On November 3rd, Michael Bloomberg eked out what most New Yorkers predicted would be a perfunctory mayoral reelection. Morning-after pundits contributed the close result to two brash Bloomberg initiatives: a 2008 amendment that allowed the mayor to seek a third term, and his administration’s attempts to reshape Manhattan’s most frenetic traffic zones — particularly Times, Herald and Madison Squares — into pedestrian-friendly oases filled with picnic tables and chairs. Despite earning merchants’ and residents’ blessings, these plaza projects have struck many New Yorkers as fanciful experiments implemented by a cadre of cocksure urban elites.
Against this inauspicious backdrop, an academic team arrives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with a loaded ideal to promote: sustainability through design. Yet unlike even the best-intentioned Bloomberg bollard or bike lane, the Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability project, or DESIS, aspires to be a virtually unseen yet indelible force for good on the LES — and beyond.
“We aim to do design without disrupting, interfering or imposing,” says Eduardo Staszowski, professor of design strategies at New York’s Parsons The New School for Design. The New School is the North American beachhead for the DESIS Network
, an international consortium of design schools, consultancies and nonprofits working toward the goal of sustainable communities. DESIS also partnered with labs this year at MIT and Stanford where, as
at Parsons, multidisciplinary curricula have been developed around the
sustainability premise. China, Brazil, Colombia and numerous African nations already possess blooming DESIS test cases.
So what does DESIS do? That question might not be so revelatory as how it goes about doing it. Lab participants “examine what is already there,” stresses Lara Penin, the New School lab’s directing faculty member who previously taught, along with Staszowski, at Italy’s Politecnico di Milano, where the DESIS Network was founded. In the LES’s case, that means shadowing established creative entities such as the Lower East Side Ecology Center
(LESEC) and working with it to develop strategies for message refinement and growth. Acclaimed design consultancy IDEO
complements the efforts of DESIS Lab faculty and students, assisting LESEC and other community orgs in staging exhibitions of their work.
IDEO’s New York office also helps Lower East Siders develop a tangible takeaway, or “toolkit” that includes an uncommonly rich map. Through a partnership with Green Map System
, community members plot sites that are sources of both neighborhood and broader environmental pride. When DESIS moves on, which it intends to do in two years, neighbors possess a vital document that reflects sustainable aspects of their community — and consequently, of themselves.
With such a hyper-localized approach, DESIS’s Lower East Side efforts might seem too site-specific to gain traction beyond the Pickle Guys’
orbit. Yet Penin and Staszowski regard the LES as a test case for broader implementation. “We want to see how we can amplify positive, creative practices and adapt them for other neighborhoods,” says Staszowski. “We could blueprint what we see.”
New Yorkers revel in their neighborhoods’ nuances, however microscopic; “blueprinted” models of sustainability, then, might not be so enthusiastically received. Nevertheless, if DESIS can effectively take best practices from their initial work on the LES citywide, not only would New Yorkers’ quality of life benefit, so would, one presumes, all aspects of urban design — even the visible kinds.