Shelter for All: An Interview with Gia Biagi

The Urban Design Forum’s 2018 Forefront Fellowship, Shelter for All, addressed the homelessness crisis in New York City by examining how to dignify the shelter system through better design and exploring the root causes of homelessness and housing precarity. Fellows developed original design and policy proposals on how to address the prison-to-shelter pipeline, public bathrooms, public realm management, supportive housing, and racist housing policies, which we are pleased to publish alongside interviews with leading experts.
Fellows spoke with Gia Biagi while she was in her former position as Principal of Urbanism and Civic Impact at Chicago-based architecture firm Studio Gang; she has since been named the Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation. The following interview with Gia accompanies Homelessness in the Public Realm. Read the full set of Shelter for All proposals and interviews here.


Margaret Jankowsky: Hi Gia, thanks for agreeing to talk with me about your approach to designing for the public realm, especially in relation to homelessness and areas of high civic impact. Studio Gang has worked on public realm projects in a lot of very different places, from the Memphis Riverfront to the New York City’s Neighborhood Activation Study with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. How do you approach working in the public realm in your role as Principal of Urbanism and Civic Impact at Studio Gang*?

Gia Biagi: There are lots of ways that design firms and anyone interested in the public realm can figure out what the key public policy questions are on the ground. But we try to ground our work in principles first. Those principles are thinking about local knowledge and local knowhow—what people are experiencing in their lives, the broad spectrum of folks and communities. That local knowledge is not what designers have. So we start trying to uncover that, and then you start to suss out the patterns in what people are saying, and then we check those patterns against preferences by asking folks how they would interpret the patterns that we’re seeing.

When we think about who those people are that we’re talking to, we try to look through a frame of influence and stakes. Sometimes I call it the power diagram, but it’s about looking at a continuum in terms of influence and stakes. Who has high influence in making change and who has low influence? That would be the y-axis. The x-axis is looking at who has a high or low stake in the outcome.

Then you start to slot who you’re talking with. Very often designers have access to people who have high influence and high stakes—that might be a mayor, that might be a client or a developer, that could be any number of people who are at the table for a lot of reasons. But what we try to do is make sure that we’re also working to listen to folks who have a very high stake but have low influence, who are not at the table. The principle of looking for local knowledge and local know-how means asking the question: who is not at the table? And how are we going to make sure that the most marginalized voices are there? That can be a check, and there are all kinds of tactics and methods you can then use. But that’s how we start to understand what the key policy question on the ground is and then what design has to do with that.

As we talk about design, we’re often thinking about adaptive questions, but working in a technical realm. Experiencing homelessness is one of the huge adaptive challenges because there are all kinds of components to it. It is the fact of not having a home, of barriers to employment, of institutional racism, of redlining. All of these pieces have something to do with this adaptive challenge existing in the first place. That’s where the policy questions lie.

The hard part for designers is typically that we have all these technical tools. We have technical answers, following a checklist, and if we do these things and we design the doorknobs in this way, we’re hopeful we can touch on that adaptive challenge. But we need to recognize that these adaptive challenges are generational. What you’re doing is moving a needle, not necessarily checking a box. Our approach is to try to toggle back and forth because what’s useful about architecture is that it can express at a human scale what a potential way of addressing that adaptive challenge might look like. It helps people understand the consequences of decisions they might be making.

When we work with clients, we put this all on the table. A designer has to look at their privilege as a convener, to bring issues to the table that are uncomfortable and to ground the work in a set of principles like we try to do. It gives you the confidence to put issues on the table with a client who you might not think even is interested. And if you’re doing a good job of getting other voices to the table, particularly marginalized voices to the table, your work will get better. The obligations that we have as designers, ones who are interested in the public realm, is to really put those questions on the table and do what we can to move the needle.

Studio Gang’s public realm projects have included the Memphis riverfront. Image credit: Thomas R Machnitzki via Wikipedia

MJ: Can you talk a little bit about how exactly you engage the community members and get them to the table and get their voice to impact the project?

