In Conversation with Chelina Odbert
The following conversation between Prof. Chelina Odbert and Loyiso Qaqane (MAUD ‘19) and Sudeshna Sen (MAUD ‘19) took place on October 12, 2018 regarding the role of urban design in the profession’s responsibility towards society and issues of equity.
Chelina Odbert is Co-founder and Executive Director at Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI). Currently, she is a Design Critic in Urban Planning and Design at the GSD and teaching a studio on Gendering Urban Development: Making room for women in urban planning and design in Argentina
Does the contemporary practice of urban design fulfill its moral obligations?
As an urban planner, not an urban designer, I think that it has the potential. You see practices that take that moral obligation really seriously. But, I wouldn't say the field as a whole always takes that moral obligation. I think, too often, we still see examples of urban design that are really driven by capitalist interests at the cost of moral obligations, or of higher ethical good. So, I think there's the potential for it to do that. You see that reflected in some of the more progressive urban design practices in the country, but also globally. Unfortunately, I don't know that it is a standard, which we can say, applies to the entire discipline at this point - again spoken from the view of an urban planner.
Do you feel like that obligation is not so explicit in our minds, since urban planning is more theoretically embedded in responding to the ‘public interest’ and the role of design towards society is much more ambiguous?
Again, I'm always speaking from the perspective of an urban planner. I don't know the pedagogy of urban design as it is taught as a discipline very intimately. But, from a practical perspective, urban planners often work in the public sector. There's a very clear path for how an urban planner joins the public sector. And, in the public sector, you have a more explicit mission of serving the public interest. That still doesn't mean that all urban planners or that the field of urban planning, as a whole, takes that moral obligation a hundred percent seriously or places it as the priority. Of course, there are different ways that the obligation is carried out between practices, between cities & between countries.
But I would say as a gross generalization that, because of where urban planning is positioned within the public realm, it is often forced through pressures of democracy and other such political pressures to not shy away from that moral or ethical obligation. And maybe [this reflects] that Urban Design does not have a natural pathway into the public realm. So, Urban Design, particularly in countries outside of the United States, where it isn't such an evolved profession or discipline, urban designers don't naturally make their way into the public realm or into public service.
Simply by the nature of who gives them access to work or into projects, they are often driven by private capitalist interests. Sometimes, perhaps, it is it the urban designer who is in a tough position to fulfill that moral or ethical obligation by the very nature of how projects are structured.
How can design be used as a tool for advocacy?
I think there are many ways and, and it depends on the scale. The way one uses architecture as a tool for public advocacy can be very different than the way one can use urban design, primarily because of the scale.
The simplest way of doing it, is through the built form. For example, in our studio, we're focusing on the issue of gender perspective in urban design. So, if your plaza designs were to be realized and built, that becomes a living-breathing advocacy tool for the importance of taking a gendered perspective in the design of the public realm. I think that's one very concrete way. By taking the moral or ethical obligation seriously as an urban designer, and letting it manifest itself in your physical design which eventually gets built one day, is a powerful way that a designer can very practically and very visibly use design tool for advocacy.
But I also think that there's a way in which we, as designers, can be advocates, and use our profession as a tool for advocacy. And that's through the “process side” of things. Urban designers and urban planners are often in the rooms where policy decisions about the built forms are being made, whether that's in their role as a city staff, or in their role on a project teams that's been commissioned by the city They are physically in the room, and they have a very different perspective than probably 90% of the other people in there in that room, who come from policy backgrounds, or political backgrounds, or other types of backgrounds.
The unique and important perspective of an urban designer should be taken very seriously and therefore can use it as an advocacy role by bringing up different ways of looking at problems and advocating for their connection.
So, again, to use our studio as an example, or really any topic, when we think about an issue like gender, we think about the social issues first, but we now know there's a real connection to the built form. We've seen that through the small amount of work that you've done so far. And so, the designer has a responsibility, in my opinion, to bring that role into the conversation outside of the just the design team. It is for the policymakers, social workers, and these other disciplines to do their work better, it's helpful for them to understand the connection to design and to be able to bring it into the way that they see the problems that they're addressing.
And so, I think that's the other way where the designer can be an important advocate. And I personally think they we have the responsibility to do that in our work.
What inspired you to use public advocacy in your profession?
It is the reason I created a professional practice. I understood the power of design quite early, before I went to graduate school, and I felt that that power was not being applied in places that could benefit most from it. I saw the power of design to shape the environments of the very well-off, of the very privileged, in ways that visibly and distinctly made their lives even better. I thought that that same power could and should be applied in places where it usually isn't, where quality of life dramatically impacted and enhanced through the power of design. It was understanding the power of design that inspired me to think about how that power could be positively applied in settings where it more often is not.
How do you operate in a context where notions of equity differ from your own?
Well, that's every day - that's the context that I often find myself in. I think that's to be expected. Everyone is an individual, everyone has their own subjective approach, even if we generally agree that equity is something worth advancing. You and I will have different thoughts about how that should happen, and we shouldn't be discouraged by that. One should see that as an opportunity to bring us all closer toward a shared vision and a concrete way of creating impact through dialogue. I think that projects get better through dialogue. I think they get better through debate. It's hard, it's long, and it takes real commitment and perseverance to make sure that the dialogue doesn't end up diluting the project to just something that everyone can agree on. But, I think if you have a position on equity, and you're committed to it, but you're also open to honest dialogue, debate and compromise. In that case, I think that by simply jumping into dialogue and debate earnestly, you can move a project forward and move it to a better place.
Would you say that you are aspiring to gain a collective notion of equity through dialogue and debate?
That is a wonderful thing to aspire to. I don't think it's always realistic. I think it’s more important is that we arrive to a collective understanding of what is equitable for that project, even if we still differ about how we understand equity in the big picture. Generally, when you're focused on a particular project, then getting one project done with that equity lens is the most important thing. People learn a lot - their perceptions change about equity, about how important it is and whether it's worth fighting for, after they see it realized. So, personally, if I can be engaged in such a debate and dialogue, and we can come to a place where we feel like some suitable attention to equity has been integrated into the project then that's a victory and that's enough. I don't need to change everyone's worldview. It's a good first step.
What have been your challenges and/or accomplishments working in foreign contexts?
The challenge in a foreign context could be working in East LA, compared to South LA. Or it could be working in Kenya or Haiti. Every place is a foreign context, until you really take the time to invest in that place, in that community, in the other stakeholders. The real challenge is doing that.
The first challenge in any place that we work in is establishing trust, mutual understanding, mutual confidence in each other as partners. And, if you can successfully do that, the place becomes less foreign, and that's the objective. To me, that's the biggest hurdle in doing a project well. When a place becomes a place that you can feel like you know intimately, or you are beginning to know intimately - the process of building political will, of building social cohesion, the process of building the financial and technical resources to get good work done becomes a lot easier. So, the challenge is just getting settled in a way that makes you the authentic part of that place where you are trying to work and become a respected and trusted member of that place.