Rich calls the award “one of the most surprising things that’s ever happened to me.” John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

From graphic explainers of government regulations to board-game-style community workshops, new MacArthur Fellow Damon Rich uses design to make cities more democratic.

The MacArthur Foundation recently announced its list of 2017 fellows—24 people from all walks of life who will receive $625,000 “genius” grants, as they’re often called. CityLab is running a series of short conversations with several of the winners.

The urban designer and planner Damon Rich has an old-school cell phone—a deliberate defense against being constantly bombarded by emails. When he got a call from an unfamiliar out-of-town number a couple of weeks ago, he didn’t answer it at first.

“I picked it up maybe after the third call,” he remembers. “Who picks up random calls from Chicago? I’m trying to make out what they’re saying. Your mind is kind of spinning. You’re thinking it’s a credit card offer.”

It wasn’t: The callers were from the MacArthur Foundation, and they were telling 42-year-old Rich that he was a newly minted MacArthur Fellow.

“Probably up until that point, it really feels like the highest chance is that this is some kind of weird mistake or joke,” Rich says. “Once you realize these people seem to know more [about you] than what you would get from a Google search, you begin to be worried this might be something legit.”

The award, which Rich calls “one of the most surprising things that’s ever happened to me,” recognizes his two decades of effort to make American cities more democratic through art and design. In 1997, Rich co-founded a nonprofit called the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), which aims to demystify policy and improve civic engagement in cities, especially among young people and marginalized groups.

In addition to running after-school programs to introduce children and teenagers to public design, CUP translates the byzantine processes and turgid prose of bureaucracy into clear, graphics-heavy explainers on systems that individuals may find themselves having to navigate. (There is a CUP booklet for recent immigrants called “Welcome to Health Care!,” and a comic-book-style guide to juvenile justice, “I Got Arrested! Now What?”)

From 2008 to 2015, Rich, who trained as an architect, was the chief urban designer and director of planning for the City of Newark. Working closely with neighborhood groups, he oversaw the completion of the city’s first riverfront park and the first comprehensive update to zoning regulations in more than 50 years, based on the goals of environmental justice and accountable development. The zoning workshop he designed, which encouraged participants to build a city on a game board and create “paper doll” buildings to explore aesthetics, won a National Planning Excellence Award from the American Planning Association in 2015.

Now, with partner Jae Shin, Rich runs Hector, a Newark-based urban design, planning, and civic arts studio. Hector is currently redesigning the circa-1895 Mifflin Square Park in South Philadelphia, hoping to strengthen nearby businesses and preserve affordable housing as it makes the park an inclusive space for an exceptionally diverse neighborhood that includes Cambodian, Bhutanese, African American, Latino, and white residents.

The redesign began with an investigation by Rich and local teens into who really runs Philadelphia parks: who makes the rules, schedules the maintenance, and decides on funding.

(Courtesy of Hector)

Working with multiple collaborators in a mode of deep and sustained, rather than surface-level, engagement isn’t the quickest or easiest way to get a job done. But it leads to superior public spaces, and the MacArthur grant will allow Rich and Shin to develop this process. “We think the fellowship will be invaluable to our practice as urban designers and planners as we work to establish these ways of bringing together complex coalitions to create more democratic and accountable spaces,” Rich says.

Rich and Shin have both spent time working in the public sector, Rich for Newark (and before that, for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, his first job), and Shin for the New York City Housing Authority. Perhaps most of all, Rich hopes the award will encourage aspiring planners and designers to consider government work.

“We really hope this is seen as a validation ... for younger architects or designers or planners to consider spending time working with a public agency,” he says. “Especially at the local level, where things are getting built, and abstract ideas and legislation from the federal and state levels actually turn into things—whether a stadium or affordable housing. We really hope this causes more people who have energy and curiosity to seriously consider that.”

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