Last month, we opened the doors of our Atlanta office for our second Design Dialogue event, Design for Community. The idea was to host an engaging and unconventional conversation about the role of design in building our community – something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. As the sun set over Midtown, fifty invited guests filled our atrium for a casual after-work reception before the “dialogue” began. The crowd included familiar faces and old friends, from Atlanta designers and media to young community organizers.
We planned this event with the premise that both arts and sports operate at different scales to bridge economic, cultural, political and social divides, and we invited guests to help test that idea. I moderated a panel that included Ray Glier, (@RAYGLIER), an Atlanta-based freelance sports journalist and New York Times contributor; Chris Appleton, (@WonderRoot), the co-founder & Executive Director of WonderRoot, an innovative young arts organization; Nathaniel Smith, (@PSEquityMatters), founder and Chief Equity Officer (CEqO) of the Partnership for Southern Equity; and Thomas Wheatley, (@thomaswheatley), the news editor and staff writer at Creative Loafing, our local alternative news weekly.
We could all name issues that need more discussion in metropolitan Atlanta – things like transportation, water, and affordability – but we wanted to start our dialogue with topics that bridge divides, not amplify them. We also wanted to approach design for community from an angle that is intuitively positive and constructive for most people. We decided that both arts and sports have a way of connecting people across the socio-economic spectrum; across race, age, and educational attainment; and across the vast geography of our region. Just about any way you can divide people into different groups, both arts and sports build bridges between them. I’ll admit that I’m not an expert on either topic, but what drew me so strongly into this discussion was the ability for both subjects to strengthen community in ways that support regional cohesion and establish the relationships required for an honest and more comprehensive discussion about the challenges we face together.
BUILD CONSENSUS AROUND VALUES
We started off talking about sports. Ray Glier described taking his kids to Medlock Park in DeKalb County. It’s an average but well-used community greenspace where on any given day you can find a wide range of people engaged in an array of activities – youth league sports, joggers, young parents with strollers, kids exploring nature, conversations between neighbors, or quiet meditations. Anyone is welcome and there’s no entrance fee.
He contrasted that image with the pending departure of the Atlanta Braves to suburban Cobb County. Major league sports are representative of a type of regional activity that has increasing barriers to entry including everything from hefty subsidies for stadiums to expensive tickets and food. He questioned why communities so often prioritize these costs while maintenance budgets for local parks and community sports facilities are the first to get cut. First citing Medlock’s obvious advantages for people’s everyday lives, Ray then quoted a sports economist to describe why we so often cave to stadium subsidies. “The people that want these stadiums built are much better funded than the ones opposed to them. They have a lot of money to spend on PR to report how much economic boon this is going to be for the community… It’s just not true. The economic impact is always inflated and … they get away with it.”
Before we got too consumed by commentary on the Braves, Chris Appleton helped shift our conversation to art. He described its role “in the history of social change movements,” as having the profound ability to “transcend the boundaries and barriers … that prevent people from coming together.” Art, of course, is more commonly used as a deliberate instigator for change, so our conversation gravitated quickly toward that need to come together and what changes we might make if we could. Chris continued this theme, saying that, “change happens when people from disparate experiences come together and build consensus around values.” A discussion of these values then dominated the remainder of our hour.
IT STARTS WITH LISTENING
In particular, the topic of equity emerged, and I was glad to hear it. Equity is a critical part of our definition for success with the Atlanta Beltline, and a central theme at every national meeting I’ve attended this year. It is also an essential topic in urban development, but it often gets buried in the vagueness and controversy of “gentrification.” Thomas Wheatley argued for education on equity in both the public and private sectors, saying, “We’re always in a rush to get things done. We need more deliberate thinking about how [our individual actions] affect everything else.”
If you know him, it’s not surprising that Nathaniel Smith then took our discussion to another level. He challenged the audience and the region to think of equity as more than just a critique on the way that things get done today. He described a more ambitious role for equity where it defines the most successful approaches and the best opportunities for our future. He insisted, “incredible things can happen by encouraging community engagement,” and proposed that, “large scale projects for sports and the arts provide a great opportunity for us to come together as a community and dream a new city, and a new region, where everybody matters and everybody can roll up their sleeves and get involved.”
To fully take advantage of those opportunities, however, we need leaders in both the public and private sectors who will listen. Chris asserted, “The most important thing for people in leadership roles to do is listen to communities.” Nathaniel built on this, saying, “The one thing I would say we need more of is courage. I don’t see that in Atlanta in the way that we need it today. Some of us have to be willing to not be invited to the parties and the nice events.” Looking around the room for willingness to speak openly and honestly about our region’s shortcomings in transportation, education, income inequality and economic mobility, Nathaniel called us to action. “I think there’s a level of urgency that is calling us as community folks who care about Atlanta to begin to stand up and be honest about where we are.”
MORE THAN A SOCIAL IMPERATIVE.
Thomas agreed, making the point that “Metro Atlanta has a really hard time being honest, and brutally honest. Very few people will really tell you what’s on their mind.” Inspired by this call for honesty, courage and urgency, and nearing the conclusion of our hour together, I asked each guest to describe their advice for designers working with communities. Ray returned to the model of Medlock Park and connected it to the theme for the evening. “The two words that come to mind with regard to … what the future should look like are access and equity.” The creation and maintenance of public space and sports facilities for citizens, he said, should take priority over subsidies for private teams that then also charge fees to participate.
Thomas continued in this vein, making the point that these changing priorities should reach beyond the more vocal intown crowd and embrace the diversity of our region. “I think that it’s going to take some of the smart young people in the suburbs to get involved… adding their voice to the discussion… I think people need to be reminded that there are other voices out there.” Chris agreed with this need to listen, cautioning us against rushing too fast toward change. “I think approaching things with a sense of urgency is important because the inequities that exist are an urgent issue. But slow down. You can’t do things right and do them fast. Slow down. Listen. Get input. Listen to people who don’t look like you. Listen to people that don’t live where you live.”
I think this kind of thoughtful and inclusive transition toward a better decision-making process – beyond just sports and arts – could make our region a global leader for equity. It won’t happen overnight, but Atlanta has always been ambitious. If we learn to see equity as our goal, then we can truly design for community. To do that, designers, planners, and citizens everywhere need to embrace choices about our future not only as obligations to what is good and right, but also as our best route to prosperity. Equity is not just “a social imperative,” Nathaniel concluded, “it is the superior growth model for our region.”
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