who were living under previous conditions. In the end, gentrification poses a serious problem, not only for those it displaces but for anyone who is interested in preserving the culture, identity, and diversity that make neighborhoods desirable places to live in the first place NYC does not officially recognize gentrification, including the controversial 2005 rezoning of the Williamsburg waterfront. And, the only time that the issue of displacement is assessed, is in environmental impact analyses that are conducted after the damage has already been done. To say there is a lack of consideration is actually an understatement, it’s clear that the City not only ignores gentrification, but actively promotes it. Michael Bloomberg has publicly stated his intention to turn NYC into a luxury brand that caters to the upper end of his tax base. This strange, contradictory sentiment seems to echo on the streets of Williamsburg as well. The use of the term gentrification is much more widespread, but a consistent understanding of its implications is not. The majority of people we spoke with were against gentrification but, somehow, in favor of the recent changes and new amenities in the neighborhood — as if the two were unrelated.3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
Our project aims not only to preserve the socio-economic and cultural diversity of a neighborhood, but also to foster new relationships and greater understanding throughout the community. We feel that we must change people’s thinking, and then their behavior, before we can expect to see the systematic social change that’s our ultimate goal. Right now, Welcomesburg is just a pilot, a proof of concept, a prototype of our message, if you will. To implement widespread gentrification offsetting, a much larger infrastructure would have to be put in place. At this point, we mainly evaluate people’s reaction to our ideas, and their willingness to engage with them. Our point of view was to ask what right a communication designer and a public radio producer have to intervene in a problem of such complexity and scale—especially when so many other, highly qualified, people are already trying to address it. It’s a point of view in which we suggest that our naivete is, on some level, as much an asset as a liability in trying to understand how ordinary people react to extraordinary problems. And it’s a story about a unique way of working, in which a diverse set of skills and disciplines converged and transcend to create something that none of them could have alone. Together, we have brought product design, service design, and critical design into the realm of urbanism, politics, wealth distribution and human rights in order to carve out a very new type of conversation.4. The Process: Describe the rigor that informed your project. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) What stakeholder interests did you consider? (Audience, business, organization, labor, manufacturing, distribution, etc., as applicable)
We started the process with welcome mats and placed them at trains stations. Here we asked ambiguous questions such as, "Who is welcome in your neighborhood?" We also held a discussion/workshop at Columbia's Studio-X. Here we invited residents, community board members, politicians, urban designers and theorist to collective discuss both the project and gentrification at large. We adopted several tactics for the Welcome Wagon, including: Playful provocation and critical humor. A little irony and sarcasm can go a long way but our tone was occasionally misinterpreted as naive or insincere. However, it was through the use of humor that the project managed to turn a complex problem into a creative conversation. As a society we're led to believe that a problem of this magnitude can only be solved at the policy level. To some degree this is true, but not everyone is willing or able to engage in community politics. Therefore engaging in this form of playfulness can bridge a gap, even if somewhat small, between a high-level problem and the ordinary individuals who are wrapped up in it. A Human Centered Design approach. After all, this is about real people and not just policies. Because of the project’s unique focus on the needs of individuals, this approach was particularly effective in bringing the problem of gentrification down to the human scale. A core component of the project was the Welcome Wagon. This tool was essential to be able to hit the streets and talk to people face-to-face, and in doing so provoked stories that seemed richer and more relevant than what could have been achieved at a distance. A design-led research approach. This created results that were both exploratory and generative. The Welcome Wagon acted as a probe, a way to draw people in and feel comfortable in approaching us. Juxtapose this with provocative questions fired at passersby, and you got an interesting platform for an exchange to occur. It’s one that generates service outcomes and explores the personal issues around gentrification and displacement. It certainly beats a clipboard and survey! Having an analogy. In such an ambiguous space, the situation isn’t black and white; one is dealing with polarized opinions and conflicting interests of various stakeholders. Therefore, there is a need to find an easy way to propose alternative scenarios that people can relate to. For the purposes of Welcomesburg, the idea of gentrification offsetting capitalized on the carbon offsetting model as useful analogy. It’s a popular, applicable, and a well known system. However, it is important to take caution and recognize that it’s also a flawed system. There are many controversies attached to carbon offsetting which we needed to be mindful of when describing our project. For example, carbon offsetting has been criticized for being a way to pacify ones guilt, swipe your credit card and your donations makes it all go away. Nevertheless, in the instances of gentrification offsetting it has proven to be a powerful place to start a conversation.5. The Value: How does your project earn its keep in the world? What is its value? What is its impact? (Social, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, environmental, cultural, gladdening, etc.)
