The Experience of Making Friday, June 8th, 2018

A Hurricane, Two Weddings and A Funeral: Lessons in community and bridge building

Nancy Nowacek, Assistant Professor, Stevens Institute of Technology

Speculative design, art and social form can spark communities. It’s the hummus and pita chips, potlucks, weekend projects and dinner tables that bind them.

In early 2012, Citizen Bridge was a surprising proposition: build a temporary floating walkway across part of New York City’s Harbor. It was an unusual but clear vision for reclaiming a public space inspired by a walkable sandbar that once connected Brooklyn and Governors Island. Occupying both realms of the impossible and the possible, the idea was playfully speculative and powerfully tangible. Citizen Bridge inspired those who encountered it because they could instantly imagine themselves on the bridge, standing in the middle of the harbor. In the five years since her initial inspiration, Nancy Nowacek, project creator, has built a community of practice around the project that includes government officials, architects, engineers, environmental advocates, maritime experts and enthusiasts, educators, community representatives, artists, friends, and neighbors.

Using Citizen Bridge and the designer’s related professional experiences, this paper will examine the intersection of design and social practice as change agent through the lenses of speculative design and social form. The methodologies behind developing Citizen Bridge from initial vision to fully engineered design will follow. The paper will share the experiences in developing Citizen Bridge—and its expanded project of reconnecting New Yorkers to their waterways in the face of climate change—as a series of lessons learned about the role design and designers can play in building community, as well as lessons in community building. These lessons include the importance of personal desire; ‘deep hanging out’ (as coined by Place Matters); measures of success beyond market drivers, or quantitative impacts; and an inclusive, improvisational, and participatory methodology.

Working simultaneously through art and design, the initial project phase, 2012-2014, built knowledge capacity around bridge design, hydrodynamics, and the waterways as political, economic, and social spaces. Squarely situated in Dunne & Raby’s practice of speculative design—design as a means of speculating about how things could be and to imagine possible futures—a proposal to create a temporary floating walkway tested the bounds of every waterways regulation. As social form—Georg Simmel’s term for the repeated social frameworks like stores, parades, neighborhood associations that define roles and encounters between people—it expanded the traditional definition of bridge, tested assumptions of urban planning, and challenged forms of public access to the waterways. This early phase of research and development of the project was nothing short of world-building: seeking out those with power, expertise, and/or love for in the waterways. This phase consisted of over 4,000 emails, 1200 documents and over 100 meetings with government officials, architects, engineers, environmental advocates, maritime workers and enthusiasts, educators, and community representatives. At the time, the idea of ‘temporary or Pop Up insfrastructure’ was not a defined realm of urban thinking…until Superstorm Sandy collapsed sections of bridges in Jamaica bay.

These lessons will demonstrate practices through which designers can build and coalesce communities. It will also give an extended project narrative that supplies the ‘Why’ and ‘How’ designers might engage and aggregate communities from multiple disciplines and stake-holder groups into a shared collaborative vision.