Texas is a state rich with diversity and contradictions. I have lived here less than one year, but the overwhelming variety of opinions, perspectives and values is more extreme than in any other place I have experienced in my 50 years, living in 8 different states, 4 different countries, and many different communities. What excites me most is the work that is going on across the state, within communities where architects, designers, planners, and community organizers are working with citizens and organizations who would not otherwise have access to design, with the goal of improving the quality of life for all involved.
From 2006–2018 I was a professor and administrator at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. Initially, I focused on sustainable design, but over time, my research, scholarship, and practice transitioned toward academic design/build, community engagement, and public interest design. Since 2008, I have been working with a nonprofit called Village Life Outreach Project, leading the design and construction of a zero-energy health center in Roche, Tanzania with the input of several nonprofit partners and many members of the Roche community.
In 2011, I began directing the MetroLAB Community Design/Build initiative at UC. Faculty from the School of Architecture led design studios with local nonprofits in which we worked directly with under-resourced communities to help them reimagine public spaces within their neighborhoods.
My wife and I accepted positions at The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) in summer 2018, and my primary role at UTA is to direct the Architectural Engineering program. However, I am also involved in creating a new Community Design/Build center with dean of the UTA College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs (CAPPA), Adrian Parr.
Anyone involved in meaningful community engagement work knows that the success of this work is dependent on the trust you have from the communities you are working with. That trust is developed slowly, over time. So, arriving in a completely new environment where I had no previous community relationships, I quickly realized that my capacity to do work with communities would have to be developed slowly.
Soon after arriving, I met Don Gatzke, FAIA, a professor of architecture at UTA and the previous dean, who had been co-leading the TxA Urban Design Committee with Betsy del Monte, FAIA. This committee had evolved into the Community Design Action Team, and after hearing about my interests, Don asked me to lead this new committee. In this opportunity, I saw the possibility of learning what others are doing across the state and helping to organize and coordinate the community outreach that is occurring throughout many cities, rural areas, and regions across Texas.
The Community Design Action Team met for the first time on January 18, 2019 in Austin at the TxA office. About 30 people from across Texas participated in a day-long workshop that involved sharing recent projects and identifying specific goals for the action team. There was great energy and enthusiasm, and we have continued to have great dialogue amongst the group.
Our first step is to start a monthly blog series on the Texas Architect website where those involved in community design across the state can share their experience with projects, communities, and the process of community engagement. If you are interested in contributing a blog post (~800 words with photos), notify me (Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org). Next month, we will feature the work of Ellen Mitchell-Kozack, founder and director of Citizen HKS, who will share her perspective on engaging public interest design in a large firm.
We are also planning to meet again as a group on the evening of Wednesday, October 23, before the TxA Annual Conference and Design Expo in Galveston. We are still finalizing plans for that event, but pencil it into your schedule.
If you are one of the architects, designers, engineers, planners, or others involved with placemaking who feels driven to learn from the people for and with whom we are designing, please reach out to us and get involved with the TxA Community Design Action Team. Those doing this work know the importance of collaboration and partnerships. We have so much to learn from each other.
I look forward to learning from all of you.
Michael Zaretsky, AIA is the Director of Architectural Engineering Program – Civil Engineering Department and Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.