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TEDWomen 2017

Liz Ogbu: What if gentrification was about healing communities instead of displacing them?

Filmed:
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Liz Ogbu is an architect who works on spatial justice: the idea that justice has a geography and that the equitable distribution of resources and services is a human right. In San Francisco, she's questioning the all too familiar story of gentrification: that poor people will be pushed out by development and progress. "Why is it that we treat culture erasure and economic displacement as inevitable?" she asks, calling on developers, architects and policymakers to instead "make a commitment to build people's capacity to stay in their homes, to stay in their communities, to stay where they feel whole."

- Designer, urbanist, social change agent
Liz Ogbu works with/in communities in need, to use tactical, human-centered design to tackle wicked social problems and catalyze community healing. Full bio

I grew up in a family
of social scientists,
00:13
but I was the weird child who drew.
00:17
(Laughter)
00:20
From making sketches of the models
in my mom's Sears catalog ...
00:21
to a bedroom so full of my craft projects
00:27
that it was like my own
personal art gallery,
00:29
I lived to make.
00:33
I don't think anyone in my family
was surprised when I became an architect.
00:36
But to be honest with you,
00:41
the real foundation
of the architect I became
00:44
was not laid in that bedroom art gallery
00:46
but by the conversations
around my family's dinner table.
00:49
There were stories of how people
lived and connected to one another,
00:53
from the impact of urban migration
on a village in Zambia
00:57
to the complex health care needs
01:01
of the homeless
in the streets of San Francisco.
01:03
Now, it would be fair
01:06
if you're looking over at your seatmate
01:07
and wondering, "What the hell
does that have to do with architecture?"
01:09
Well, all of these stories involved space
01:13
and how it did or didn't accommodate us.
01:18
The fact is,
01:23
we share some of our deepest connections
01:24
in physical space.
01:26
And our stories play out,
01:28
even in this crazy age
of texting and tweeting,
01:29
in physical space.
01:33
Unfortunately, architecture
hasn't done a great job
01:36
of telling all of our stories equally.
01:40
Too often, we see the building
of monuments like the Gherkin
01:43
or even Trump Tower ...
01:47
(Laughter)
01:48
that tell the story of the haves
rather than the have-nots.
01:50
Throughout my career,
01:55
I've actively resisted the practice
01:57
of building monuments
to certain peoples' stories --
01:58
usually white, male, rich --
02:01
and bulldozing other peoples' stories --
02:05
usually people of color
02:07
from low-income communities.
02:09
I've tried to create a practice
02:11
that is rooted in elevating the stories
02:13
of those who have
most often been silenced.
02:15
That work --
02:19
it's been a mission in spatial justice.
02:21
(Applause)
02:24
Now, spatial justice
means that we understand
02:30
that justice has a geography,
02:32
and that the equitable distribution
of resources, services and access
02:36
is a basic human right.
02:42
So what does spatial justice look like?
02:45
Well, I'd like to share a story with you.
02:48
For years,
02:51
I've been working in the historically
African-American neighborhood
02:53
of Bayview Hunters Point in San Francisco,
02:56
on a plot of land
that once held a power plant.
02:58
Back in the '90s,
03:01
a community group led by mothers
who lived in the public housing
03:02
on the hill above the plant
03:05
fought for its closure.
03:07
They won.
03:09
The utility company finally tore it down,
03:10
cleaned the soil
03:13
and capped most of the site with asphalt
03:14
so that the clean soil wouldn't blow away.
03:16
Sounds like a success story, right?
03:19
Well, not so fast.
03:22
You see, because of various issues
like land entitlements,
03:24
lease agreements, etc.,
03:27
the land actually couldn't be redeveloped
for at least five to 10 years.
03:29
What that meant is that this community
03:34
that had been living
near a power plant for decades,
03:37
now had 30 acres of asphalt
in their backyard.
03:40
To put that in context for you,
03:47
30 acres is equal
to about 30 football fields.
03:49
Now, the utility company
didn't want to be the bad guy here.
03:52
Recognizing that they owed the community,
03:56
they actually put out a call for designers
03:58
to propose temporary uses for this site,
04:00
hoping to turn it into a community benefit
04:02
rather than blight.
04:05
I'm part of the diverse team of designers
that responded to that call,
04:07
and for the last four years,
04:11
we've been collaborating
with those mothers
04:12
and other residents,
04:14
as well as local organizations
and the utility company.
04:15
We've been experimenting
with all types of events
04:19
to try and address issues
of spatial justice.
04:22
Everything from job training workshops
04:24
to an annual circus
04:27
to even a beautiful, new shoreline trail.
04:29
In the four years
that we've been operational,
04:32
over 12,000 people have come
and done something on this site
04:35
that we hope has transformed
their relationship to it.
04:38
But lately,
04:44
I'm starting to realize
that events are not enough.
04:45
A few months ago,
04:50
there was a community meeting
in this neighborhood.
04:51
