100 influential urbanists you probably don’t know about, but might-should

I don’t think I’ve heard the hyphenate “might-should” since I last hung out with my high school boyfriend’s Florida-born, Lynyrd Skynyrd-listening parents in their motor home—which was definitely a while ago! But sometimes it just fits the bill.

Case in point: last week, my beloved client-friends at ioby asked if I could help them with a project. They had recently come across Planetizen’s “100 Most Influential Urbanists” article and wanted to put together their own list of 100 more influential urbanists who also happen to be ioby Leaders (their honorific for residents who step up to make their neighborhood better in some way, and raise awareness and money on ioby to do it).

Naturally, I didn’t even need to think, “Might-should I do this?” I totally leapt at the chance to mine five-plus years’ worth of inspiriting ioby blog posts, videos, and giving reports for 100 awesome people who demonstrate the range of just who ioby Leaders are and just what they can do. Summarizing their stories into bite-sized pieces was also fun, though a taller order.

It’s so hard to have favorites when everyone is a knockout, but here are a few who stick with me:

  • Lucille White of Cleveland, crossing guard and grandmother of 19 (!), who lost two nieces to hit-and-runs. “Miss Lucille” convened a dozen middle and high school students in her neighborhood to help design and implement desperately needed traffic calming interventions where they live.

  • When the city of Highland Park, Michigan repossessed over 1,000 street lights from Jackson Koeppel‘s already underserved neighborhood, he co-founded Soulardarity: a membership-based, community-owned solar power nonprofit that’s installing its own new solar street lamps to light the way for his neighbors.

  • A poet and musician from Black Hills, South Dakota, Lyla June Johnston leads a team of 50-plus volunteers to organize the annual Black Hills Unity Concert, an event that joins native and non-native people alike in prayers for reconciliation, celebrations of unity, protests against injustice, and songs of hope.

Jeez, if I keep going, I’ll start tearing up again! Just too much greatness here for one blog post. Good thing you can check out 97 more excellent people and stories on ioby’s blog any time you want. They might-should help you remember that—despite Donald Trump’s best efforts—there’s still a lot of good going on out there these days.

I co-authored a white paper!

You can probably tell by the excited tone of that title that I’ve never worked for the government (except as a census-taker! those were good times) or for any other organization that produces white papers. Therefore, my first experience with writing one was exciting and heady. And it made me Google “what is a white paper?”

I think I get it now, and that’s a good thing, because my name is on it—right there on page 12 of “Unoffice the Office: Emerging Opportunities to Advance the Human-centered Workplace,” which I helped my client PLASTARC to author for their client west elm WORKSPACE (so many caps!).

West Elm Workspace Unoffice the Office White Paper

Here ’tis!

While you might not imagine that reading a good 10 straight pages of social science research about how best to design workplace interiors would be a good use of your time, I just might beg to differ! Take, for example, this golden nugget about the roots of “collaboration” and “community,” two big buzzwords in the workplace world today:

Great inspiration for this research can come from one particularly multipurpose and unifying item of furniture: the ubiquitous kitchen table. In our homes, this one object is the literal and figurative epicenter of activity for both individual and collaborative work. We don’t have different tables for each task we do; we just clear the surface off and start something else! Why does this method work, and work so easily?

Building on the basic hierarchy of human needs described by Abraham Maslow in the 1940s, modern psychologists have posited that spiritual and cultural values must be integrated into design to give individuals a sense of a space’s meaning and of “collective well-being”—a combination of social cohesion, a sense of community and rootedness, and the presence of enduring links to place. Collective well-being is a broad and essential goal of workplace design, but it’s not a complicated one to meet.

Within families, individuals feel a sense of shared values and a sense of rootedness; at our kitchen tables, we feel the presence of an enduring place, one we can rely on to support whatever work we’re doing, be it individual or group-based. We can translate this community-centric spatial model—this central activity hub for meeting, talking, learning, creating (and, of course, eating)—from the home to the workplace by providing employees with functional, multipurpose, group-sized amenities. Simple furnishings that are easy to transform radiate a sense of residential familiarity that can do wonders for engendering professional cooperation.

See? Not boring!

Perhaps just as importantly, I think we steered clear of That White Paper Guy’s top ten “worst practices.” (Whether you’re going by the photo at the top left of him with short hair, or the one at the bottom of him with longer hair, I do not want to get on this pink-shirted fellow’s bad side!)

