Designing for 98% of the population - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Designing for 98% of the population

Studio Gang Architects

This past weekend, Karin Sommer, MPC Associate, and I joined more than 200 architects, engineers, planners and sociologists from around the globe for the 10th annual Structures for Inclusion (SFI) conference in Washington, D.C., where participants discussed the vital role design can play in providing social equity in economically distressed communities.

The SFI conference challenged architects to reject the architecture world’s stigma of exclusivity (that creativity and architecture is for the small percentage that can afford to build it) and instead design for a different type of clientele: the other “98 percent of the population.”

The conference presented innovative examples of design processes and products breaking away from the rigid limitations of existing architectural definitions and forging a path that celebrates the value and potential of design to improve distressed communities and their built environments. From hospitals diligently designed to prevent tuberculosis in Rwanda to community managed farmers markets in New Orleans, the SFI conference showed the relationship a structure can have with its users and the larger community.  

In Chicago, for example, Studio Gang Architects designed the SOS Children’s Village community center, which combines services for foster care families and neighborhood families in one building. SOS is an international nonprofit agency committed to training foster parents and reuniting siblings.

SGA used land donated by the City of Chicago at 76th and Parnell – a brownfield that used to be a mattress factory, on the border of Englewood and Auburn Gresham  – and in collaboration with Related Midwest, developed the world’s first-ever urban village.

Central to this approach to design is extending an early invitation to the community to shape it.  Too often, communities are forced to react to development proposals; rarely do they have the opportunity to shape a development when it’s in the idea stage, so that it truly meets both the developer’s and community’s needs. Similar to MPC’s Corridor Development Initiative (CDI), which engages the surrounding community in planning and creating a vision for underutilized community space, Studio Gang Architects surveyed the surrounding community to gather their input about the design of the community center. In the end, they learned that daycare options were lacking and in high-demand in the Englewood and Auburn Gresham neighborhoods, and the center could help meet that demand.

Several meetings and months of construction resulted in a 42-unit affordable housing project for foster families that also is home to a multi-faceted community center and public space that encourages a range of learning opportunities and social interaction. Working within budget constraints led to a design that expresses the need for mixed-use space. The center’s interior provides extra-wide stairs in the lobby that double as classroom seating and an impromptu stage for performance; a large community room on the second floor that serves as a classroom, exercise room and meeting space; and daycare classrooms on the ground floor oriented around and with direct access to a sunlit outdoor play area.

In 2011, for the first time since its formation, Chicago (and the Midwest) will host the 11th Structures for Inclusion conference. The SOS Children's Village shows Chicago is an excellent host that can showcase the transformation of a rust-belt city into a global metropolis through community involvement. MPC's Karin Sommer and I will help plan this conference, so stay tuned for more information.  Or, if you’re interested in becoming involved, contact me at or 312.863.6012.

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  1. 1. Prabhuchauhan from NHxeHlBoJIqDcdvI on November 3, 2012

    Thanks Tom for a great evening on Wednesday. This was the first time I'd aetdnetd the group and I enjoyed it very much! After seeing some other works and hearing how supportive everyone was with their comments, I look forward to more meetings and presenting some of my work to the group.It was mentioned that there would be a sign-up for the next meeting out here on this site. Is that still going to be the case?Thanks!

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