CUP’s Affordable Housing Toolkit, image ©Damon Rich

Bernd Upmeyer interviewed the American designer, urban planner, and visual artist Damon Rich, based in Newark, New Jersey, who is known for investigating the politics of the built environment. His work studies the shaping of the world through laws, finance, and politics. In 1997, Rich founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), a New York City-based nonprofit organization that uses the power of design and art to improve civic engagement, where he served as Executive Director and lead designer from 1997 to 2007, when he retired from CUP staff while continuing to serve on the Board of Directors through this year. From 2008 to 2015, Rich served as the Planning Director & Chief Urban Designer for the City of Newark, New Jersey. He now is principal with Jae Shin of planning and design firm Hector Design Service, while continuing his practice as an educator and exhibition-maker. The interview took place in September 2015.

Center for Urban Pedagogy

Bernd Upmeyer: In 2004 you were one of the first contributors to MONU Magazine with an article, written together with your “Center for Urban Pedagogy”, for MONU’s issue #1 entitled “Imagining the Subsidized Landscape”. Just a couple of years previously you founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy, a nonprofit organization that uses the power of design and art to improve the quality of public participation in urban planning and community design in New York City. What were your motivations for creating this organization and why did you want it to focus on public participation at that time? What were your ideals and who were your role models from the past?
Damon Rich: Hello. Yes, I am remembering the legitimating thrill of being asked by a European journal (I pictured MONU as dour as the Frankfurt School) to report on some of CUP’s work. The feeling reflected the European orientation of my architectural education, which heroized early 20th-century modernism through the distorting lens of the 1970s US East Coast architectural vanguard.


Improving the Quality of Participation

BU: How, at first, did you intend to use design and art to improve the quality of public participation in urban planning and community design through the Center for Urban Pedagogy? Can you give some examples? What kind of projects did you do in relation to public participation and where were they located?
DR: From a disciplinary perspective, coming from the planet of axonometric models, I wanted to put architecture back into the world. Rather than only insisting on responsible design in panel discussions with other architects, I wanted to join people working systematically increase democratic control of the built environment in a context dominated by property-rights. This meant asking, in public, to whom design responds. I wanted to be helpful in the steady and slow work of turning around institutions and design processes that use abstraction to link democracy and the built environment in order to put something like a public in its deserved place. I bring up the disciplinary issue because I found these to be some of the biggest impediments to designers working well with partners outside of the field…

…the complete interview was published in MONU #23 on the topic of Participatory Urbanism on October 19, 2015.

Title: Participation as a Battlefield
Project: Interview with Damon Rich
Date: September 2015
Type: Commissioned interview
Topic: Participatory Urbanism
Organizer: MONU
Status: Published
Publications: MONU #23, P. 57-65
Interviewer: Bernd Upmeyer