“I don’t want my education to make me just another educated person…

Drawing of a woman in black pants

I want to use it to help people.”

Thus spake one of the stellar Sarah Lawrence College students and recent graduates I spoke with for a feature called “Crafting Careers” in the spring issue of the college’s magazine.

Drawings of college students

A winning cohort!

Other highlights include the basketball MVP who volunteered with a domestic violence-combatting nonprofit; the human resources analyst who started college as a poet, then got into film and TV writing before finding his career groove in HR; and the unlikely management advisor who landed her gig by recalling what she’d learned in college psychology classes.

Read more about these fabulous young people who are making their mark in a host of industries, and restore some of your faith in humanity!

PLASTARC: Shifting workplace metrics from ‘square feet and inches’ to ‘occupant satisfaction and performance’

Five senses icons

I’m no doctor, but I know a worthwhile mission when I read it.

For the past nearly-year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and corporate real estate strategy firm, on many of their communications. PLASTARC was founded by the inimitable Melissa Marsh, who’s dedicated her career to making workplaces work better for people.

Dr. Nancy Mroczek singing, by Paul Taggart

Dr. Nancy Mroczek: No relation to PLASTARC (that I’m aware of), but I shoehorned in a tangential connection below

Recently, PLASTARC began archiving their newsletters on their website (always a great idea, in my book), and I have to say I was impressed when I had a flip through them. Yes, I did have a lot to do with writing them, but that’s not the only reason! The ideas they grew from are all PLASTARC, and all interesting, whether or not you’re an architect, HR manager, or real estate nerd. Here’s a sampling of topics and tidbits:

  • Multisensory design: “Heeding multiple dimensions of sensory experience both complicates and enables the task of designing human-centric spaces; it opens exciting opportunities for leveraging workplace design strategies in increasingly nuanced ways.”
  • Activity based working: “The social-centric economic structures of Europe have brought us many fresh workplace ideas, including the German-born Bürolandschaft concept, which intended to bring more organic desk groupings and elements of privacy to assembly line-style open offices with identical desks—but instead wound up spawning the now dreaded cubicle.”
  • Workplace community management: “We’re constantly learning from coworking, where the best community managers often hail from backgrounds in education, political science, and even community organizing.”
  • Smart buildings: “PLASTARC sees this moment as the beginning of a golden age in which technology enables building design to focus almost exclusively on serving and sustaining human experience.”
  • The social data era: “Soon, we’ll be able to understand as much about the demand for work environments and architectural features as we do right now about the demand for products in a grocery store. With these unique skills and methods, we are moving from analysis to prediction of both the desirability and utility of space.”

Dang, that’s enough brain food for a week of lunch breaks! Thanks, PLASTARC.

If you’re hungry for more thought leadership on the future of workplace, subscribe to their newsletter and await the next knowledge drop. This month’s topic: SCIENCE.

Celebrating the first-ever National Day of Racial Healing

Seems like an apt annual holiday to instate, doesn’t it?

I collaboratively penned this article about one facet of the puzzle—the role of structural racism in our neighborhoods, and how resident-leaders are turning back its tide—with the wise and wonderful people at ioby.

ioby neighborh vacant lot project

You can get more info about the National Day of Racial Healing, an initiative of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation with support from over 130 other organizations, on its website or with the hashtag .

In freelancing, as in hair metal, what goes around comes around (sometimes)

In the thrill-a-minute world of freelance writing (I am only half joking there), clients can come and go as unexpectedly as the Red Bull van that pulls up beside the park and starts handing out free energy drinks. (Or am I the only one who’s witnessed that?)

Red Bull energy drink giveaway

Have you seen me?

This unpredictable ebb and flow can of course be a source of consternation for freelancers, but on balance over the past two-plus years, I’ve found it to be mostly energizing—as well as a good way to practice living in the moment: it’s unwise to become attached to even one’s most cherished clients, as you never know when they might, I don’t know, move to Canada and change their whole business model, or decide that you’ve been so helpful that they now want to hire a full-time person to do what you’ve been doing for them freelance. (Both of those things did indeed happen to me this year.)

