Local Center Practice Notes: On Design Team Recruitment

In Practice Notes, you’ll hear from Local Center teams and our own staff about what we’re learning as we support community-led design projects across New York City.

By Daniel McPhee

The hardest day of the year for any nonprofit director is two days after a selection process.

The day after is the greatest: we get to inform our new partners and colleagues that we’ll be working together this year. But two days after? I get to disappoint ten times as many generous, hardworking people.

When we launched the Local Center this year, we had some idea of what we were getting ourselves into. We built, sustained, and sunsetted Neighborhoods Now with Van Alen over the last three years. Our initiative paired inspiring community organizations in neighborhoods hard hit by the pandemic with design teams who could help them safely reopen, and later support the healing of their communities. The perfect storm of remote work, PPP-backed employees without a ton to do, and a racial justice reckoning meant that when we first put out the call for teams in June 2020, we had 11 organizations and 40+ firms sign up overnight. Over 200 hundred firms would eventually ask to get involved.

We thought this year might be different. Even with a rocky market, I had never seen our members this busy. And to make things tougher, we layered on some thick expectations: if you’re a large and experienced firm, nominate diverse and rising leaders to take this on and support their growth or pull in an emerging practice you can mentor. If you’re a small firm, expect to spend time away from your computer so you can put boots on the ground and spend time in community before you have to wrestle through city regs. 

And why encourage those kinds of participation? Contracting with city government is so difficult and on-call contracts are so rare that very few designers have an opportunity to shape a slice of our city. We want to welcome new voices to shape and steward the public realm – it’s another way our public spaces can reflect the awesome diversity of our city. And we know our design teams will set a positive example that will ripple across the industry and across the city.

At the end of the day, we knew the visions of our partners were compelling. They came to us with some beautiful and tough projects, and our members love a challenge. We drafted a call for design teams that was lightweight – send us a letter, biographies on the individuals who will participate, and a couple representative projects. We detailed each project, and welcomed design teams to specify a project they wanted to work on, or choose all five. 

And in the end, our members showed up: 44 design teams came together to submit qualifications, and another 60 individuals heard our call for collaborators. All in all, over 200 Forumites and friends threw in. 

The best part? Each of our neighborhood partners would have 19+ design teams to choose from: they got to find their people. They could go the route of the experienced firm who has done something like this before, or grow alongside an emerging practice. There were even a number of locally located firms in the mix – and at least one fellow surfer in the Rockaways.

One of the tougher questions our team faced was finding the right grip from there. We had one north star: our partners should choose their collaborators without interference. But we also heard a mix of their excitement and anxiety, because several of our partners had never hired a design team before.

Our resolution was to try and strike a delicate balance. We convened a panel of past community design collaborators to review qualifications and advise on their strength for each project, and prioritize ten recommendations for each partner. (We made sure each partner received the full list in case they wanted to read every one, which a few did.) There were moments that I bit my tongue thinking, “are you sure you don’t want to interview this team or that one too?” The submissions were unbelievably strong – with so many teams the Forum team knows and admires.

The teams interviewed their favorites, ranked their finalists… and chose beautifully. (Of course.) Across our five teams, we have a mix of experienced and eager, big and small: an upstart design practice, a team of two small-ish practices, a collective of several practitioners, a team of one small practice backed by a powerhouse, and one final team of two large firms. When I walked into our orientation, I saw a room of 50 dreamers that looked a lot more like New York than I could have imagined.

Now I’m feeling the heat. It was tough to go back to the teams who won’t advance because the submissions were strong and they’ve each got the right spirit. In our conversations together, it emerged quickly that we’re all trying to figure out civic practice together. Each firm is asking themselves hard questions: How can we structure our time to support community partnerships when margins are tight? How can we support purpose and learning in emerging leaders? How can we use our connections and resources to fight for a fairer city? 

I want to create as many opportunities for our community to contribute their time and talent to building a fairer and more beautiful city. If we were able to find 70 other community partners this year and 44 design teams ready to go, we could do a hell of a lot more matchmaking. The challenge will be how to do it right: finding seed funding in a strange economy, hiring and training enough facilitators to responsibly support our teams, and nurturing new projects at a safe speed. We’re already making progress, but I won’t spoil any surprises.

Our next step? Pulling in our other interdisciplinary collaborators. The public realm can’t be transformed with design alone. We’ll be pulling in so many more members: historians, engineers, fabricators, graphic designers, and public health practitioners.

Daniel McPhee is Executive Director of Urban Design Forum.

Practice Notes:
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