The utility company was finally ready
to talk concretely
04:54
about long-term redevelopment.
04:57
That meeting was kind of a disaster.
05:00
There was a lot of yelling and anger.
05:04
People asked things like,
05:06
"If you're going
to sell it to a developer,
05:08
wouldn't they just build
luxury condos like everyone else?"
05:10
And "Where has the city been?"
05:13
"Why aren't there more jobs
and resources in this neighborhood?"
05:14
It was not that our events
had failed to bring joy.
05:19
But in spite of that,
there was still pain here.
05:23
Pain from a history
of environmental injustice
05:27
that left many industrial
uses in this neighborhood,
05:30
leaving residents living near toxic waste
05:34
and, literally, shit.
05:36
There's pain from the fact
05:39
that this zip code still has
one of the lowest per capita income,
05:40
highest unemployment
05:45
and highest incarceration rates
05:46
in a city which tech giants
like Twitter, Airbnb and Uber call home.
05:48
And those tech companies --
05:53
hm --
05:55
they've actually helped to trigger
a gentrification push
05:56
that is rapidly redefining
this neighborhood,
05:59
both in terms of identity and population.
06:01
Now let me pause for a moment
to talk about gentrification.
06:05
I suspect for a lot of us,
it's kind of like a dirty word.
06:10
It's become synonymous
with the displacement
06:15
of poor residents from their neighborhood
06:17
by wealthier newcomers.
06:19
If you've ever been displaced,
06:21
then you know the agony
of losing a place that held your story.
06:23
And if you haven't experienced this,
06:28
then I'm going to ask you to try
and imagine your way into it right now.
06:30
Think about what it would be like
to find your favorite local spot,
06:35
a place where you often went and hung out
with the old-timers or your friends,
06:38
had vanished.
06:43
And then you get home,
06:45
and you find a from your landlord,
06:46
saying that your rent's been doubled.
06:48
The choice to stay --
06:51
it's not yours to make.
06:54
You no longer belong in your home.
06:56
And know that this feeling
you're feeling right now,
07:00
it would be the same
07:04
regardless of whether or not the person
who harmed you meant to do so.
07:06
Developer Majora Carter once said to me,
07:12
"Poor people don't hate gentrification.
07:15
They just hate that they rarely get
to hang around long enough
07:17
to enjoy its benefits."
07:20
Why is it that we treat culture erasure
and economic displacement as inevitable?
07:23
We could approach development
07:30
with an acknowledgment
of past injustices --
07:32
find value not only in those new stories
07:35
but the old ones, too.
07:37
And make a commitment to build
people's capacity to stay --
07:39
to stay in their homes,
07:43
to stay in their communities,
07:45
to stay where they feel whole.
07:47
But to do this rethink,
07:52
it requires looking
at those past injustices
07:54
and the pain and grief
that is interwoven into them.
07:57
And as I started to reflect
on my own work,
08:00
I realized that pain and grief
have been recurring themes.
08:03
I heard it early on
in the Bayview Hunters Point project
08:07
when a man named Daryl said,
08:09
"We've always been
set aside like an island --
08:11
a no-man's-land."
08:14
I also heard it in Houston,
08:16
when I was working on a project
with day laborers.
08:18
And as Juan told me stories
of being robbed of his wages many times
08:20
on the corner in which he stood every day
08:23
to earn a living to support his family,
08:26
he asked,
08:29
"Why can't anyone see
the sacredness of this site?"
08:30
You know, you've seen the pain, too.
08:34
From campaigns around statue removals
in Charlottesville and New Orleans ...
08:38
to towns that have lost
their industrial lifeblood
08:43
and are now dying,
08:46
like Lorain, Ohio and Bolton, England.
08:47
We often rush to remake these places,
08:51
thinking that we can ease their pain.
08:54
But in our boundless desire to do good,
08:58
to get past all of our mistakes,
09:01
to build places that hold possibility,
09:02
we often maintain a blissful ignorance
09:06
of a landscape filled
with a very long trail of broken promises
09:10
and squelched dreams.
09:15
We are building on top of brokenness.
09:18
Is it any wonder
that the foundations cannot hold?
09:22
Holding space for pain and grief
was never part of my job description
09:27
as an architect --
09:30
after all, it's not expedient,
09:32
focused on beauty,
09:34
and hell, even requested by my clients.
09:35
But I've seen what happens
when there's space for pain.
09:40
It can be transformational.
09:43
Returning to our story,
09:46
when we first started working
in the neighborhood,
09:48
one of the first things we did
09:51
was go out and interview the activists
who had led the fight to close the plant.
09:52
We consistently heard and felt from them
a sense of impending loss.
09:57
The neighborhood was already changing,
10:01
even back then.
10:03
People were leaving or dying of old age,
10:04
and with those departures,
stories were being lost.
10:06
To those activists,
10:10
no one was going to know
the amazing things
10:12
that had happened in this community,
10:14
because to everyone on the outside,
10:16
it was the ghetto.
10:19
At worst, a place of violence;
10:21
at best, a blank slate.
10:22
Neither was true, of course.
10:26
So my colleagues and I,
we reached out to StoryCorps.
10:29
And with their support,
10:33
