Community-Centered Design to Promote Equity, Shaped by Quaker Roots

Lindsay Bedford '07

When I first decided to compete in the Fifth Annual HOK Futures Design Challenge as an Interior Architecture & Design graduate student at Drexel University this winter, I expected the project to yield the same results as any other studio class I had completed at Drexel – it would be a challenge, but also a good opportunity to add a portfolio piece to my repertoire of student work. What I did not expect was that I would walk away with a renewed sense of purpose and understanding of the field I have chosen to make a career in and that I would be reminded of important lessons I learned years ago as a student at Friends’ Central School.  

Lindsay Bedford ’07

The competition prompt was to design features within a health and wellness community campus for a local non-profit organization located in the Mill Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia. We were asked to explore design solutions that could create a place where localized healthcare, access to healthy food, and thoughtful urban open-space planning could intersect to positively impact a community.  

I asked my classmate, Emily Grigsby, whom I had worked with on a previous competition hosted by Drexel, to be my partner. Emily and I had similar beliefs about designing spaces that were not only aesthetically pleasing but also told conceptually rich stories, and, ideally, uplifted those we were designing for through our design decisions. From day one, Emily and I completely immersed ourselves in the project. We began by conducting research on Mill Creek’s history and current demographics so we could tell a story that wove the area’s past and present in a thoughtful and meaningful way. We learned that the neighborhood is named for the creek that runs from Montgomery County through West Philadelphia to the Schuylkill River. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the area was inhabited by the Lenape (“Original People”) tribe. In the 19th century, development of the area accelerated as the pressure for developable land increased, which led to the decision to contain the creek in a subterranean pipe.  

At the project site – bound by Lancaster Avenue, Wyalusing Avenue, North 47th Street, and North May Street – we found a vacant plot with an abandoned two-story brick building in a predominantly African American neighborhood that could greatly benefit from more options for healthy and accessible food. Throughout our process, we worked to ensure every decision made would best serve the existing community, which led us to our choice to make our project a community center that included a food co-op and not just a market as prescribed by the prompt. We liked the idea of a food cooperative because, rather than adding programmatic elements that could potentially work against the preexisting community, we wanted to shape the program in a way that would aid in the cultivation of a communal, cooperative spirit. Co-ops are not run by outside shareholders or private companies, so this felt like a natural and cohesive choice.  

Lindsay and Emily’s competition project renderings

Our focus was community-centered design to promote a greater sense of equity and unity within the Mill Creek neighborhood. Our favorite feature of our design was a winding garden-spine that sustains and connects programmatic elements as Mill Creek once did for the native Lenape people. We carefully curated culturally responsive adjacencies in the space to blend the neighborhood’s past and present to create their shared future.

Lindsay and Emily’s competition project renderings

Although Emily and I did not end up placing as finalists in the competition, I left the competition with a sense of excitement and passion for an important lesson I had learned – I could spark change in my community and society overall by designing with empathy and a focus on helping others. As I thought about this important step in my design education, I realized I had already learned this lesson, but in a different way. Learning through service as a student at Friends’ Central instilled in me the importance of understanding issues of social justice and the role we play in creating change.      

I joined Friends’ Central in ninth grade and was excited to be a part of the Upper School community. One thing that distinctly differed from my experience at the public school I had come from was the scheduled Service Days we took part in collectively at Friends’ Central. My service project assignment, like many of my fellow classmates, brought me to an area of the Philadelphia community I probably would not otherwise have encountered. My service learning was conducted at the former William B. Mann School, currently, the Mastery Charter School Mann Elementary, in West Philadelphia.  

During my time there, I, alongside my classmates, faced challenges that were unlike what we were used to in our environment at Friends’ Central. At times, these situations were difficult, but these challenges helped me gain confidence and forced me to remain flexible and compassionate so that I could best serve those I had come to assist. I did not realize it at the time, but Friends’ Central had provided me with an important base of values by teaching the guiding Quaker testimonies of stewardship, community, peace, and integrity. These important lessons instilled in me a sense of empathy and a belief that I still hold to this day, that the light of God is in everyone. As a designer, I believe it is my role and my duty to use the skills I possess to care for my community and to address many of the challenges we face in the 21st century. Design has the power to impact lives, and I choose to lead and make a change by using my practice to create environments that address, protect, and respond to the needs of the people.

Lindsay Bedford ’07 is a third-year Interior Architecture
& Design MS Candidate at Drexel University. She is passionate about design
and the role it can play in sparking change in our communities and society
overall. Currently, she is finishing her final year at Drexel and working on a
master’s thesis which explores the role of the art museum in the 21st century.
With her thesis, she is asking how design can be utilized to create a more
equitable and culturally responsive art museum, specifically in an underserved
community in Philadelphia. Her goal is to create a model for a decentralized
museum where the museum site serves as a communal hub/artist in residence space
and exhibition is dispersed throughout the community to various places as
satellite installations/exhibitions. Her goal with this project is to create a
more equitable and accessible art experience for all members of the
Philadelphia community.

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