Mercado Central in Minneapolis, MN.

MN Impact: Multidisciplinary research leads to an online community focused on designing for culturally enriched communities

April 1, 2021

The Issue

As the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color and the global call for racial justice demonstrated, securing Minnesota’s and the nation’s prosperous future is inextricably linked to identifying and addressing systems of exclusion. Minnesota consistently ranks among the top 10 states in the country in terms of quality of life. Yet, the state experiences some of the widest health, income, and educational disparities between people of color and Whites. This research explores how the built environment can be used to create Culturally Enriched Communities (CEC), healthy and connected communities in which everyone can thrive. The premise is that there can be no social justice without design justice—that is, designs that support and nourish the well-being of all. Design is thereby added as another avenue for re-building communities and strengthening the economic and cultural vitality of cities and neighborhoods.

Key Activities

Interviews were conducted with elected officials, planners and policymakers from 20 communities/municipalities around Minnesota with an aim of identifying best practices and challenges to creating Culturally Enriched Communities (CEC). These design interventions inform CEC’s eight principles: Synergistic Communities, People-Centered Communities, Globally-Oriented Communities, Meaning-Making Communities, Relationship-Building Communities, Health-Supporting Communities, Capability-Building Communities, and Innovation-Driven Communities. 

Given that eliminating disparities cannot be accomplished by one discipline or sector alone, CEC is inherently a multi-disciplinary/multi-sectoral effort that brings together knowledge and insights from design along with health, sociology, geography, education, politics, business, and public policy. An inherent aspect of CEC is providing opportunities where all sectors can come together–from federal, state, and local governments to public safety officials, educators, health providers, businesses, faith leaders, city planners, designers, and citizen advocates–to denounce racism, injustice, and marginalization in all forms. 

In addition to lessons from Minnesota, the CEC database of design interventions now includes Copenhagen, one of the world’s healthiest cities. The goal is to continue to expand the resource with best practices from cities around the US and the world.

Results

In January 2020, we launched www.cec-design.com to more effectively and widely disseminate best practices for how to use design in building a more equitable and just world to Minnesota’s elected officials, planners, affordable housing providers, designers, educators, advocates, and beyond. Best practices range from home interiors to parks, museums, ethnic businesses, markets, clinics, etc. and come primarily from urban, suburban, and rural Minnesota.

The Culturally Enriched Communities website (https://www.cec-design.com) fuses interdisciplinary research findings with design-related best practices that can be used to eliminate health, income, and educational racial disparities and strengthen the economic and cultural vitality of neighborhoods, cities, regions, and states. Searchable by building type, advocates can find design-related interventions they can implement for everything from homes to retail, restaurants, parks, and streets. And lastly, searchable by location/neighborhood, enables advocates to form partnerships and synergies in their area while giving visibility to the neighborhoods’/cities’ resilience.

Once the pandemic hit last March, we used the CEC platform to feature design interventions to COVID-19 from around the world along with information on vulnerable populations that could benefit from attention. And then in May, 2020, following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, we created “Landscapes of Hope”, a research project undertaken in the Twin Cities that documented the stories of over 200 buildings impacted by the protests, elaborating on how the design of the built environment can pave the way for social and racial justice. “Landscapes of Hope” demonstrates how environmental design research can reverse health, income, and educational disparities.  

Public Value

Since its launch in January 2020, the website had over 13,000 visitors; has been shared through the digital platforms of municipalities, businesses, and organizations featured; used in teaching and research across institutions; and attracted media attention. All these help position Minnesota as a role model for eliminating disparities and creating vibrant and economically sustainable futures and the University of Minnesota’s College of Design as a site of social and design justice.