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Nonprofit Groups Get Major Boost from Matchmaker desigNYC

March 30, 2012

By Tim McKeough

Emily Abruzzo, of Brooklyn’s Abruzzo Bodziak Architects, worked with Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation (CHLDC) and New York Sun Works to design an educational greenhouse for an empty lot.
Image courtesy Abruzzo Bodziak Architects

Emily Abruzzo, of Brooklyn’s Abruzzo Bodziak Architects, worked with Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation (CHLDC) and New York Sun Works to design an educational greenhouse for an empty lot.

 

Destination Nostrand, a proposal to transform an avenue in Brooklyn peppered with shuttered storefronts into an appealing destination
Image courtesy Vamos Architects
Evan Bennett, a principal at Vamos Architects, helped conceive Destination Nostrand, a proposal to transform an avenue in Brooklyn peppered with shuttered storefronts into an appealing destination through temporary street furniture, creative window displays, and porch-like spaces in front of vacant shops.
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Ask desigNYC executive director Laetitia Wolff about her organization’s mission, and she’ll give you a straightforward answer: “To improve the lives of New Yorkers through the power of design.” To fulfill this ambitious mission, the group pairs local nonprofits with volunteer architects and designers, who work on a specific project for approximately one year. desigNYC organized 12 projects in 2010 and eight in 2011; this year, 16 are under way.

The idea for desigNYC emerged years ago during a casual conversation between ESI Design executives and Wendy Goodman, of New York Magazine. Then in 2009, 14 committee members—including architects Deborah Berke, James Biber, and Zack McKown—officially launched desigNYC, which is supported primarily through grants and donations. They were inspired by San Francisco-based Public Architecture’s 1% program, which encourages firms to donate at least 1% of their working hours to pro bono projects. The committee aimed to take this initiative a step further by directly pairing designers with nonprofits. “A lot of designers have the desire to be involved in these kinds of projects,” says Wolff, “but they just don’t know where to start, or how to do it.”

Designers working in any discipline, from graphics to architecture, can sign up to participate during an annual open call for submissions; similarly, nonprofit groups submit applications. A jury selects the most promising projects and assigns designers who are best suited for each job. Every team also gets an experienced designer as a neutral adviser, whose job is to help the collaboration flourish. “They play the role of a mentor and bring a third-party point of view,” says Wolff. Recent judges and advisors include Georgie Stout, founding partner of 2x4; Madeline Burke-Vigeland, a principal at Gensler; and Ilana Judah, FXFOWLE’s director of sustainability.

Evan Bennett, a principal at Brooklyn’s Vamos Architects, got involved in the program in 2011. “We thought there was a lot of value in desigNYC, especially in this tough economic time,” says Bennett, whose firm was partnered with Nostrand Park, a group dedicated to urban revitalization. Vamos helped conceive Destination Nostrand, a proposal to transform an avenue in Brooklyn peppered with shuttered storefronts into an appealing destination through temporary street furniture, creative window displays, and porch-like spaces in front of vacant shops. The partnership culminated with a pilot program and a set of design guidelines for future implementation. Bennett says participating in desigNYC also had a business upside. “It helps get your name and message out there,” he says. “For us as a young office, it was very attractive.”

Emily Abruzzo, of Brooklyn’s Abruzzo Bodziak Architects, worked with Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation (CHLDC) and New York Sun Works last year to design an educational greenhouse for an empty lot in East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood. “It’s been far more rewarding than I ever expected, on many fronts,” she says. It not only provided the chance to interact with enthusiastic community members who she would have never met otherwise, but it also “rockets the project into motion.” Nuala Gallagher, project director at CHLDC, says the collaborative effort resulted in design documents that are being used to bring the greenhouse to fruition. CHLDC is now raising funds and hopes to start construction in 2013.  

Even though desigNYC is still in its infancy, Wolff says other municipalities are taking notice. “We’ve been approached by at least ten cities that want to do the same thing, from London to Portland,” she says. “There’s definitely a thirst for these kinds of collaborative programs.”

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