Community Design Collaborative Helps Rebuild Philly, One Project at a Time

By Darren White
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 22, 2011

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Church grower: A conceptual plan for the expansion of St. Mary's Episcopal Church.

On the back wall of the Center for Architecture on Arch Street, a hand-made sign reads, “Community Design is….” Some visitors write “inclusive and experimental”; others say it’s “making stronger communities” and “crucial to the future of our communities.”

To the Community Design Collaborative, the best response would be “making the right thing to do the easiest thing to do”—because that has been its mission for the past 20 years. Leverage: Strengthening Neighborhoods Through Design, a new book released by the organization this month and available at the Center for Architecture, celebrates the smart, progressive design that the CDC has helped facilitate in Philadelphia over the course of its existence, and the community design revolution that is taking root in major cities across the United States.

“Leverage is our key word,” says Beth Miller, the CDC’s executive director, of the book, which celebrates 20 of the CDC’s 500 collaborative projects since 1991. The word succinctly describes what the CDC does every day: provides pro-bono preliminary design and planning services for nonprofits and communities looking to get things built in Philadelphia. From church rehabs to new green spaces, the CDC has handled it all, with the help of more than 1,000 volunteers.

“We’re able to leverage a lot of services,” Miller continues. “Last year, the value of service of the design professionals that worked through us in service to communities was $900,000. And that’s money you can’t find anywhere. There are no preliminary design grants out there. Funders usually want to be the last money in, so it’s a critical point. And it’s such a great match of service, interest and need. It’s a lot of small interventions from the grassroots up—very granular—but collectively it can make a huge impact.”

Miller, who joined the CDC as its first full-time employee 10 years ago, has seen the way its planning services have helped turn practical ideas into great design with the help of the city’s best architectural talents. Community groups and nonprofits apply to the CDC for help each year, and the organization chooses 30 projects to work on for that period. The CDC puts these community groups in touch with the right designers and planners to create concrete plans for mostly-developed ideas.

“Philadelphia is so rich in its neighborhood fabric,” Miller says. “And so for us, its about how to connect architects that have a great set of skills with the more basic desires and needs and provide access to grassroots organizations to help them see these transformations happen and get communities involved. We’re able to serve as these matchmakers … working with both [design professionals and community groups] to come up with some great concepts.”

Projects include contemporary plans for an expansion and renovation of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, designed by John Hubert Architects.

Another one of the CDC’s collaborations demonstrates the level of eye-catching design that the CDC is helping to put on the streets. When members of the Mt. Tabor AME Church came to the CDC looking for help in builing a place for seniors to have safe access to technology and affordable housing, the organizations sent out a call to its volunteers asking for help. BWA Architects was eager to respond and subsequently developed the Cyber Village Senior Housing (included in the exhibition), an amazingly contemporary design completed on a tight budget. It includes 54 rental units and a Cyber Cafe made for its residents and other senior community members.

“We are just here to kick start a lot of ideas, and hopefully some of those ideas make it through the constellation of stars that must align for something to happen, but it’s really nice to be involved in those beginning stages,” Miller says.

"Leverage: Strengthening Neighborhoods through Design," $24.95, is available at the AIA Bookstore + Design Center, 1218 Arch St.

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