Design+ city and City+ design: An interview with Terri Matthews


By Laetitia Wolff

Terri Matthews is director of Town+Gown, a city-wide university+community partnership platform hosted the NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC). The program brings academics and practitioners together to create knowledge in the built environment. A graduate of Boston College Law School and NYU Wagner School of Public Service, Matthews has worked in both public and private sectors. In addition to public finance law experience, Matthews’ governmental experience spans both the legislative and executive branches and includes public budgeting, public finance, public procurement and built environment public policy.

Since 2011 Laetitia Wolff has collaborated with Terri Matthews on several academic projects, via the School of Visual Arts and her own practice and, as a board member of Town+Gown, and has contributed to advocating for design beyond just architecture in Town+Gown’s portfolio . She sat with Terri as Town&Gown celebrates its eighth year and assesses its impact.


Laetitia Wolff: How does Town+Gown accomplish its mission?

Terri Matthews: Town+Gown aims to increase evidence-based analysis, information transfer, and understanding in the built environment. We facilitate partnerships across the academic-practitioner divide, which involves negotiating differing expectations, motivations, understanding and language, hoping to produce work that benefits both sides. Using New York City’s built environment as a laboratory for applied research within a systemic “action research” structure, our ultimate objective is to implement changes in practices and policies based on research results. Action research is based on the collaborative inquiry model of research that treats practitioners and academics as equals in knowledge production. Research moves toward a reflection phase–accomplished through dissemination of abstracts in Building Ideas, a series of annual reviews, and discussion of completed projects at symposium events. The reflection phase leads to some form of “action,” which often consists of further research.

LW: What type of design research do you encourage via Town+Gown?

TM: Town+Gown supports research in all aspects of design using multiple research methodologies. The recognized “built environment” inter-discipline, that Town+Gown based itself on, includes the architecture discipline. Town+Gown modified architecture to become design, initially to include several engineering disciplines without which built environment artifacts couldn’t be constructed and which contribute to design. While participating on committees in the early years of NYCxDESIGN and learning more about the many meanings of design, Town+Gown further modified design to a suite of integrated design disciplines that interface with architecture and engineering–such as interior, lighting, landscape, service, communications (or visual), digital and product design.

LW:  To date what’s the main achievement of T+G in the design category?

TM: At the beginning, Town+Gown found it difficult to facilitate projects in design, and had to begin its work in that discipline by capturing a project that had been completed outside Town+Gown. So, the biggest achievement for Town+Gown in design has been the growth and wealth of design-related projects  since academic year 2010-2011. Town+Gown has created, captured and/or supported 18 design-related research projects in its experiential learning area, and has produced eight design-related symposium events.

LW: Share with us an exemplary project of T+G, one that demonstrates a successful collaboration between a school and a city agency?

TM:  Among the completed design research projects are a series of student-led architecture, interior design and communication design projects that aimed at implementing the “People’s Precinct” concept within NYPD  73rd precinct in Brownsville (New York Police Department). The architecture project focused on implementing a community room component meant for joint police-community activities in a space-constrained building. The student-led design process in the Pratt/Architecture design studio included participatory design with all stakeholders and concluded with a design proposal for a modular, prefabricated and movable structure, called the “Community Connection Pavilion” pod, to be placed on the sidewalk next to the building. The student-led design was intended to then lead to a design-build of the pod, which didn’t happen. However, NYPD, informed by this research project as it progressed, did include community rooms consistent with the recommendations of the “People’s Precinct” program in the designs of two new NYPD precinct buildings—the 40th (Bronx) and 116th Precincts (Queens)– which constitutes some form of “action.”

LW: When did students surprise you the most?

TM:  Out of the participatory design process of the “Community Connections Pavilion” pod emerged an electronic “bulletin board”–the idea was also inspired by the successful, an AIGA/NY Design Relief creative placemaking project–also captured by Town+Gown. This “bulletin board” was to be an info-sharing resource to be used by the community and NYPD to support “People’s Precinct” programming objectives. In summer 2016, we organized a follow-up communications design project, that paired NYPD with the School of Visual Arts’ Impact! Design for Social Change. Based on interviews with the police and select community members, students focused on devising content and a potential process for the bulletin board. Their project explored in detail what was necessary to create an infrastructure that would be accessible and sustainable to both the neighborhood and NYPD, while bridging relationships between the two. I was amazed at how those students were able to dig deeper and be right on point when identifying the neighborhood’s pressing need to “change the story” of Brownsville–a key to improving the NYPD-community relationship, which the bulletin board could help bring about.

The fact that a design research project is not implemented immediately or even in the short- to medium-term shouldn’t deem the project to be a failure, but the nature of the design field tends to create that impression.

LW: What has been the main challenge of the model?

TM:The implementation of design research projects is a particular challenge. One of the main problems with design research projects is the level of place-based specificity that doesn’t exist in more abstract research projects in the other Built Environment disciplines. The design research focus on a specific place or a specific building makes the experiential learning mode challenging, because it has within it expectations that the results will be applied by the government partner directly and immediately to the study site once the project is completed. What a government practitioner more often than not ends up doing is taking the research results back for further analysis to assess overall feasibility within the broader program that operates within a context that involves many other government agencies and city-wide considerations. The fact that a design research project is not implemented immediately or even in the short- to medium-term shouldn’t deem the project to be a failure, but the nature of the design field tends to create that impression.

We discussed this challenge recently at our last symposium event—Pushing Design Research into Implementation—that focused on three projects to better understand the variety of routes taken and discuss impediments to implementing design research projects.

Lessons learned:

  1. The line from research to implementation is not a straight one.
  2. The route to implementation is nothing like what was imagined at the completion, much less the initiation, of a project.
  3.  While it may seem to take a long time for “action,” it’s important to remember the practitioner partner on these design research project was government, and the ideas emanating from these types of research projects never die because the need generating them was real.

What’s your main observation about the city’s engagement with design?

TM: Design researchers need to have a better understanding of the world their public sector partners operate in so they can establish for themselves more realistic expectations. A series of Town+Gown symposium events have consisted of an evolving exploration of the meaning of Design and its interrelation to public policy {see Design+Policy]. The conversations at these events explored how design-based research methodologies can help turn design information into knowledge that, in turn, can affect policy change in a cyclical process that includes policy recommendations, implementation and evaluation. The tool “10 things public policy analysts should know about design and 10 things designers should know about public policy analysis” was meant to help both sides reach across the divide and inform cross-disciplinary collaborations. It also created awareness that action research for government practitioners must have a longer-term horizon than typical design projects for private sector clients.