Designing for Cultural Resilience

During the first few days after Hurricane Irma savaged a path through the Caribbean and Florida, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands with a priceless cargo of water, food, and medical supplies. Immediate need couldn’t be discounted, but Bloomberg also had one eye on the future.  “When people see the destruction, that’s when you can see some support in making a long-term investment,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Six months down the road, he said, “Nobody wants to do it; you’re on to the next problem.” Design should not follow this pattern.

From torrential rain and flooding in New Orleans to the hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, this summer’s intense storms have decimated countless American communities, inevitably reshaping the future for millions. The storms have been particularly devastating for the more than three million Puerto Ricans who find themselves without the basics we take for granted—power, water, shelter—a situation that will not be remedied for months or even years.   Where will these storm victims go? How will they live? Should they rebuild or relocate? And if they relocate, how can we infuse resilience into their homes and businesses to withstand the future? Seldom, if ever, in this country have so many asked those questions at the same time.

Surveying the desctruction of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, September 2017. (Photo courtesy of US Department of Defense)

As we rush to supply food, water, power, and basic services to battered storm victims, we also need to plan for a massive rebuilding effort that incorporates a broader definition of resilience. Yes, we must address both physical wellbeing and mental health. We must also build and rebuild with our attention firmly riveted on designing to support the complexity of cultural diversity. The retreat of evacuees from the ravages of the storm, whether temporary or permanent, amounts to a new migration of refugees.

Designing for migration is really the story of designing for any vulnerable population. Considerations for designing space for these storm (or flood or earthquake) evacuees are the same precepts that serve people who are disconnected from their communities through political unrest or socioeconomic disparity. These fundamentals must include cultural resources to fulfill the civic capacity required for a resilient community. They must bridge language barriers, education gaps, job placement needs, and healthcare access that impede inclusivity and integration.

Good design matters. Design that truly understands and addresses the needs of the end user, in this case the displaced person of family, matters. Temporary housing that does not consider cultural diversity along with basic human need, is not effective. It does not inspire dignity. Nor does a more permanent solution that addresses the “shelter from the storm” without regard for who is being sheltered.  Bigger questions need to be answered through design thinking: should we rebuild in the same place? Is there ecological and cultural value in rebuilding, or is relocation a safer option?

Regent Park, a formerly uninspiring and unsafe public housing community near downtown Toronto offers a powerful example.  To serve incoming refugee families—along with the city’s growing housing needs—the city collaborated with a for-profit developer to reimagine the neighborhood.  Several years into the project, a mixed-income community is springing up with common amenities that hold profound meaning for the new arrivals.  The new aquatics complex includes roller shades dividers between pools to allow for private swim time for Muslim women. This low cost and culturally sensitive design strategy serendipitously provides flexibility for the center to support a growing transgender population within the community. A community baking kitchen and park with weekly farmers market add to the cultural sensitivity empowered by the design.

An aerial view of Toronto’s Regent Park in 1995. (Photo courtesy of globalnews.ca)

The very definition of culture is tied to the idea of place by referencing an identity that is shared in a given place or time. So how can cultural integration be successful without thoughtful design of space and an understanding that space can impact and support community culture?  When Perkins+Will was engaged for the design of a new rural school in an area of Haiti decimated by the earthquake in 2010, cultural and environmental sensitivity became driving factors in the design. The goal was to build back better – a safer, sounder structure that works with the local climate and resources but embraces the education needs of the community.  Passive ventilation and shading were key design elements in an area with unreliable electricity. Local construction workers were engaged for the build, and brightly colored finishes were chosen for the exterior to reflect the vibrancy of the indigenous architecture. The plan for the site also includes a new kitchen and garden spaces to allow for more reliable, “locavore” food supply.

Scenes from a renewed Regent Park in Toronto.

A greenmarket in Toronto’s Regent Park.

New recreation spaces help activate a renewed Regent Park in Toronto.

While not as immediate a concern as a roof in a storm, or food or income in a cataclysmic aftermath, addressing cultural need is critical to any vulnerable population’s ability to thrive. It’s a challenge that design for the built environment has the unique power to address. In both policy and design, this means management of social housing, public health, schools and transportation infrastructure and creating opportunities for positive cultural interaction.

Community of Hope, a federally qualified health center in Washington provides lessons on how flexible space can support local culture. Perkins+Will designed the first floor to host a community center with a large flexible multipurpose room for health clinic programs, cooking demonstrations, yoga classes, or job fairs. Intentionally located on the ground floor with street visibility, the community center reaches outward to serve as a cultural hub for another sort of refugee – people who are increasingly displaced from their historic family neighborhoods by gentrification and development. It is another example of a seemingly simple, culturally sensitive and flexible design strategy can address timeless need within a community.

At the ribbon cutting for the Community of Hope medical services facility which welcomes local residents in for care.

The finest design planning accommodates heritage, language, education, and family dynamics. It nods to and incorporates the climate and ecology of place. It offers flexibility to adapt to new needs over time. And it is critical to successfully supporting a community’s culture. Planners, architects, and designers must exercise their collective voice in the days, months, and years ahead to respond not just with cost-effective solutions, but with resilient solutions that respond to our shared humanity.

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