While I’ve learned to feel less disappointment when great clients depart, I still feel untempered enthusiasm when they arrive—or, in the cases below, when they re-arrive! (Shoutout to my James Joyce people: both of these clients rearrive[d] from North Armorica. If that means what I think it does, which is debatable.)

Here’s a hearty “hello again!” to:

Sarah Lawrence College

College student in a community garden

SLC student Tenn Joe Lim: “These gardens have taught me about the agency we all have within communal spaces.”

I’ve been working in different capacities with the terrific people at this singular institution since fall 2014 (and boy is my brain getting a workout). Last month, they brought me on as Assistant Editor of their terrific magazine, Sarah Lawrence. I’m super-psyched to keep writing stories for them (like this profile of a student who’s teaching kids in a local community garden), as well as learn more about the inner workings of such a venerable publication.

PLASTARC

Architects

Some of our best and brightest at the Center for Architecture in NYC

It’s plastic (in this case, denoting malleability)! It’s architecture! It’s BOTH!

I met this workplace design consultancy’s ingenious founder Melissa Marsh at the Wood at Work conference last year, and helped her with some one-off writing projects this year. Recently, she’s decided to step up her company’s editorial game and has been showing me the PLASTARC ropes: their monthly newsletter, thoughtful event summaries, and the many guest contributions they make to industry publications. One of my fun gigs this fall was reporting on a public program called, “I Love This Place! Social Research-Driven Design.”

I’m very happy to be embarking on a new year with these two terrific new-ish clients. While I might find the lyrics to some Ratt songs as obscure as lines from Ulysses, I think I know what they mean when they sing:

Round and round
With love we’ll find a way just give it time
Round and round
What comes around goes around
I’ll tell you why
Dig

Yeah?

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Voice on the Radio

Well, “love” might be too strong a word, but I didn’t mind it—and that’s an improvement!

If you’ve never heard me talk, I suppose you wouldn’t know that I have a fairly deep voice. Sometimes people who called our house when I was growing up thought I was my brother; I was the lone mezzo-alto in the school choir (I come by it honestly—my mom’s a tenor!); and I had an easier time singing R.E.M. in my college dorm shower than I did Tori Amos. Etc.

But out of all the things I was teased about as a kid—wearing thrift store clothes, riding to school on the back of a tandem bike, liking to read!—I was oddly spared any comments about my voice. Which was great! But that didn’t mean I myself was super cool with it.

man playing stand up bass

Did I mention I also played stand-up bass as a kid? (Though probably not as well as this guy.) How appropriate!

Still, I’ve always loved hearing other people’s voices: listening to the radio in particular has long been one of my favorite pastimes. I even aspired for a while to become an on-air DJ, a dream that only went so far as a year of interning at WERS while I was at Emerson College, and (maybe this counts?) a stint of reading books out loud for Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (which is apparently now called Learning Ally). But I’ve been a proud public radio member-nerd here in NYC for 10 years, and “become an awesome radio DJ” remains somewhere on my to-do list.

Part of the issue, I think, was that I didn’t super-like the sound of my voice when I heard it on tape. I realize most DJs are probably not required to go back and listen to their own recordings after doing a show, but the idea of too many people hearing my low-low tones was perhaps a bit off-putting. Until now!

Enter Ken Kinard, a creativity coach and chief creative officer at the marketing agency Accent Interactive. Ken and I met last spring, during a team-building program he directed for my client Pilot Projects. A few months ago, he told me he was planning to produce a podcast or two about the freelance lifestyle and asked if he might interview me for material. I thought it sounded like a hoot, and hey, maybe it was a chance to see if I’d outgrown my aural awkwardness?

The result of Ken’s and my interesting afternoon conversation at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Manhattan is a two-part ‘cast—also featuring freelancer Meaghan Ritchey of Curator Magazine—that explores the ins and outs of today’s freelance species: what drove us to this marginal existence? how do we manage our time? do we miss having coworkers? Or, the podcast intros themselves put it this way: “As more people are going independent, the way work gets done is changing. We explore how freelancers are living the lives of executives and the impact it has on vacation, family, security, and the community.”

Workwise podcast #10: Nice lance. You free?