GB: There are a couple of ways of thinking about it. One is getting people to the table, but there’s also bringing the table to people. I think we have an obligation to do both. The way that we do that is really by starting small and building relationships. We work to meet people where they are. We start with the relationships that we already have, which might be client-based or might be a broader set of relationships because we might have done some work in that city. We begin by doing one-on-one interviews, small conversations, and that might lead to bigger ones. We look for opportunities where communities are already having a conversation about something. If we can be flexible and meet people where they are to begin to develop dialogue and relationships, that can lead to other conversations. We find that there is a time and a place for large public meetings, but those are often not as effective as the aspiration. We find that it’s really before the meeting or after the meeting that is really important, when people feel a bit more comfortable talking in the smaller sessions.

We try to build relationships across lots of sectors. We have people who live there, people who work there, community-based organizations, and institutions. We keep trying to navigate and build relationships that open other doors until we have a good sense of critical issues and patterns.

We also try to make sure that we are not being extractive in that process and that we show reciprocity to people who are challenged with issues, particularly like being unhoused. It’s asking a lot for people to show up at a given place and time. So, we also work to pay people for their time, to create opportunities where it’s reciprocal in that way. Or if there’s something we can do that folks already need, we try to make sure that there’s an exchange happening. Because too often, we find that it’s easy to parachute into a place and ask everyone to put all their intellectual property on the table, and just offering pizza in return is not enough.

MJ: The question of stewardship is something that we thought a lot about during the fellowship. What does it mean to be a steward of the public realm? You mentioned in our earlier conversation that designers who are working in the public realm have a higher responsibility to go sometimes beyond the interests of their client and keep in mind the public impact of their projects, and to weave those priorities into the project, as well as the client’s individual concerns.

GB: Definitely. Designers get to make all kinds of choices about what issues to research and what makes a context, and to me, context is everything. The question of what ought to happen here—the answer isn’t always a building. The building is not a victory if it’s not the right thing. Part of the obligation there is to step back and look at the big picture of, whether it’s a building or a park, what that does to its context and how that building or that park or that space needs to respond to its context. That’s a critical lens for looking at public realm projects. You don’t get to operate in a vacuum and you shouldn’t. Private realm projects shouldn’t either, but I think with public realm projects we have a greater obligation to think about the constituencies, and to be mindful of it, and keep the needs and aspirations of the various people who might use this space front of mind the whole time.

If we’re talking about people experiencing homelessness—and that’s a very complex problem—part of what we want to do is think about how the space can be designed so it’s welcoming and inviting. And what are the operational needs that we could fulfill and be thinking about ahead of time?

If a park is the closest thing to a population of folks with a certain set of needs, and let’s say it’s a health need, maybe the park field house operates much like a health clinic would if there were one. It’s unpacking what the needs are, which move around, and people move around. Buildings and sites don’t, so we have to build in some flexibility, so we can continue to serve the needs of people who live in and around the site.

MJ: Once the design is implemented, the project can take on a life of its own, and that life is highly impacted by how the space is maintained, how it’s managed, and how it’s activated. This is something that designers are not always involved in. How would you like designers to be involved in that?

GB: In all this, there’s an element of engaging with the people who are experiencing the space and asking, “What is the best way? What would make this space feel welcoming?” I think designers have an obligation to do that.

There’s sort of the nuts and bolts of maintenance and bringing in that expertise earlier rather than later in the design project that is important. But I think after something is built, designers need to be interested in going back to projects and saying, “Did it work? Did we achieve what we thought we would achieve?” Being willing to do occupancy analysis of the space, being willing to re-engage in conversations—that’s something that designers could certainly do.

“With public realm projects we have a greater obligation to think about the constituencies, and to be mindful of it, and keep the needs and aspirations of the various people who might use this space front of mind the whole time.”

In my experience, when I worked for the City of Chicago, I designed parks, got them built, and then also had to maintain them. Maybe there ought to be a residency program for designers at city agencies, where you actually have to experience the consequences of what you’ve built. It’s not just, drive by your project every couple of years and see if it stills looks good. Maybe there’s a way to incorporate the experience of maintenance into the educational background of architects.

I’m excited to think about the multidimensional aspects of maintenance. When we worked on a project for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice in New York, part of the proposition was that maintenance is about dignity. Whether a city maintains a neighborhood—and that’s sidewalks and streets and services and all of that—is a signal to that community of what the city thinks of it. Broken lights, broken benches, all of those things are signals of care.

