On July 18, our Forefront Fellows met for the second event of the Fellowship to explore design projects that aim to foster agency and the integration of migrant communities in urban spaces.

Our Fellows met at La Nacional – Spanish Benevolent Society, a cultural center established back by a group of Spaniards in 1868 on the Bowery. They wanted to establish a hub where new Spanish immigrants could meet fellow migrants and get the support they needed. As the last vestige of the Spanish enclave that was here during the 19th and 20th centuries, they continue to host art exhibits, music and dance performances, food and wine tastings, etc. that maintain the culture and history of Spain.

To begin the evening’s exploration, Don Weinreich, Management Partner at Ennead Architects, and Eliza Montgomery, a current Forefront Fellow and Architectural Designer at Ennead Architects, described their work with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to rework the design of refugee camps.

Their project has culminated in the Rethinking Refugees Toolkit, which centers on designing camps to function more as cities and in partnership with the needs of the host community across various levels. Crucially, not only does this new design framework make refugees desirable to host communities, but furthermore, this new design aims to foster the refugees’ agency via greater access to services, reliable housing, formalized markets, and various other essential resources.

Our next speaker was Andrea Steele, Principal of TEN-Arquitectos and a support of the Urban Design Forum. Andrea detailed her design with a local immigrant organization to design a new community center that serves as an office for the organization, offers safe access to services for the community and creates connective tissue with the nearby public space.

The last speaker of the night was Isabelle Leighton, director of the Equality Fund at Asian Americans for Equality. Isabelle worked through their recent Flushing 2050 report including the essential community engagement which informed the report, how crucial collecting reliable data in immigrant communities is for understanding their actual needs, how they strategized to achieve these goals of the community, and how their newest projects, One Flushing and the Center for Community and Entrepreneurship, work toward their 1000/1000 vision.

After our speakers’ presentations, our Forefront Fellows explored some fundamental, and difficult questions, such as: Do you design a space for immigrants and refugees as separate from the community, or for both foreign- and native-born members? Should new spaces aim to make immigrants visible or invisible?

As designers and community organizers, how can we toe the line between fostering agency and intervening in their neighborhoods?

What are the innovative narratives that are being developed to convince key stakeholders that would otherwise not be interested in helping immigrant communities?

What is the appropriate temporal framework when planning and design for migrant communities? Will second- and third-generation immigrants abandon what we design for them?

Could these same spaces be turned into a gateway for immigrants in the future and from different origin nations?