Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Since 1997, the Center for Urban Pedagogy has used graphic design to explain byzantine local policies and processes to New Yorkers.
The first thing you see on entering the office of the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), on the second floor of a converted industrial building in Gowanus, Brooklyn, is the literature: two shelves of brightly colored comics, posters, pamphlets, and handbooks.
These vibrant graphic manuals are the fruits of the Center's unusual approach to teaching the city. Working with neighborhood groups and city high schoolers, CUP's designers have distilled a slew of byzantine municipal regulations into zippy narrative guides.
As it turns out, there's a huge audience for digestible information on local policy—and the Center for Urban Pedagogy has, since its founding in 1997, become its publishing pioneer.
If a young man gets detained by the NYPD, for example, he might well receive one of CUP's posters, I Got Arrested! Now What?, a foldout comic strip that pilots the reader through the landscape of the juvenile justice system. The New York City Department of Probation ordered 30,000 copies.
"Design is this tool of power," says Christine Gaspar, the executive director of CUP. She came to the Center in 2009 from the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio in Mississippi, where she helped low-income neighborhoods plan architectural and urban design projects. "Our work is very much about putting that design in the hands of communities trying to organize and mobilize around issues that are affecting them."
Students from a Bronx high school produced a half-hour film on the borough's bodega culture. Another group turned an investigation on Roosevelt Island's garbage disposal system into an illustrated guide.
Patrick Rowe, an artist who worked with students in the Bronx to understand how New York's homeless shelters were placed, said the students hadn't just understood the process and overturned their own expectations. "They also had great ideas for how the system could change," he told me.
"We're really interested in having the students experience that the places where they live are not naturally occurring; they're products of decision-making," Gaspar says. "They can find out who made the decisions, hold them accountable, and try to have conversations with them."
The Center's better-known work, though, is focused on explaining complex urban issues to adults. The products of those collaborations display the same artistic flair as CUP's student-guided work, though they bear the unmistakable mark of the organization's professional designers. (The organization has won a number of accolades, including a Curry Stone Design Prize in 2012.)
"We try and make these issues that are daunting really accessible," Gaspar says.
The Center's upcoming projects are typical, in that they enliven subjects that seem ill-suited to punchy illustration: One will explain communities' role in the Responsible Banking Act; a second aims to help young fathers navigate family court.
A primer on housing court, for example, might be considered an unlikely best-seller. Yet tens of thousands of copies of the Center's guide have now been printed and distributed in English and Spanish.
The graphic emphasis serves another important function: It gets through to illiterate immigrants, one of the city's most vulnerable groups. "They're reaching people in all sorts of ways using art, using popular education," said Cathy Dang, the executive director of the immigrant advocacy group CAAAV, which has worked with CUP on a few projects, including a Rent Regulation Rights poster, in English and Chinese, that received a citation at the Core 77 Design Awards this year.
The poster was something that CAAAV (like many non-profits) could not have produced on its own, Dang said. "The final product was beautiful," she added, and has been a hit at the group's workshops in Chinatown.
The next step for CUP? Taking this brand of visual demystification to other cities. "We've had a lot of demand for our work outside New York, and we're still trying to figure out appropriate ways to address that," Gaspar says.
The projects are always local; the issues, more often than not, are much bigger.