PGDG! Design Advocacy

This is the third installment in an ongoing series of posts highlighting the Good Works of our PGDG! Class of 2013-14.

On a rainy Friday morning in May, Danielle DiLeo Kim, Sylvia Palms, and I sat down with three members of Philly Girls Do Good! to talk about design advocacy in Philadelphia: Hilary Jay, Founding Director of Design Philadelphia and first Director of the Philadelphia Center for Architecture; Kiki Bolender, Chair of the Design Advocacy Group (DAG); and Nancy Goldenberg, Chief of Staff of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). 

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The work of Hilary, Nancy, and Kiki are rooted in design advocacy, so I thought I would kick off our conversation with the most basic question; Why? Why is design advocacy so important to the development of a city? Each woman brought her own background as a lens to focus her response.  

“People don’t know what design is.” – HJ.

Hilary’s work leading Design Philadelphia, and now with Center for Architecture, is based on promoting architecture, design, and art in the city. She was quick to acknowledge the importance of just talking about the issues. She pointed out that people have a hard time understanding the value of design and the process associated with it, and that there needs to be a venue for conversation and dialogue to occur.

“Who else will do design advocacy if we don’t?” – KB.

Kiki, both as Chair of DAG and principal of Bolender Architects, has centered most of her professional path on the topic of civic engagement and design advocacy. She said that according to Jeffrey Otteau, of the real estate firm Otteau Valuation Group, companies are relocating to cities with public amenities—cities with beautiful spaces.

Beauty is about civility.” – NG.

Nancy, who previously held the position of Vice President of Strategic Planning for the Center City District, emphasized the importance of good design in the city as a tool for civic engagement. Nancy suggested that good design should be something that everyone can like and appreciate—that design has the capacity to foster beautiful spaces, bring neighborhoods together, and act as an economic development tool. Beauty, she noted, is important at the scale of the home and at the scale of the city. Nancy proposed that “beauty,” within the context of the urban fabric, means civility.

Interestingly enough, the idea of beauty, one often shied away from particularly in the design fields, became a focus of our conversation. All three women agreed that beauty does not have to be seen as a passing trend or as something simply fashionable. The concept of beauty, although it can mean different things to different people, revolves around creating and being surrounded by environments that activate the senses to promote the well-being of its inhabitants. They also agreed however, that in the United States there seems to be a cultural lack of understanding and appreciation for design (and beauty). This is how design tends to shift to a lower priority, and is missed in conversations regarding things such as economic development, both at local and national scales.

It is this lack of appreciation and understanding that pushes Hilary, Nancy, and Kiki to advocate for design in their daily lives. They agreed that a huge part of advocacy is education, and the women spoke about how their current work promotes design through educational efforts.

Nancy sees her work with PHS as “advocacy via education.” PHS dedicates much of its program offerings to educate and engage people about the environment. The PHS pop-up garden is installed with the intent of transforming an underutilized space in the city into an engaging environment. It brings people to look at that particular site in a different way and to understand the value of the landscape within the urban context. Additionally, the Philadelphia Flower Show, the world’s longest and largest indoor flower show, serves as a vehicle to show off local designers to both a local and international audience. At a larger scale, PHS is also working with university campuses to develop more sustainable and organic practices, both for the care of their own landscape environments and to advance the development of healthy food growing systems. 

Through her leadership with DAG and in her professional practice, Kiki works on “education at the smaller scale.” At DAG, now in its 11th year, she fosters a conversation surrounding design and advocates for design excellence. Through her architecture practice, she guides non-profit clients, such as Philabundance and the Women’s Humane Society, to create better neighborhoods and richer spaces.

“Design is the thread that moves through everything.” For Hilary, the educational impact of Design Philadelphia, now celebrating its 10th year, and the Center for Architecture is far-reaching. She believes Philadelphia has a lot of design talent, and the goal of Design Philadelphia is to showcase the talent of designers, architects, and creative individuals. In gathering this talent into one event, Design Philadelphia can shape the view people have of Philadelphia and its local design culture—both at a national and international level. Additionally, Hilary wants the Center for Architecture to become the “hub where people go to learn about design in Philadelphia.” The integration of Design Philadelphia into Center for Architecture has allowed it to expand its tour base through 1,000 meetings and 13 exhibits each year.

We concluded our morning chat by touching on how Philadelphia design culture has changed over the last decade and what may be in store for the next 10 years. The three recalled that at the time DAG and Design Philadelphia began, there lacked a process for design review within the city. Kiki noted that in addition to the many design-focused entities that have been established in the last decade, there is a new influx of design professionals—a “millennial” generation promoting planning, the environment, and design—who are investing themselves in the city of Philadelphia. Nancy added that advocacy groups are looking beyond their traditional partners to form new teams: PHS working with the Water Department, for example. Advocacy has filtered into city government, the results of which can be seen in Philadelphia2035 and with some of the city-sponsored development moves such as Sister Cities Park. People now coming to Philadelphia are surprised by the amount of activity and vibrancy that has erupted.

Nancy also pointed out that advocacy necessarily extends beyond Philadelphia and into the national discourse. “We have to be aware of the larger context outside our realm.” Cities are looking to Philadelphia as a model for green infrastructure and vacant-land use, and local advocacy groups have gone to Washington, D.C. to promote various initiatives. The City Parks Alliance, for example, recently went to Capitol Hill to advocate for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

This brings me back to the point that Hilary had made earlier about “design as a thread.” Nancy, Kiki, and Hilary agree that the design discourse is at a better position now than it was 10 years ago, and that the next years are about elevating the conversation of design. To them, design advocacy is not about a narrow focus on a singular concept, “design”, but rather an expansive composite of those ideas peppering our conversation: Beauty, Creativity, Innovation, Civility, Education, Talent, Culture, and of course, Design.

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—Fátima Olivieri