Recap | Amplify: Creative and Sustainable Lifestyles on the Lower East Side

Are we growing more than plants?  This question — blown up in large pink letters on a white wall in a small gallery on the Lower East Side — frames the core of the Amplify exhibition. Like the Lower East Side, the exhibition, which is the product of over one year of planning, research and design, is undergoing a process of evolution and reinvention. The larger initiative, Amplifying Creative Communities, pioneered by the Design for Sustainability and Social Innovation (DESIS) Lab at Parsons The New School for Design, represents the first stage of a multi-year project made possible, in part, by the Cultural Innovation Fund of the Rockefeller Foundation.

As one of the installation’s curators, Lara Penin, an Assistant Professor in the Design and Management department at Parsons, describes it, “The exhibition is a research process, a process of interaction in which the content can change before, during and after the exhibit.”  So, like the plants on display at the exhibition that need to be watered in order to survive the August heat, the exhibition is designed to grow. The gallery offers a number of points of interaction where participants can contribute ideas, offer suggestions and “vote” on their favorite examples of sustainability and social innovation from around the world.


Photo: Eduardo Staszowski

For example, a large map of the Lower East Side printed on a tabletop, which was produced in cooperation with Green Map, invites the public to draw on their own knowledge to scrawl examples of innovative practices from the Lower East Side on specially-designed blue index cards and place them in the appropriate location on the map. In this way, the designers of the exhibit hope to gather more evidence of community-building, political-engagement and sharing-economies taking place in the neighborhood.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the site of much social innovation resides in the district’s over 40 community gardens. Yet, in September, a 10-year moratorium that governs the protection of the gardens is set to expire, leaving room for hungry real estate developers to turn [garden] “plots” into [condominium] “lots.”  On August 10th, hundreds of gardeners gathered and testified before the City Council in protest of lessening the current protections on the gardens.

As part of the research for the exhibit, the DESIS Lab worked with over 75 students enrolled in a course on “Design and Everyday Experience” to survey and document 17 gardens by interviewing members, taking photos and mapping them digitally using Green Map. Each of the gardens is represented in the gallery by an individual white crate housing a potted plant, some individually and creatively designed by the gardeners themselves. Several days before the opening, a “Happy Green Hour” event was held in partnership with the Lower East Side Ecology Center in order to plant the boxes that made up one wall of the exhibition.

Anyone who has spent time in the community gardens of the Lower East Side knows that their true nature is wild and arresting; many are filled with metal and wooden sculptures, colorful blinking lights, flags and Mexican papel picado (cutout paper) as a backdrop to the frequent community events, music and theater. Yet, the gardens of the exhibit are deliberate and designed. In fact, every element of the displays has been designed over a painstaking eight-month process.


Photo: Eduardo Staszowski

At the opening, which attracted nearly 150 people, a teenage girl from the neighborhood that volunteers with the Green Oasis Community Garden on 8th Street between C and D, beamed with pride and excitement over the miniature representation of her garden on display in the gallery. This is a small but telling sign that the “amplification,” a concept used by the designers at the DESIS Lab, of these activities can make a difference for gardeners and residents on the Lower East Side, participants and passersby that experience and interact with the display, design students as well as the broader design community focused on sustainability and social innovation.

The exhibit seeks to reframe sustainability as a social issue rather than a scientific one. At the same time, it attempts to translate individual and local instances of social innovation such as community gardening to wider and more substantive socio-economic issues. Images of local innovation in sectors such as food and housing from around the world displayed on wall-mounted iPods as well as large colorful design scenarios printed on posters and short videos on cultural diversity, caring for the elderly, eating healthily and living together, all of which were designed by students in an intensive summer course.

The week after the exhibition, the DESIS Lab organized a workshop for a small group of design faculty from around the country and the world, including well-known designer Ezio Manzini from Italy’s Milano Politechnic whose work has deeply influenced the Lab’s founders. The workshop began with a guided tour of the exhibition that spilled out of the windowed gallery and into the amphitheater where Wendy Brawer, the founder of Green Map, led participants on a walk through notable sites on the Lower East Side. The group examined the stickers on the door of activist-space ABC No Rio, nibbled on freshly-made matzo from Streit’s, browsed the stacks at Bluestockings bookstore and peered through the gates to catch a glimpse of the chickens at M’Finda Kalunga Garden.

The DESIS Lab will be turning their attention on a new neighborhood in New York for the upcoming year. The exhibition still has a few weeks to grow but the research process is only beginning.


Photo: Eduardo Staszowski

Amplify is on view August 5th-September 15th at the Abrons Arts Center, Henry Street Settlement, 466 Grand Street, New York, NY 10012.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Laura Forlano is a Postdoctoral Associate at Cornell University and an Adjunct Faculty member in the Design and Management program at Parsons The New School for Design.


The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.