We were overwhelmed and surprised by the responses at the Welcome Wagon. Over the course of several outings we managed to speak with people, most of whom stayed at the wagon for extended periods of time, whether out of confusion, curiosity or interest. We spoke to one lady who was referred to us by her neighbor. She had just come from spending her fifth day in housing court. We saw her break down in tears as she described how her landlord was using dirty tactics as a way to evict her from her home, an apartment she’s been living in with her family for over 25 years. Thinking we weren’t doing enough, we asked how we could assist her, her reply was, just being here helps. We are also distributed our offset packets but we don’t yet have robust mechanisms in place to monitor the rate of adoption or correlate it with a measurable reduction in local displacement. Moving forward, we will build a more-automated platform that will facilitate offset trading and allow us to more actively evaluate the use of these services. For now, it is largely left up to the residents, or co-producers, to connect with their neighbors themselves. After all, challenging people to create new relationships and negotiate the complexities of the neighborhood together, is largely the point of this whole endeavor. The website is undergoing a facelift and will allow for a greater dissemination of the ideas. It will also target museums to house the wagon.6. Did the context of your project change throughout its development? If so, how did your understanding of the project change?
W: Sir? Sir. [Get out the megaphone.] Excuse me, sir! R: Who me? (Startled) W: Yeah you! Are you a gentrifier? R: I beg your pardon! (Shocked) W: Well, are you? Have you considered your gentrification footprint recently? R: My what? (Skeptical) W: How would you describe your role in the neighborhood? [Hold up or point to footprint tiles as you say them] Are you a Deliberate Displacer, a Neutral Neighbor, a Community Champion? Or perhaps you’re feeling displaced? R: How should I know? (Confused) W: Well, ask yourself: What kind of neighbor are you? R: Um... (Self-conscious) W: You may not be producing gentrification, but you're probably consuming it. For better or worse, your demand for goods, and housing's definitely affecting the supply around here. The neighborhood is changing, people are being displaced, and you may be playing a part in it. R: Okay, but what do you want me to do about it? (Defensive) W: Good question. Everyone knows how to be environmentally friendly these days, but it’s not always clear how to be neighborhood friendly. This is where Welcomesburg can help! Our aim is to reduce exclusion by increasing exchange between you and your neighbors. R: How so? (Curious) W: Well, with the help of people like you, we have designed a variety of “gentrification offsets.” Each one targets specific situations that our research has shown to potentially alienate or exclude people from the neighborhood. R: Wait, gentrifi-whats? (Curious) ... This a third of the script.7. How will your project remain economically and operationally sustainable in the long term?
We designed stakeholder maps that allowed us to evaluate the system from different angles and points of view. In doing this work upfront we managed to identify different intervention points within the system. It also gave us the opportunity to realistically gauge where our project would have the most impact, at least in the early stages. It also allowed us to have a more honest conversation with people like politicians and community advocacy groups. The Welcome Wagon was inspired by the idea of a mobile street vendor and an information booth. It became a sort of mobile workshop, negotiating the complexities of the neighborhood along with everyone else. It allowed us to test our designs and tailor new ones to uniquely local contexts.To engage with a different audience, on more neutral ground. The gentrification offsetting workshop with policy experts, community leaders, and urban designers at Columbia University’s Studio X gave us a much more formal platform to test our ideas to ensure that it could hold up against a more professional point of view, outside of the academic setting. Not unlike the expert residents at our wagon, the resident experts at our workshop were understandably skeptical of us at first. They were critical of some of our wackier suggestions but ultimately quite engaged in the new conversation we were proposing. As much as they felt that the problem was mostly at the level of policy, finance, and development, they recognized the need to more constructively engage individuals in the solution. Several of our panelists even proposed partnerships that would allow us to engage with their local constituents and hopefully begin to bridge the unfortunate divide between “gentrifiers” and “locals.” We see no reason these groups need to be at odds, and we see enormous opportunity helping them to better share the city together. We’re certainly not the first to take on gentrification or to use design to tackle wicked problems. Local advocacy groups, like our friends at Neighbors Allied for Good Growth and Brooklyn Legal Services, are doing vitally important work in this area. And designers like Sean Donahue and Elliott Montgomery are using design to reframe problems of equal complexity and urgency. Our project exists near the intersection of these efforts. We are trying to engage a new audience in an old conversation and we did this by using design research in a transdisciplinary way. By blurring the boundaries and being experimental and unconventional in the way we approached a very sensitive and exhausted conversation.