What is the role of design in the developing world?

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At the John A. Russell Environmental Design and Landscape, and Urbanism program at the University of Manitoba, I enrolled in an interdisciplinary studio in the first semester of my final year. I found the studio to be a new and exciting experience as it systemized design concepts surrounding an architectural project’s activities. Coming from a landscape design and urbanism background, I felt compelled to consciously think of ways to design for a specific culture and how to un-design systems that re-inscribed modes of intervention associated with the ‘settler’ domination.

What initially drew my attention to this studio was the project’s location: Navajo, New Mexico. At the time, I had very little insight into the Navajo Nation or First Nation’s people, but during the studio briefing, a sense of nostalgia stirred within me. I saw an image of a new housing proposal for an Indian reserve—a set of gimmicky box-houses proposed by a foreign designer. It was unconsciously and possibly unintentionally perpetuating ‘colonist’ ideas with the intention of solving yet another third world problem. My initial response to this experience provoked a series of inquiries throughout the remainder of my final year. Questions such as how does design (architecture, landscape and urbanism) situate itself within complex environments like the developing worlds that exist in and beyond the developed/first world narrative? Can design uplift these cultural landscapes and improve the quality of life within them without enforcing new ways of life? And to what extent can the possibilities of design thrive within these complicated settings?

My childhood was unique and nomadic to an extent. My father—an architect living and practicing in Northern Nigeria at the time—ensured I was exposed to different parts of the world and to people from diverse cultural backgrounds. From trips to Europe to studying and living in New Cairo, I experienced the sublimity of spaces. I watched spaces transform, while some were destroyed as a result of political and religious uprisings or as a means of giving way to new development at the expense of displacing the less privileged of society.

My travels from a young age coupled with being an immigrant from a third world country influenced and shaped many of my thoughts and interpretations of design elements, serving as a source of inspiration. I highlight this aspect of my life because my impression of architectural practice assumes it as being almost unconsciously rigid, egocentric and, at times, detached from nature and social context. Indeed, we all adore bold works of art, but at the same time, it is easy to get absorbed in the pursuit of photogenic perfection and forget the bigger picture. It’s important to take into consideration what the long-term environmental effects of the design are and how the spaces we design will affect the quality of life of those who interact with them on a daily basis.

The possibilities of design are immeasurable and can catalyze social change on a global scale. Sadly, for too long design has been considered a luxury, and projects generally perceived as exceptional or innovative are commonly structures or spaces that only serve a small group in society who can afford to use them. What are the possibilities of design beyond what we often unknowingly identify with as a prerequisite? Our environments today are often the results of technocratic regulations. How do we, as designers propose methodologies that integrate architecture, landscape, urbanism and geography to resolve emerging and third world community design issues?

Earlier this year, I came across a book titled: Design for Good by John Cary. Its foreword by philanthropist Melinda Gates recounts her visit to a clinic in Haiti run by Paul Farmer—significantly a garden with a canopy of flowing vines that he had planted close to the clinic. She highlights how such a gesture that one might initially deem as meagre—considering the social conditions of Haiti—had an empowering and transformative effect on the community. It provided the patients with shade, a place to sit and beautified the surrounding. The garden, as Gates describes, was no longer seen as just a garden, but a symbol of hope and optimism. I believe this is what great design should do: uplift communities.

To bring about any form of social change or progression as designers, we cannot merely adjust to the system. We often omit specific topics like accessible and inclusive design in the conversation. Therefore, these issues need to be regularly raised to focus on how design should not enforce itself upon communities (like First Nations), but instead, should empower them.

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