Culturally Enriched Communities and COVID-19

May 4, 2020

Led by Professor Tasoulla Hadjiyanni (Interior Design), the Culturally Enriched Communities (CEC) Initiative champions healthy and connected communities in which everyone can thrive.

As the world comes to terms with the many changes the COVID-19 pandemic has brought, Hadjiyanni is leveraging CEC’s work to help communities disproportionately affected by the crisis and to position design’s relevance to creating a better world. Hadjiyanni shares more about CEC’s work and how it is addressing COVID-19 in this interview.

What do Culturally Enriched Communities have to do with COVID-19?

At the beginning of this pandemic, it became pretty clear that communities of color (Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans) were disproportionately affected, experiencing higher death rates and unemployment.

We therefore decided to use this platform as a catalyst for bringing together design students, educators, researchers, practitioners, elected officials, advocates, etc. to envision the role they can play during the stay-at-home guidelines as well as in recovery efforts. We created a dedicated page to serve as a repository of information that includes:

  • Environmental interventions to COVID-19 from around the world that range from residential environments to parks and hospitals.
  • Vulnerable populations that would benefit from designers’ and educators’ attention–this is a call to action.
  • On-going studies and opportunities for collaborations across organizations and institutions for funding and resources.

How was the Culturally Enriched Communities Initiative created?

Culturally Enriched Communities (CEC) have been the center of my work for the past 20 years. I started this line of work by looking to understand the home experiences of Hmong, Somali, Mexicans, Ojibwe, and African Americans in Minnesota. Their stories exposed how design characteristics can support or suppress individuals’ attempts to create meaning in their lives, which in turn, impacts well-being and delineates the production of health, income, and educational disparities. I share the premise that social inequalities are partially spatially constructed and are, therefore, malleable through my book The Right to Home – Exploring How Space, Culture, and Identity Intersect with Disparities. As home is more than housing, we expanded the study to the community level by gathering best practices for the creation of Culturally Enriched Communities from Minnesota and beyond. Our team includes students, faculty, organizations, institutions, and advocates.

Why is it important to champion Culturally Enriched Communities in Minnesota?

Healthy and connected communities in which everyone can thrive are key to a region’s economic and cultural vitality. Although Minnesota enjoys high ranks in many quality of life indicators, it also experiences some of the widest disparities in health, education, and income between Whites and communities of color in the nation. The COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on communities of color is only expected to widen this gap. The pandemic brought to the foreground the hidden nuances behind the “We are all in this together” motto. Now, more than ever, designers, planners, policymakers, housing developers, neighborhood organizers, and advocates can use the best practices we highlight to create places and build partnerships that contribute to the prosperity and well-being of all people.

What are some of these best practices and environmental interventions?

Culturally Enriched Communities are based on eight principles: bringing different kinds of people together; focusing on people; connecting the global and the local; supporting people’s attempts to construct meaning; fostering relationships; supporting health and well-being; encouraging capability-building through education and access to jobs, and capitalizing on innovation and change.

Environmental interventions are best practices that stand behind these principles and involve every single aspect of the designed environment, from doors to rooms, spatial layouts, site planning, and programming. Best practices we have collected for COVID-19 range from a street boulevard that has transformed into a child’s personal gym in Minneapolis to the trains in India, which have never closed for 120 years, being used as hospitals. One of the most touching examples comes from Greece where for the Easter Saturday midnight service, everyone in Athens walked out onto the balconies with lit candles, which prompted one of Greece’s most famous songwriters to say: “We have never been more together.” We cannot have another apartment building be designed without balconies after this pandemic.

What opportunities do you see for designers during this time?

I see four opportunities by which design can rebuild societal trust while reinstating a sense of promise in the future and creating a better world–not in order of importance:

  • Designing for flexibility and adaptability: Much of design is typically centered on ways to create community and bring people together. The pandemic raised awareness of the importance of balancing togetherness and aloneness in many building types.
  • Eliminating inequality and disparities: All kinds of people need our attention, from Navajo Nation, which lost more people to coronavirus than 13 states, to children with special needs, domestic abuse victims, refugees in refugee camps and detention centers, people living in slums, and the Andean weavers in Peru.
  • Supporting well-being: Experiences of fear, anxiety, headaches, muscle tension, and difficulty concentrating are expected to exacerbate the pandemic’s aftermath for everyone. Some more than others, like front line responders, teenagers, and seniors.
  • Caring for the environment: For the first time in our lifetime, the lockdown gave us a chance to see and feel what Los Angeles’ sky looks like without the smog, how jellyfish can glide through Venice’s canals when they are freed of boats and over-tourism, and the peaceful nesting of sea turtles in Florida’s beaches with less plastic, humans, and vehicles.

What advice do you have for our students?

Roll-up your sleeves and get to work. One thing is for certain—every single aspect of our designed environment, from buildings to parks, furniture, and materials will require a re-thinking and a re-evaluation. And all the design fields will have a role to play in how we recover and in what ways we are better prepared for the future.

Take a look at the list of vulnerable populations CEC has identified. Find one you connect with, get your sketchbook out, and start jotting ideas. Maybe you are thinking of a furniture piece that helps a child with special needs find a place to retreat and decompress or maybe you are devising a marketing plan for supply chains of materials that are ethically sourced and free of forced labor, human trafficking, and environmental destruction. Or maybe you are re-envisioning how streets and parking lots can multitask. You can send us your ideas so we can feature them and inspire others by emailing us at tasoulla@umn.edu.

When the decision was made to shift classes to remote learning, faculty, students, and staff undertook one of the biggest teaching and learning challenges to date. As the semester wraps up, our interior design instructors share how they adapted their spring classes to remote learning, the challenges they faced in the process, and what they learned through the experience.

Change is intrinsic to the field of landscape architecture, which has prepared the Department of Landscape Architecture to meet the rapid changes we are facing on a daily basis. As we begin to wrap up the spring semester, I want to share how our department has been adapting and responding.

“The sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me (inspired by James Baldwin‘s The Fire Next Time)