• Joy Alise Davis

  • “There’s a lot of hurt and mistrust from people of color regarding a system that was not designed for them,” says Joy Alise Davis, a graduate of Parsons’ Theories of Urban Practice master’s program. The founder of Design+Culture Lab, an urban design and civic consultancy firm in Portland, Oregon, Davis has made it her mission to heal that mistrust by working with the city’s communities of color to improve urban life.

    Joy Alis Davis

    A woman of color, Davis has experienced this mistrust firsthand and seen how even in Portland, a city lauded for its progressive urban design, communities of color can be left out of the city planning process. In the past, town hall meetings have taken place far away from Black neighborhoods, at times of day when most people were at work, and often without the input of Black community members. A political science student before she came to Parsons, Davis traces this disconnect to the city’s earliest days and notes that today “Portland is one of the whitest cities in America.”

    For a recent Design+Culture Lab project called the Pulse People’s Plan, Davis’ firm conducted a year-long study in collaboration with historically underserved Black Portlanders. “We interviewed individuals about what their utopia might look like,” Davis explained. Using design methodologies and tools, “we turned those statements into policy programs and initiatives. We led with folks who were most impacted, who were displaced. In terms of prototyping, we tried a variety of ways of communicating.”

    Many urban design nonprofits and local governments aim to address these communities but have difficulty finding and connecting with people on the ground to learn exactly what their needs are. Nonprofits often task Davis’ firm with devising communication strategies to help them bridge that divide and reach government agencies they want to partner with and communities they hope to help.

    Davis was first exposed to collaborative design strategies by her professors at Parsons. “They were really great at helping me think differently about how community members can have a voice at the table. The way we’re designing cities — it’s no longer just going to be an architect designing; we need to be designing with communities,” says Davis. “We can’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all way to collaborate and reach folks.”

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