2021 ACSA Teachers Conference, Curriculum for Climate Agency: Design in Action

Designing for the Most Vulnerable: Cultivating More Genuine Empathy Through Transdisciplinary Research

Teachers Proceedings

Author(s): Michelle Laboy

What would cities look like if they were designed for the most vulnerable? This question proved fertile ground for a research-based pedagogy focused on one specifically vulnerable group—young children—disproportionately impacted by current social unrest, ecological degradation, and extreme urbanization; and yet seldomly the subject of architectural research or education except in limited typologies, e.g. schools and playgrounds—where they are segregated into. The two-semester research studio asked, what if instead of more or better spaces dedicated to children, the entire city was redesigned for them? Students examined the child’s experience in the contemporary city and the way design turns children’s vulnerability into a liability, especially in the context of urbanization and climate change. During the first of two semesters, students collaborated in transdisci¬plinary research resulting in a jointly-authored framework of evidence-based design principles: playfulness, safety, health, sustainability, and inclusivity; arguing how designing for children would make a better city for everyone. Drawing on ample evidence of how open and frequent access to immersive experiences in natural landscapes positively influence children’s cognitive, physical and emotional development; the course challenged whether these “natural experiences” are at odds with dense and compact urban development. This polemic generated a challenge for design research during the second semester: how to design “natural experiences” into everyday spaces of dense cities, beyond the centralized park? This was a point of departure for ten individual design investigations, that together illustrate the potential for a new constructed urban landscape. Projects focused in the city of Boston, including planning for inclusive housing, transportation, and coastal resilience; and hybrids of socio-ecological infrastructure and learning environments. This pedagogical analysis reveals how transdisciplinary research expands the definition of vulnerability, cultivates genuine empathy, and builds confidence in designers’ social agency; but also uncovers unique challenges and opportunities for architectural education and practice.


Volume Editors
Jonathan A. Scelsa & Jørgen Johan Tandberg