11 design projects that are tackling poverty in America

A new exhibition opening September 30 at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum aims to highlight design projects that use art, architecture, urban planning and design to address issues of poverty and sustainability. The show, called “By the People: Designing a Better America,” is the third in a series the museum has curated about socially responsible design.

Curator Cynthia Smith spent two years conducting field work to find the designs that will be included in the show.

“I travelled, for two three weeks at a time, around the US trying to meet designers and community members, and a whole range of people, to see what was going on and who was working on these issues,” she says. Smith chose 60 projects to feature, each of which aim to solve a local problem or address a challenge facing a particular community.

Here are 11 of the most notable projects.

RAPIDO Recovery Housing, (Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties, Texas)

buildingcommunity WORKSHOP

John Henneberger won a MacArthur genius grant in 2014 in part due to his work on a model for rebuilding homes after disasters. Instead of creating temporary shelters or waiting for a government organisation like FEMA to bring trailers, the RAPIDO system works with individuals and families to modify a set of housing prototypes to fit their needs.

Each design begins with a permanent 400-square-foot core, and then other rooms can be added on according to the specifications of the individual residents. The components that make up the prefabricated homes would be manufactured locally through a pre-arranged network, making building streamlined and fast. Though the system isn't in use yet, a pilot program in 2014 built homes for 20 families who' were displaced by flooding in Texas' Rio Grande Valley.

'This is one of those that's going to be a real game changer,' Smith says, explaining that this system could replace the short-term, cookie-cutter disaster housing currently used after floods or hurricanes.

Underpass Park (Toronto, Canada)

Courtesy of Waterfront Toronto

The design team behind this park took advantage of derelict space under part of the city's elevated highway system -- land that often goes unused in cities -- to create a new public space.

Underpass Park includes a playground, skate park, basketball courts, flexible community area and series of benches. The area is also home to a public art project called Mirage, which reflects light throughout the park. The development is part of an ongoing project in Toronto to make better use of neglected spaces near the city's waterfront. The first phase of construction was completed in 2012, and the second phase finished in 2015, bringing the total area of the park to 2.5 acres.

Rebel Nell (Detroit)

Rebel Nell

A design initiative that helps women transitioning out of homeless shelters, Rebel Nell teaches women to create jewellery out of upcycled pieces of peeling graffiti paint found around Detroit. The earrings, rings, pins, necklaces and bracelets are sold around the country and online at Rebel Nell's website.

'It's using design, but it's a program that offers not only guidance on how to make the jewellery but also life management and financial training,' Smith says. 'It's really a means to an end to help women transition out of shelters.'

Atlanta BeltLine Concept (Atlanta, Georgia)


Conceived in 1999 as a master's thesis by Ryan Gravel, then a design student at Georgia Tech, the BeltLine creates a network of trails and transit lines along a historic 22-mile railroad corridor. The area will encircle Atlanta, generating 1,300 acres of green space and 22 miles of rail transit. The project will also include 5,600 units of affordable housing.

'His idea is to really transform Atlanta, which has a real problem with transportation, into a much more accessible place, and to bring neighbourhoods together,' Smith explains. 'I think it's really going to be wonderful for young design students to see this.'

Much of the BeltLine is already completed and open (four trail segments and six parks). The entire project is expected to be done by 2030.

Humane Borders Water Stations and Warning Posters (Arizona/Mexico Border)

George Kimmerling

Smith notes that not all projects featured in the exhibition were created by professional designers. This initiative was started by a group in Tucson, Arizona, which realised that immigrants trying to cross from Mexico into the United States were dying of exhaustion and dehydration in the desert.

'They don't really take a political stand on whether migration is good or bad -- they just saw that people are dying,' Smith says, 'so they worked with the coroner's office and started to plot where people were dying to understand where they should deliver water.'

Las Abuelitas Kinship Housing (South Tucson, Arizona)

Poster Frost Mirto, Inc.

An energy-efficient, multi-family housing development, Las Abuelitas was designed for low-income grandparents who are raising grandchildren on their own.

The 12-unit complex was created by the Primavera Foundation, an Arizona nonprofit dedicated to affordable housing. The new homes were built on formerly blighted lots, which Primavera convinced the city to donate to the cause, and were completed in 2013. The area includes shared community spaces, like a garden and basketball court, and every home uses solar-heated water.

Raleigh Denim Workshop (Raleigh, North Carolina)

Rob Howard

Victor Lytvinenko and Sarah Yarborough, a husband-wife team of designers, founded the Denim Workshop with the goal of creating traditional American jeans with low carbon footprints.

The cotton for the denim is locally sourced from one of North Carolina's few remaining mills, and each pair is handmade in the company's workshop. The jeans cost around $300, and can be purchased online, in Raleigh, or at the company's flagship store in New York City.

Open House (York, Alabama)

Shana Berger/Coleman Center for the Arts

Though this building looks like a typical house from the outside, it is actually an interactive public performance space, thanks to the vision of artist Matthew Mazzotta. He teamed up with the Coleman Center for the Arts, a contemporary arts organisation based in York, Alabama, to dissemble a blighted property and turn it into an foldable, open-air theatre. The various pieces come apart to form seating areas that can hold 100 people, but when folded up, you'd never know what the house is hiding.

Farm Hack Tools (Various locations)

Farm Hack

Farm Hack is a worldwide open-source community of farmers who build their own tools and share hacks. Users can add tools that they have created on the Farm Hack website, and search through the ones other farmers have posted to get ideas about more efficient, sustainable farming methods and practices.

Though the community members are agricultural hobbyists and professionals of all levels, the project is particularly useful for young farmers looking to learn the tricks of the trade. The Cooper Hewitt exhibit features descriptions of some of the tools the community has come up with and shared.

Red Hook WiFi (Brooklyn, New York)

Stefanie Deji, courtesy of the Red Hook Initiative

A community-led effort in the coastal Red Hook neighbourhood of New York has been working with youth to install a local mesh WiFi network for more than five years. The kids, who are referred to as 'digital stewards,' reach out to local businesses and community members to facilitate the installation and maintenance of the system, teaching them technological skills and creating more dialogue within the community.

Red Hook was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, but Smith explains that when electricity and internet went down, the WiFi network remained intact since most of the hardware was installed on top of stores and buildings. That allowed residents to continue to communicate.

'It was a good example of a community and a neighbourhood's resilience that manifested with this technology, but at the same time had a social component to it,' Smith says.

LaSalle Cultural Corridor (New Orleans, Louisiana)

Courtesy New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council

Once a bustling center of African American culture in New Orleans, LaSalle Street is currently being revitalized, thanks to a team from the Tulane School of Architecture's community design center, Louisiana State University and the Mardi Gras Indians.

The group analysed the history and legacy of the corridor, and came up with suggestions for design interventions that could be created in the area. Those possibilities include a renovation of the Dew Drop Inn (a historic hotel, barbershop, and supper club), a cultural campus to preserve and celebrate the legacy of the city's Mardi Gras Indian culture, and an interpretive site to commemorate the place where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Martin Luther King's civil rights organisation) was founded.

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