Workwise podcast #11: Lancers for the win

Ken’s questions to Meaghan and me are interspersed with reflections from the studio as he and his cohost, Mike Boyes (a leadership development consultant, coach, and president of Credo Consulting), listen to our answers and relate our work experiences to others’. I think (and I’m not biased at all here) that they did a really nice job of asking good questions, representing me (and Meaghan, I would imagine) accurately, and drawing some really interesting insights and further provocations from our conversations.

Plus, I was able to listen to both episodes from stem to stern and not cringe once at the sound of my voice! (Although I notice I did talk pretty fast.) Thanks for whatever magic you wrought there, Ken. Now I’m this much closer to chasing my dream of becoming an awesome radio DJ.

The next time you’re working it in the gym, chopping carrots in the kitchen, or toiling with the toilet brush, perhaps you’ll want to take a listen to these fun shows and let me know what you think? I hope my bass vibrato isn’t too much for your earbuds.

Writing about architecture is like… dancing about music?

People wearing building costumes

I had no idea until this moment that there is a persistent mystery surrounding the origin of that famous quote (which of course I chopped and screwed above).

But whoever originally said it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this blog post. What matters is that some words I wrote about architecture recently appeared in the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter‘s newsletter!

The Ways and Whys of Incorporating Social Science Methodologies into Architecture Curricula

What does all that mean? You’ll just have to read it to find out!

Many thanks to my very righteous clients Scott Francisco of Pilot Projects and Melissa Marsh of PLASTARC for hooking me up with this fun gig.

Now, let’s dance!

Delicious courage

Although I didn’t attend Sarah Lawrence College, I’m always pleased when people see my byline in their terrific magazine and think I did.

Sarah Lawrence comes out twice a year. It covers all the usual alumni magazine stuff like updates about goings-on at the school and news from notable alums, but blows most other alma mater publications out of the water with its commitment to producing a score of thoughtful stories about fascinating people, places, and projects in every issue.

Rohan Kamicheril Tiffin Club

Rohan Kamicheril at work (photo by Mike Jesson)

Take this sampling from their most recent edition, themed “Finding Courage”:

(In addition to presenting you with these opportunities for top-notch reading, I would be remiss if I didn’t shout out the aforementioned chef’s supper club by name. The Tiffin Club pops up periodically with inventive menus, bodacious wine pairings, and excellent camaraderie. Worth your time!)

The Tiffin Club

My hearty thanks to Sarah Lawrence‘s smart and gracious editors, who are wonderful to work with and who somehow keep inviting me back to write stuff. Coming this fall, an interview with a Davis Projects for Peace winner who’s making cardboard furniture with inner city kids!

That fresh “new client” smell

I’ve long been a fan of homesharing upstarts Airbnb. Since 2010, I’ve been renting my place out to fabulous people—packs of Mormon girls from Florida, film students from Korea, and gap year couples from Australia—whenever I go out of town for a spell. And for almost as long, I’ve booked my own one-of-a-kind getaways from Iceland to Budapest to upstate New York using the site. Win-win!

AirBnB host Oliver Aguilar at his home in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, IL. May 9, 2016. Photographer: Christopher Dilts / AirBnB

This is Oliver. More about him in a moment. (Photo credit: Christopher Dilts for Airbnb)

As a lifelong hippie, I immediately appreciated the business’s founding premises of extending hospitality to those we don’t yet know, and a waste not/want not approach to space and resources. And as a lifelong Frugal Fannie, I also immediately appreciated the extra income I got from renting.

So you have to imagine I was pretty stoked to start writing for Airbnb recently. They’re growing like crazy, and wanted an extra hand to help publicize the many events they throw and shout their hosts’ stories from the rooftops.

Writing my first few pieces for the site was super fun and brought me back to a basic truth about what I do: attending events, talking with people, and then summarizing the experience in words is one of my very favorite kinds of writing. It’s one of my very favorite things to do, period!

In the past couple of years, my freelance work has taken many directions: narrative writing like this, copywriting for websites, editing papers and reports… I’ve liked it all, but my work with Airbnb has helped illuminate for me that I want to prioritize this kind of people-and-place-based work most of all. It’s entertaining, it’s educational, it’s tactile. And it’s often the easiest type of work I do; the writing and editing usually flows the smoothest. That probably says something in itself.

So thanks, Airbnb, for this breath of fresh editorial air. And thanks to all my fellow hosts—like Oliver, Hans, and Seamus—for being so darn friendly, and so very photogenic!