Memphis’s new Tom Lee Park is designed to be a mixer for the city’s economically, socially, and racially diverse communities. Photo: Ty Cole/SCAPE

How Design Bridges (and Divides) Communities Across North America

METROPOLIS’s September/October 2023 explores the intersection of the built environment and community-building. 

During a conversation with writer Stephen Zacks as he was reporting his story on Tom Lee Park in Memphis, Carol Coletta, president and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership, pointed to some new research by economist Raj Chetty that appeared in the venerable journal Nature last year: “The ability to form weak tie networks with people wealthier than they are is the only thing that has an impact on the upward mobility of low-income people.” 

The massive study, based on the social networks of 72.2 million Facebook users ages 25 to 44 years, yielded another insight that’s equally interesting: Rich people’s friendship networks are more likely to be made up of people who went to college with them than people who live in the same neighborhood. The inverse is true of most low-income individuals.

These are indicators that as income inequality in the United States continues to rise—as reported by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office—the social chasm between the haves and have-nots is likely to deepen. Even worse, if we don’t create more ways for people to encounter those unlike themselves, the chances to close that gap will get slimmer and slimmer.

So our annual North American Design issue provides a few snapshots of how design can either bridge or divide communities.

“It’s more vital than ever before that architects and interior designers hold on to our core principle—we work to bring people together, not drive them apart.” 

Avinash Rajagopal, METROPOLIS editor in chief

Tom Lee Park has the mission of bringing people together, as does The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, one of America’s most important art organizations. In The Clay Studio’s old building, “people who participated in different aspects of their programming didn’t always have the opportunity to meet by chance,” Sarah Archer reports. The finely crafted new structure, says DIGSAU architect Mark Sanderson, is a place to “see the arts in action.”

Less than a hundred miles east it’s a different story. In “What Recreational Cannabis Means for Dispensary Design in New York,” associate editor Jaxson Stone analyzes how the design of cannabis dispensaries in New York City reinforces class differences. The city’s Office of Cannabis Management has issued a 47-page guide for any outlet that wants to sell marijuana legally. One of the things it bans, Stone reports, is “any color which…has a saturation value greater than 60 percent.” The result of this kind of bureaucratic gatekeeping? There are only twelve licensed dispensaries operating in all of New York City; five of them in white-majority neighborhoods. Let me remind you that between 2015 and 2018, Black and Hispanic New Yorkers were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight and five times, respectively, the rate of White people, despite all three communities using marijuana at roughly the same rate. 

What a blatant example of design being instrumentalized for segregation!

The truth is, decision makers at cities and organizations will always leverage designers’ work to further their agendas, and our best response would be to define and adhere to professional standards. The heads of our professional associations here in the United States are making inclusion a cornerstone of their leadership (“Executives of America’s A&D Associations Highlight Pressing Industry Issues“), and rightly so. It’s more vital than ever before that architects and interior designers hold on to our core principle—we work to bring people together, not drive them apart. 

Here are all the stories from the September/October 2023 issue:


Step Outside

At All Scales

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