As architects of the public realm, a critical component of our job is to thoroughly understand the needs of our clients in order to generate a successful project on multiple levels. Design realized without the careful study of who will be using the space and in what ways can result in a ghostly landscape absent its full potential. Therefore, it’s critical that we become intimately familiar with the ways in which a landscape will be used and pay special attention to how it will serve future inhabitants. SWA project history is rife with public landscapes accommodating everything from posh resorts to regenerated river corridors; from this varied experience, as well as in conducting post-occupancy studies, we can make fairly accurate assumptions about how the general public will use our spaces. However, the specific requirements of social impact design directed at underserved communities present another facet of the profession that we may not know quite as well.
The Dallas office recently began work on the planning and landscape for a Homeless Resource Center in Fort Worth, TX. The facility will serve as a critical cog within the support infrastructure for the homeless population, including community dining accommodations, medical and dental services, personal hygiene facilities, educational resources, and interior and exterior community spaces. Initial design charrettes focused on understanding the needs of the local homeless population in order to better serve them. In addition to having volunteered at centers and shelters serving the homeless, the project team conducted an initial phase of research and academic reading of personal accounts to better comprehend the parameters by which the project would be measured. Marked by genuine social investment, and distinguished by its pro-bono financial structure, the project goals were defined so as to design for a transient population harboring a multitude of ailments. These challenges include mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and physical disability brought on by tragic life occurrences such as the loss of loved ones and jobs, domestic violence, and natural disasters. As a result of our findings, the following goals were established at the onset of conceptual design and embedded in the three schemes ultimately presented to the client.
1. Place-making using a gradient of transparency and exposure: a range of spatial conditions throughout the landscape allows for opportunities to gather in groups as well as in more isolated areas. This provision also caters to security concerns by exposing areas of gathering with lighting, planting, and screening strategies.
2. Interjecting a contextual canvas: introducing elements of recognizable urban culture—from artistic expression to interactive opportunities—can help to bridge the gap between a nomadic lifestyle marked by instability and insufficient resources and the regenerative potential of an unfamiliar resource hub.
3. Conveying hopeful undertones: the materialization of hope is perhaps the most important of these. Through etched and projected messages in pavers and on iconic structures, the necessity of an encouraging and supportive atmosphere will be evident. The hope for this project is that it will provide the homeless population with a place suited for them as individuals with promise and determination; these undertones would seek to reinforce not only the goals of this localized project, but the goals working to eradicate a global epidemic as well.