and that of the utility company,
10:34
we built a listening booth on our site.
10:36
And we invited the residents to come
10:38
and have their stories
recorded for posterity.
10:40
After a few days of recording,
10:43
we held a listening party
10:46
where we played clips,
10:48
much like what you hear
on NPR every Friday morning.
10:49
That party --
10:53
it was one of the most amazing
community meetings
10:55
I've ever been a part of.
10:57
In part because we didn't
just talk about joy
10:59
but also pain.
11:03
Two stories that I remember well --
11:05
AJ talked about what it was like
to grow up in the neighborhood.
11:07
There was always a kid to play with.
11:10
But he also spoke with sadness
11:13
of what it was like to first be stopped
and questioned by a police officer
11:14
when he was 11.
11:18
GL also talked about the kids,
11:21
and the ups and downs of the experience
of living in this neighborhood,
11:23
but he also spoke with pride
11:27
of some of the organizations
that had sprung up
11:29
to provide support and empowerment.
11:31
He wanted to see more of that.
11:34
By holding space
to first express pain and grief,
11:37
we were then able
to brainstorm ideas for a site --
11:40
amazing ideas that then became the seeds
of what we did over the next four years.
11:43
So why the radically
different meeting now?
11:49
Well ...
11:52
the pain and grief woven into these spaces
was not created in a day.
11:53
Healing also takes time.
11:58
After all, who here thinks you can
go to therapy just once and be cured?
12:02
(Laughter)
12:06
Anyone?
12:08
I didn't think so.
12:10
In retrospect,
12:12
I wish that we had held
more listening sessions,
12:13
not just joyful events.
12:16
My work's taken me all over the world,
12:19
and I have yet to set foot
in a place where pain didn't exist
12:22
and the potential for healing was absent.
12:27
So while I've spent my career
honing my skills as an architect,
12:30
I realize that I'm now also a healer.
12:33
I suppose this is the point in the talk
where I should be telling you
12:37
those five steps to healing,
12:41
but I don't have the solution --
12:42
yet.
12:44
Just a path.
12:45
That being said,
12:47
there are a few things
I have learned along the way.
12:48
First --
12:51
we cannot create cities for everyone
12:53
unless we're first willing
to listen to everyone.
12:56
Not just about what they hope
to see built in the future
12:59
but also about what has been
lost or unfulfilled.
13:02
Second --
13:06
healing is not just for "those people."
13:08
For those of us with privilege,
13:11
we have to have a reckoning
with our own guilt,
13:14
discomfort and complicity.
13:17
As non-profit leader
Anne Marks once observed,
13:21
"Hurt people hurt people;
13:24
healed people heal people."
13:26
And third --
13:30
healing is not about the erasure of pain.
13:32
We often have a tendency to want
to put a clean slate over our pain,
13:35
much like that asphalt on the soil
in Bayview Hunters Point.
13:39
But it doesn't work that way.
13:42
Healing is about acknowledging pain
13:44
and making peace with it.
13:47
One of my favorite quotes
says that healing renews our faith
13:50
in the process of becoming.
13:54
I stand here before you
as an architect-healer
13:57
because I'm ready to see
what I can become,
14:00
what my community and those
that I work with can become,
14:03
and what this country,
14:05
and frankly, this world can become.
14:06
And I was not meant
to take that journey alone.
14:09
I believe that many of you are unhappy
with the way that things are now.
14:13
Believe that it can be different.
14:19
I believe that you all are
far more resilient than you think.
14:22
But the first step requires courage.
14:28
The courage to see each other's pain,
14:32
and to be willing
to stay in the presence of it,
14:35
even when it gets uncomfortable.
14:38
Just imagine the change
that we can make together
14:41
if we all committed to that.
14:46
Thank you.
14:49
(Applause)
14:50

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About the speaker:

Liz Ogbu - Designer, urbanist, social change agent
Liz Ogbu works with/in communities in need, to use tactical, human-centered design to tackle wicked social problems and catalyze community healing.

Why you should listen

Liz Ogbu writes: "While I received my architecture training at a prestigious architecture school (Harvard), my vision of architecture has always been broader than just bricks and mortar. I believe that the very act of design is about creating places that enable people to be and feel acknowledged, to connect to one another, to heal and to thrive. For me, design solutions emerge not just from an aesthetic place but from also taking a human-centered approach in which people’s needs and desires drive the process; problems (and solutions) are looked at not at the level of isolated objects but from the perspective of systemic injustices. Ideas are prototyped rapidly, in real time, at human scale, and in collaboration with communities.

"I’ve intensely pursued opportunities to advance this vision throughout my career, from founding an innovative social impact design consultancy, Studio O, to projects like designing shelters for immigrant day laborers to advocacy work like Dick and Rick: A Primer on Social Impact Design to research around issues of equitable development in urban marginalized communities in Australia and South Africa."

More profile about the speaker
Liz Ogbu | Speaker | TED.com