Design and Politics on the Lower East Side

Is design depoliticizing? Can design politicize? Will it enable the emergence of a new kind of politics?

These are some of the many questions—both theoretical and practical–raised during the first workshop of the Amplifying Creative Communities (Amplify) project, which was held in early February by the Parsons Design for Sustainability and Social Innovation (DESIS) Lab in order to kickoff the Rockefeller-funded, multi-year project. The project seeks to “amplify by design” the many creative and socially innovative activities that New Yorkers are engaged in through a close study of specific neighborhoods. The workshop convened a small group of Parsons and The New School faculty, designers from Milan Polytechnic, technologists from MIT, and students as well as participants from the design consultancy IDEO and community partners such as Green Map and the Lower East Side Ecology Center .

The purpose of the workshop was to share knowledge about the history and context of the Lower East Side as well as to brainstorm about the Amplify project’s processes, toolkits and activities. The Lower East Side is the initial site for this project due to its high population density, diverse ethnic communities, history of resistance to gentrification and strong political capital. For example, the Lower East Side Ecology Center described the neighborhood’s transformation from the 1980’s – when it was reminiscent of a burnt out city in post-war Germany – to the present time in which there are over 50 thriving community gardens that connect local residents and increase their cohesiveness.