At the same time, it’s also a barometer for the health of your city. If our public spaces are welcoming and inviting, if our sidewalks are in good condition, if our roads and our streetlights in pretty good repair, then we are sending a big signal to the world that we’re doing well. The public realm and how we treat people in it is a marker of who we are as a city. That’s the front-of-mind question that designers should be thinking about if you’re going to touch the public realm. It is that important. It is the biggest thing you can do. It will outlive you. Your grandchildren will hopefully walk on those sidewalks. It should matter deeply and longitudinally.

MJ: That’s a great point.

GB: I think stewardship is a very big test, and that’s why I think the proposition about the public realm is a pretty exciting one. How do you get everyone to pull on the same rope and be under the same tent? And that means, how do you help folks who live in a place to feel like it belongs to them? That they’d invest their time, sweat equity and networks to get people engaged in the public realm? And then how do you get community-based organizations in that tent? BIDs in that tent?

The maintenance itself is creating a relationship between the service providers, the city, the organizations and the people.

It’s not just a one-way delivery of services. If a city only thinks about maintenance as, “Well, we go in, and there’s a work order, and it’s the work order that came up on my screen today, so that’s the one we’re doing,” that’s not good enough. The maintenance itself is creating a relationship between the service providers, the city, the organizations and the people. We need to think about maintenance as a set of relationships. There are lots of ways for places to be beautiful, and feel good, managed and welcoming all at the same time, but there’s no one entity that can deliver all of that. It does take a set of relationships, a constellation of care, in order to make that happen.

MJ: We love the idea of stewardship because it has this moral component to it. It speaks to care and community and personal investment and institutional investment, not only with financial resources but with time and mental energy and social capital, in a way that the idea of maintenance doesn’t really. The idea of cities reclaiming their stewardship of the public realm and, as you’re saying, recognizing that it’s their front door—this is the place where people get a feel for the city itself—is a really important aspect of urban design in our minds.

Okay, last question: what will it take for public spaces to be truly for all, for everyone?

GB: That’s a really big question, and it is one of those adaptive challenges. It’s like the conversation about equity. In my mind, equity is a verb. It can’t be just an end that someday we can say, “Oh, we made it, we got equity.” No, it’s a constant process. Making public spaces for everyone is a constant work in progress because people change, populations move, needs are different, tools are lost and found. There are all kinds of ways we need to continually work on this issue.

Since the beginning of time, we’ve had contested spaces. I think, though, we need to err on the side of being as welcoming possible. And welcoming means different things to different people. There’s a community center up in Toronto that has a significant immigrant population that was very uncomfortable with changing rooms. So, the Toronto Park District came up with a new kind of locker room that was a wildly sort of transparent and private place at the same time, that made it possible for people who had religious considerations with being in locker rooms and exposing themselves to other people to use the space. That design response is a construct of our changing communities all the time, and it’s a wonderful response.

I think creating public spaces truly for all is an evolving question. But if we err on the side of being welcoming, being inviting, having care for other people, seeing ourselves in other people’s circumstances, coming into these questions with empathy, but then also taking action—all of those things will help us get there.

It’s important to think about what public space for all means especially in communities that have been disenfranchised, that haven’t had investment, as we think about what it means to develop a public space in a community that no one paid attention to, but suddenly speculators are interested and so now the city’s going to invest and all those kinds of things. We also need to take care—back to that question of equity—that a community can also feel like a space belongs to them. It’s definitely an ongoing tension—you want to have local ownership, and you also want to be welcoming and inviting. I think we’re just going to keep sliding back and forth on that continuum, but again, if we err on the side of being good human beings, being good to one another, then we’ll probably get close to getting it right.

Gia Biagi is the first permanent Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner under Mayor Lori Lightfoot starting in 2020. Previously, Biagi was a Principal at Studio Gang, an architecture and urban design collective located in Chicago and New York. Gia is widely regarded as a thought leader around issues related to cities and public space and guided the Studio’s Urbanism and Civic Impact work. At Studio Gang, she led design teams, coordinated master plans, facilitated community engagement, and directed the urban approach for projects across the United States. Prior to joining Studio Gang, Gia spent sixteen years working for the City of Chicago, including posts at the Park District as Director of Planning, Director of Strategy and Policy, and Chief of Staff. She led multi-year planning, design, and community engagement efforts that produced signature civic projects.

Header image credit: joestoltz via Pixabay