2022 HKS Design Fellowship Focuses on Making Cities More Equitable

Designing public spaces is typically a top-down approach where those in power wield the most influence over the process.

With an estimated 300 people moving to Dallas every day, it’s time for the city to incorporate as many voices as possible in its planning – not just those with the most resources and influence on the public sector.

This concept of shared agency among all constituents can help growing cities pivot from decades of unfair development and better engage communities that have historically been left behind in city planning decisions.

The 2022 HKS Design Fellowship event recently showcased how major cities like Dallas can serve their residents more equitably. The event included a panel discussion hosted by HKS President and CEO, Dan Noble, and presentations from this year’s Design Fellows on ways to improve Dallas’ public spaces.

“Those with authority, capital, and influence have long driven the form of our built environment, skewing spaces to be designed for like-minded individuals,” said HKS Architect Kay Curtis, who is part of the Design Fellowship planning team. “Designers have influence over these decisions, and it’s important for us to understand how those decisions impact those who don’t currently have a seat at the table – and how we can facilitate those voices being a part of the conversation.”

Designers have influence over these decisions, and it’s important for us to understand how those decisions impact those who don’t currently have a seat at the table.

Leading the Change

Panelists LaTosha Herron-Bruff, Senior Vice President of the Dallas Regional Chamber; Darren L. James, President of KAI Enterprises; and Patrick Todd, Managing Partner of Todd Interests Group, are all longtime advocates for Dallas through their respective professions.

During their panel discussion, they shared what inspired them to become involved in their communities and what they believe are areas of opportunity for Dallas.

Herron-Bruff said her dedication to Dallas came from her mother, who was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame for the African American Museum for Educations, and her father, who has owned a real estate company in southern Dallas for more than 50 years.

“Their leadership in those areas have always inspired me and my brother to think about communities and how we help propel others to reach their fullest potential, through education or how people become economically mobile,” Herron-Bruff said.

She has found that her position at the Dallas Regional Chamber helps her to “not just work on one leg of the stool but all three legs of the stool” when it comes to community development.

James said his inspiration also came from his childhood, where he noticed while growing up in St. Louis that the affluent part of the city had nice, open areas while the less-resourced side of the city had community centers that “looked like bunkers.” When he became an architect and moved to Dallas, James saw a similar dichotomy between the city’s affluent and lower-income communities.

“Community engagement is not about having group meetings, it’s about actually going out into the community and recognizing the people that don’t have a voice or may not show up to some of those meetings,” James said.

When Noble asked about barriers in Dallas to “getting things done,” the speakers shared that the city is in a crucial moment of its history with an influx of new residents.

“One of the barriers is that making sure new ideas don’t die on the vine because someone has told you that you can’t do this, or we haven’t done that in Dallas before,” James said. “You’ve got to be persistent, and you’ve got to push.”

Todd said that making the city more equitable doesn’t always have to cost a lot of money. Adding well-lit, ADA-accessible sidewalks that connect different parts of Dallas could improve resident mobility. Activating existing dead spaces could also bring life to neighborhoods facing decline.

But a renaissance is happening in Dallas, Herron-Bruff said, with new design projects intended to give a voice to residents who have historically gone unheard in city planning decisions.

The Southern Gateway Park, for example, will re-connect a neighborhood that for decades has been divided by an interstate highway and differences in resources. The HKS-designed park will include an educational component that showcases the stories of freed slaves who once made Dallas their home.

Another way to enable equity would be to devise new policies that would incentivize developers to take on projects in underrepresented neighborhoods like southern Dallas County, Herron-Bruff said.

“We always say we need to bring the community to the table, but it’s their table and we need the business community at their table,” she said. “Part of the problem is making sure we’re understanding and we’re listening to the community and letting them guide what happens in their community.”

Design Solutions for the Future

The 2022 HKS Design Fellowship allowed nine HKS employees – the most diverse fellow class since the program launched in 2006 – to brainstorm how Dallas can address some of the challenges mentioned by  the panel so that residents can have a stronger sense of shared agency.

“While architects and designers don’t usually have the capital or authority to implement change at a large scale, we can use our influence to plant seeds in those who do,” Curtis said.

This year’s fellows collaborated over a two-month virtual research phase that culminated with a one-week charette at the HKS Dallas office – the firm’s largest – as well as the 2022 Design Fellowship event, where they pitched three ideas to help Dallas become a more equitable city.

Gee Yang Tan from HKS Singapore, Jaya Tolefree from HKS Chicago, and Zac Rudd from HKS Dallas came up with a game called Metafarms where Dallas residents would work on community gardens in exchange for points that would unlock rewards for their contributions.

The Metafarms team said they created the mobile app to encourage residents to physically leave their home to explore their community and meet new people while adding to the city’s green spaces.

Another project, Jubilant Forestry, would focus on multigenerational impact in a Dallas neighborhood where 46 percent of residents live below the poverty line and have historically been left out of Dallas’ development plans.

Bonaventura Satria from HKS Singapore, Hannah Shultz from HKS Dallas, and Shreya Jasrapuria from HKS Chicago said Jubilant Forestry would add to the neighborhood’s ongoing efforts to improve their quality of life by bringing residents into the conversation.

From top left: Bonaventura Satria, Jiming Chen, Zach Orig, Gee Yang Tan, Zac Rudd, Jaya Tolefree, Shreya Jasrapuria, Hannah Shultz, Joey Tan

Jubilant Forestry would build an urban forest in Jubilee Park to promote its residents’ well-being, impacting generations to come as the trees mature over time.

The third team of fellows found that 25 percent of households in downtown Dallas are families where the parents are 25 to 36 years old who are learning to navigate city life with young children.

Joey Tan from HKS Singapore, Jiming Chen from HKS Houston, and Zach Orig from HKS Atlanta said their project – which they called Slowspace – would activate an underutilized plaza in downtown Dallas with play areas for families and create a coloring book for young children to explore what’s in store for them in that plaza.

Curtis described all three ideas as “easy-to-implement, small-scale instigators” that have the potential to leave a big impact on the city as a whole. And although they are theoretical solutions for now, they propose actionable steps for changing our society for the better, she said.

“The Design Fellowship gives up-and-coming innovators in our firm the chance to push boundaries on social and environmental issues without being constrained by a client or budget – while still working within the theoretical world of the plausible,” Curtis said. “This allows them the opportunity to explore their own voices and passions along with similarly ambitious colleagues to see how impactful design can be in achieving these goals.”