The inaugural class of Knight Foundation Public Spaces Fellows includes two landscape design organizations.
By Zach Mortice
A new fellowship from the Knight Foundation focused on public space is putting landscape designers front and center. Of the seven Knight Foundation Public Spaces Fellows, two are designers with an emphasis on landscape. The foundation announced in June that Walter Hood, ASLA, of Hood Design Studio and Chelina Odbert of the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) will each receive $150,000. Other grantees are public parks officials, social scientists, and more, who in all will receive more than $1 million.
The goal is to promote work that engenders civic engagement for all citizens, connecting communities, “drawing people out of their homes and encouraging them to meet, play, and discuss important issues, while finding common ground,” the foundation said.
The Knight Foundation is five years into making public space one of its primary emphasis areas, along with journalism and the arts. The foundation has also invested heavily in public space initiatives in five cities (Philadelphia, Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, and Akron, Ohio) with its Reimagining the Civic Commons campaign.
The Public Spaces Fellows will have complete creative freedom to apply their funds to the projects of their choice. “We’re investing in these individuals to do what they do so well,” says Lilly Weinberg, a program director with Knight Foundation. This grant program is an opportunity to catalyze “the power of how leadership can play a role in transforming public space,” she says. “Of course, it’s a collective effort, but from our research, we’ve seen time and time again that there’s often a leader behind this work. We’ve also seen that there’s often a gap in flexible funding toward these leaders.” A recent survey of Knight grantees and people served by grantees emphasized the ripple effects public space grants had across communities. The foundation’s staff and experts in their respective fields chose this group of fellows, who will convene at least once a year.
Both Hood and Odbert’s work demonstrates, Weinberg says, “some of the consequences that occur when we invest in great public spaces.” Hood Design Studio does this through an interdisciplinary mix of landscape design, planning, and art, and has gained a reputation as one of the most socially and culturally attuned design practices in the nation. Hood anticipates using this grant funding to focus on three cities his firm has been working in: Oakland, California, where the studio is based; Pittsburgh; and Milwaukee, notable for commonly topping the list of America’s most racially segregated cities.
“I’m interested in how this funding can help me draw attention to issues of ‘[the] public’ and ‘whose public?’” Hood says, “and how to create a forum to talk about issues of value and devaluing landscapes.” Hood says his presence among this multidisciplinary group of fellows reaffirms the unique orientation of his “nonnormative practice” that addresses the social, cultural, ecological, and political dimensions of public space.
Odbert’s KDI approaches public space design from a similarly multidisciplinary lens, aligning architects, landscape architects, urban planners, and community organizers to develop high-quality public space for underserved neighbors typically starved of them. Through the fellowship, Odbert (who is trained as an urban planner) wants to investigate models for gender-inclusive design. Though Odbert is based in California, much of KDI’s work is located in Kenya, where women are its primary community partners. And through this interaction, Odbert noticed that there are many ways women are subtly and unsubtly excluded from public space, a design problem as common as any that exists. The firm is currently working with the national government of Argentina to develop a methodology for gender-inclusive design, asking, “How does that change the design process, but also the design product?” Odbert says. “It’s so applicable to everywhere that I would like to use the Knight Foundation support to explore what it means to design and build gender-inclusive spaces in the U.S.”
Collectively, Odbert hopes this group of fellows can use the perch to define public space as something far more vital and complex than a luxury. “My hope is that all of us can help elevate the power of public space to a more general public,” she says, “so that the importance of public space isn’t just something that’s talked about in select circles of designers or city planners, but instead it’s something that every resident understands the value, importance, and power of, so that all residents can became advocates for more and better public spaces.”