Urban planner Justin Garrett Moore thinks cities need a Department of Care

In Care Of

Urban planner Justin Garrett Moore thinks cities need a Department of Care

Prior to joining the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Justin Garrett Moore served as executive director of the New York City Public Design Commission. Before that, he was a longtime senior urban designer at the New York City Department of Planning. (Dario Calmese/Courtesy Andrew W. Mellon Foundation)

Below is the first of three articles written as part of the New Voices in Architectural Journalism fellowship, a mentorship-based program developed by The Architect’s Newspaper and the Pratt Institute School of Architecture. All three articles have been published in the June 2022 issue of AN; a second round of pieces written by the inaugural New Voices cohort—Ekam Singh, Catherine Chattergoon, and Monty Rush—will be published in the July/August issue of AN. You can learn more about New Voices in AN editor-in-chief Aaron Seward’s introductory note.

Justin Garrett Moore, inaugural officer of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Humanities in Place program, has long been an advocate for advancing social and spatial equity in the built environment. His proposal for a “department of care,” first shared at the Center for an Urban Future’s RE:NEW YORK CITY EVENT in fall 2021, asks those in the design disciplines to consider how rubrics such as “care,” “repair,” and “maintenance” can be built into a city’s public spaces. As Moore noted in his address, both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement made clear the connection between care and bodies-in-space. How might that realization inform new design practices? Catherine Chattergoon, a New Voices in Architectural Journalism fellow, spoke to Moore about how care can be a driver for reimagining civic responsibilities and spatial priorities.

Catherine Chattergoon: Let’s start with the basics. What does “care” mean to you?

Justin Garrett Moore: Care is a part of everyone’s lives in some form or another, be it their origins or their environment, their families or their community. The definitions that I’ve been contemplating most come out of studies by different feminists and feminist scholars—people like bell hooks or Joan Tronto. There’s one definition that has stood out to me, which talks about care as being a wide-ranging set of activities. It’s all that we do to steward and promote a healthy and good environment and experience for people, but also extending into things like the natural environment. It’s important that care be understood as something that we are all able to do in different ways. Performing care keeps us from being divided into a particular segment of the society, into particular gendered roles, or as we saw during the pandemic, having certain people in the society—“essential workers”—bear the brunt of difficult work.

CC: When did you begin formulating the idea for the Department of Care? How does the project build on your prior experience at the Public Design Commission and your current work for the Mellon Foundation?

JGM: I worked in city government for many years and toward the end of that period was the head of city agencies. The Public Design Commission is responsible for the design review of all capital projects, all construction projects on public land or by public agencies in the city. In a big place like New York City, that translates to nearly $10 billion every year and a really wide range of projects. We noticed that the conversations in the places and communities these projects were happening in wasn’t necessarily around what the city was building, but what the city was maintaining and caring for long term. Even though we’re far past the Robert Moses era that people associate with inequality being built into the city, we actually are still doing it every day in the present, and you can find evidence of this not only in how different communities are invested in but how care is planned and designed into these communities.

There was a lot of work around racial equity and injustice following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others. Social justice and racial equity have this dimension of place and what we call “spatial justice,” where and how spaces are treated differently. The idea for the Department of Care came from that—from knowing that one of the biggest engines of inequality in our city, and one of the most tangible and direct things that has to directly connect with the built environment, place, architecture, etc., was this issue of the maintenance and care of spaces long term. Around that time [in 2020], there were calls from social justice movements and Black Lives Matter to look at the city’s budget and reallocate $1 billion from the policing budget toward other uses. This often becomes a bit political, but the city’s budget, which is our collective money, is a place to talk about what we value. People were suggesting that the money go toward youth programs and mental health, directly addressing things that tend to be more associated with policing and criminalization and crime in the city. But I wasn’t sure we should be asking the police to do a lot of these things that they were being asked to do. Instead, I thought that we could take that $1 billion to create a Department of Care.

black lives matter mural aerial, foley square, manhattan
In July 2020, artists Tijay Mohammad, Sophia Dawson, and Patrice Payne created a Black Lives Matter mural in New York’s Foley Square. Justin Garrett Moore, as executive director of the city’s Public Design Commission, oversaw the creation of this and seven other murals that summer. (Nightnurse/Courtesy Office of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer)

CC: The relationship between care and maintenance is something you touched on in relation to NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority]. What does long-term care look like when considering underserved and neglected public housing?

