By Shani Rodan
Cassim Shepard produces non-fiction media about cities, buildings and places. He is the founding editor-in-chief of Urban Omnibus, an online publication of The Architectural League of New York, which he headed from 2009 to 2014. His film and video work has been screened at the Venice Architecture Biennale, the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the United Nations. Shepard teaches in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.
We spoke with Shepard about his book and his intention to tell stories about New York City in a broad urban context for the general public.
Project dates and location in NYC:
The book is called “City Makers: The Culture and Craft of Practical Urbanism”.
It came out in October of 2017 and is the culmination of many years of work that I did at the Architectural League of New York.
The project purpose:
Every week, we would publish on Urban Omnibus a new project that was intending to make the built environment of New York City a better place, more equitable, sustainable, and more just. The book tried to regroup and retell those stories in a broader urban context, mixing it up with urban theory and the history of urban development. The book tries to claim a new identity for an expanded version of practice that includes designers and architects, engaged citizens, civil servants, artists, and interpreters of the built environment in order to advance the conversation about what kind of city we want to have, and how to go about getting it, enabling agency and participation of the widest amount of potential city makers.
The key audience for the project:
The key audience is anyone who is passionate about cities or about their neighborhood, or about trying to make where they live a better place. That includes architects and professionals, engaged citizens, and it also includes, people who are, as I like to say, just kind of nerdy about cities. They might not be professionally involved in city making, but they care about a new development coming into their neighborhood.
One challenge overcome in bringing this project to life:
We published 350 stories in Urban Omnibus. Figuring out what was the appropriate scope for something that would be feasible to complete in a book project was a challenge. I loved the opportunity to look at everything we’ve covered as a data set that allows me to build an argument about ways in which urban practice was growing and changing. We could take specific examples in the five boroughs of New York and hopefully apply those lessons to people who want to make change in communities around the world.
We need to have a more expanded conversation about urban practice that includes not only designers, but designers in collaboration with public servants, artists, community members, and with community based organizations.
What makes this project special:
We need to have a more expanded conversation about urban practice that includes not only designers, but designers in collaboration with public servants, artists, community members, and with community based organizations. This book draws a circle around a wider expansive understanding of what city making is, and brings that into conversation with the designers and the real estate developers who are always going to be driving change, but need to do it in collaboration with a wider group of individuals who care about their communities.
Surprising facts about the project:
One surprising story is about the wooden birdhouses. Bunch of architects in their free time got together to create a series of birdhouses from found materials on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, which is this toxic waste dump in Brooklyn. They were interested in pointing attention to the bird life, but what has been surprising about that, is that it enabled local nonprofits to have easier time of recruiting volunteers to help clean up because the simple intervention of the birdhouses signified to the local community that this was a wildlife habitat in addition to being a post-industrial toxic environment!