Studying Public Space, No Strings Attached

The inaugural class of Knight Foundation Public Spaces Fellows includes two landscape design organizations.

By Zach Mortice 

The Nuestro Lugar park in North Shore, California, by KDI. Photo by KDI.

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.

KDI’s Nuestro Lugar park features a pavilion, playground, skate spot, soccer field, basketball court, and more. Photo by KDI.

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.

A KDI public workshop session for its Somos Oasis project near the Salton Sea in Southern California. Photo by KDI.

“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.”

KDI’s Somos Oasis in the Coachella Valley region of Southern California will contain two soccer fields, a marketplace, a community center, a nature playground, and a garden. Photo by KDI.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

2 thoughts on “Studying Public Space, No Strings Attached”

  1. En la ciudad donde vivo, La Paz Bolivia, al centro de Sur América, avanzamos mucho en valorar, revalorar, significar, resignificar y usar y convivir en el espacio público. Hicimos muchos debates, se hicieron muchos eventos sobre la ciudad y lo ·”público”. El debate ha generado mucho conocimiento y experiencias, y varias de esas ideas y conocimientos se han transformado en nuevos espacios, en reconquistar espacios públicos, en reconstruir, en construir nuevos, en cambiar una ciudad que estaba entre montañas feas, a más de 3600 metros sobre el nivel del mar; en una ciudad jardín, con políticas públicas, con inversiones, con una población que sonríe en sus plazas, en sus calles. Tenemos el conocimiento, el estudio, las experiencias. Una de esas experiencias ha llegado a USA como un mal chiste: las cebras que educan, educadores urbanos en los espacios públicos. personas disfrazadas de cebras, capaces de “humanizar” las líneas de paso al final de una calle. Ese programa es parte de las políticas de “espacio público”. Otro ejemplo son los “micro conciertos de alta cultura, dentro de los buses “Pumakatari”, también el programa de “plazas y parques verdes” entre otros muchos proyectos y programas. Por último, aprendimos que el espacio público, su diseño, lo público en su “totalidad”, responde también -y de manera necesaria- a otras “dimensiones de lo público” como educación urbana, cultura y culturas urbanas, seguridad ciudadana, participación. Lo que descubre este artículo que comento ya lo vivimos en La Paz Bolivia, desde hace más de 20 años pero, of course, somos latinos, vivimos en un país de “salvajes”, incapaces de “crear” o “pensar” estos temas … y probablemente nuestra experiencia no sería tomada en cuenta por la Fundación o por profesionales que les interese conocer más y estudiar y apoyar estas iniciativas e innovaciones que humanizan la vida sólo por que somos “latinos” de un país al centro de Sur América. (Sorry, ironía latina solamente). So, si alguien tiene interés en esa información, write to my mail: alvhurtado@hotmail,com. My pleasure.

    In the city where I`m live, La Paz Bolivia, in the center of South America, we make great progress in valuing, revaluing, meaning, resignifying and using and living in the public space. We did a lot of debates, there were many events about the city and “the public”. The debate has generated a lot of knowledge and experiences, and several of those ideas and knowledge have been transformed into new spaces, to reconquisted public spaces, to rebuild, to build new ones, to change a city that was between ugly mountains, more than 3600 meters away above sea level; in a garden city, with public policies, with investments, with a population that smiles in its squares, in its streets. We have the knowledge, the study, the experiences. One of those experiences has come to the USA as a bad joke: the zebras, people who teach like a urban educators in public spaces. dressed as zebras, able to “humanize” the passing lines at the end of a street. That program is part of the “public space” country policies. Another example is the “micro concerts of high culture, within the” Pumakatari” buses, also the program of “squares and green parks” among many other projects and programs. Finally, we learned that the public space, its design, the public in it’s a “totality”, it also responds – and in a necessary way – to other “dimensions of the public” such as urban education, culture and urban cultures, citizen security, people participation, etc.. This article discovers that I already lived in La Paz Bolivia, for more than 20 years ago but, of course, we are “Latino”, we live in a country of “savages”, unable to “create” or “think” these issues … and probably our experience would not be taken into account by the Foundation or by professionals who are interested in knowing more and studying and supporting these initiatives and innovations that humanize life just because we are “Latinos” from a country to the center of South America. (Sorry, Latin irony only) So, if someone people has interesting on more information about that, write to my mail: alvhurtado @ hotmail, com. My pleasure.

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