JGM: The term “deferred maintenance” comes up a lot with places like NYCHA. The idea goes like this: At one point there was this big investment in the infrastructure of housing and neighborhood development with a wide range of social intentions. But that isn’t right. There was the money to build that infrastructure, but there was never the money to care for it and to keep it. It’s like what is said about wealth—it’s not what you make, it’s what you keep. You can make lots of things, but if it all goes out the door or gets lost, then there’s no wealth. The same applies, really, for communities and spaces. It’s not just what you make, it’s what you keep.

With NYCHA, so much work and energy has been around figuring out how to address what is now a multigenerational legacy of disinvestment. The lack of care for these places is profound because the priorities tend to go toward new things, new housing, new development. Unfortunately, we see that lack of care at so many of these NYCHA sites. There’s an acknowledgment that there are connections there, there are bonds. But then there’s the challenge of how to redesign and reconfigure and care for a place while people are still living there and without stoking fears of displacement. People need their units rehabilitated. They need their buildings serviced. All this is directly connected to care. One exciting idea of the Department of Care was to identify ways designers and people doing work in and with a community can be a part of imagining what caring for a place is, how it would work, and how it connects to people and the things that they want to see in their community.

CC: Can we apply the rubric of care to other spaces? What could “care infrastructure” or “pedagogies of care” begin to look like?

JGM: “Pedagogies of care” is really important. If you take a step back, much of our educational and professional training is connected to a paradigm based on growth, development, economic productivity, innovation, etc. Just look at architecture school—all you’re trained to do in school is to make something new. Even if you’re in a preservation and rehabilitation program, it’s still a project-based act that follows the premises on which the development industry is set up. Things like maintenance and care aren’t valued that much. It’s true that in school you’re also likely to learn how to communicate well with someone like a developer or a government or someone in power and agency, or even in the kind of the planning side or urban design side, things like community engagement. But the framing tends to be “So how do you convince people to do what you want to do?” You don’t learn how to talk to, communicate with, and design for someone like a maintenance person or a caregiver. Those things are not integral to what you learn in design pedagogy and practice. But there should be a shift toward other modes of thinking— how you organize and prioritize and value information, knowledge, responsibility, even the ethical side of things is there.

There should be a shift to bring in care as a consideration. Something like urban renewal and “blight” would never have happened if care had been a factor. The way you would have approached real issues of lack of investment and all that would’ve been entirely different. Thinking about the scale of urban renewal and its connection to issues of race and class, for example, what a difference a framing of care and maintenance could have made. Shifting the discipline’s ethical responsibility away from abstract notions of health, safety, and welfare to people’s actual health, safety, and welfare would be transformational, and this could carry out to other fields as well. For example, government would have to shift not just where responsibilities lie, but really where priorities lie. The idea is that care becomes rhizomatic and reaches every agency and department. The naming of the department is just so that people can have an idea that it’s a thing, but it would actually exist in different places to do the different kinds of work that are needed.

CC: The process of caring involves vulnerability. How can we hold ourselves accountable to being open? How do we continue to center the values that emerge when we work with care?

JGM: I think it’s possible to try to pilot or test an initiative in different places that gives people something to respond to and learn from. Earlier in my career, I was in city planning during the Bloomberg administration. There was an idea we were floating that is now a commonly accepted thing, which is that public spaces in the city should better prioritize pedestrians. At the time, it was a radical, crazy thing to say that people who are walking or rolling, just moving around, would be the highest priority for urban spaces, and so the administration tested it out. They just got paint, and they went and reconfigured things and showed people that change was possible. They learned what worked and what didn’t work about this sort of transformation, and they learned what was needed for that transformation to happen, for it to be sustainable over time.

Of course, to do that you would have to have the leadership and the will to try to demonstrate an idea, to be able to fail, to be able to hopefully have some successes and show how that would work. The power of that is that it doesn’t have to be a huge thing; you can just test it. I’ve been telling people that with the Department of Care idea, because of everything that’s happened in the past couple of years. There are connections being made, and people have seen some transformation, but it’s important to again push and expand many different types of care work and make it present and visible for people so that they can see what works and see what doesn’t.

Catherine Chattergoon is a BArch student at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture. In 2021–22, she was one of three New Voices in Architectural Journalism fellows. The program was sponsored by Pratt and AN.