The stages of grief and mourning are universal, but they are also ephemeral and often productive in helping us gain perspective. AFH’s demise has catalyzed an important conversation about the organizational infrastructure surrounding architects, designers, and planners working expressly for public good. Even as we cope with the loss of this internationally recognized organization, we too must use this moment as an opportunity to celebrate the incredible work of innovative organizations that are placing communities at the center of the architecture and design processes.
While AFH may be the most recognized name in the field of public interest design, we look to organizations like Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), the Hester Street Collaborative, and Indigenous Design and Planning Institute (iD+Pi) at the University of New Mexico for best practices here in the U.S. The work of these organizations, ranging from urban to rural to tribal, are challenging top-down methods through planning, design, and architectural processes that are guided by equity and democratic decision making. When such processes are grounded in deep partnership with community organizers, community development corporations, municipal and tribal governments, and other representative groups, planning and development happen with low income communities and communities of color, not to them.
Kounkuey’s work in California’s Eastern Coachella Valley, for example, shows how residents whose views were once excluded from public processes because of their immigration status or inability to attend meetings because of language barriers, long work hours, or limited transportation options, have gained an important voice in local land use and development decisions. Working in partnership with the Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation, the local chapter of Legal Aid, and residents from the towns of Mecca and Northshore, KDI has improved unsafe flooding conditions in a local trailer park and is currently working to develop a new eight-acre public park. The nonprofit design and community development practice was able to raise $2 million for the new park from public and philanthropic sources, based on the trust the staff has built with local residents, organizations, and elected officials.
Kounkuey’s work, which demystifies the often opaque language and processes of planning, leads to substantive outcomes both in terms of changes to the built environment and empowerment in the local community. Neither KDI’s work in the Eastern Coachella Valley nor any of their other projects is likely to make it on to the pages of architectural magazines or the white walls of a gallery. And that’s okay. We would rather not reduce the story to a simple park design project, but rather connect KDI’s work to broader issues of equity and inclusiveness.
Unlike a funeral, in this situation, no lives were lost. Rather a single organization, albeit an important one, has gone out business. So, we have taken a moment to reflect on AFH’s legacy, and celebrate life—the life, challenges, and successes of a new generation of practitioners and the communities with whom they work whose voices are increasingly driving a new type of practice.