The Design Trust for Public Space erected the Boogie Down Booth as part of its Under the Elevated project. The temporary installation transformed an underused space beneath subway tracks in the South Bronx into a seated bus stop with solar-powered lighting and directional speakers playing local artists’ music.

The end of one year and the start of a new one belong to the makers of lists—of most fascinating people, brightest ideas, and biggest red-carpet disasters. At RECORD, we decided to combine clickbait and goodwill, asking a variety of design-centric foundations and nonprofit groups to name their most significant contributions to the built environment in 2014. Not every respondent interpreted the question similarly; the answers say as much about an organization’s mission and operations as they do about the initiatives themselves. Here, we have condensed the replies, and organized them according to theme.

Click on the slide show for images of most of the projects described below.


The Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supports a variety of disciplines whose effects ultimately touch the built environment, from digital journalism to arts production. So it was no surprise that Carol Coletta, who leads the Community and National Initiatives portfolio, acknowledged that her fellow vice presidents would have different and equally compelling answers to our question. For her part, Coletta singled out a multi-part project that educated leaders in Knight cities—places where the foundation’s namesakes once owned newspapers—in the power and delight of a well-designed urban fabric.

That process entailed convening teams from 19 Knight cities to the Doable City forum organized by Toronto nonprofit 8-80 Cities, then sending a selection from that original group off to Copenhagen to conduct related workshops on multimodal transit and public space. Out of session, the participants biked and walked around Copenhagen to witness workshops’ lessons firsthand. “Traveling and learning [about] a far more robust public life than what most U.S. cities offer was a powerful experience that has already changed thinking and accelerated plans,” Coletta says, noting that St. Paul’s city council recently approved the bonds in Mayor Chris Coleman’s 8-80 Vitality Fund (for bike trails and other infrastructure improvements in the city).

Back in the States, New York’s Design Trust for Public Space is expanding people’s understanding of just what qualifies as the public realm, and how rethinking forgotten zones can improve quality of life in turn. With the New York City Department of Transportation and the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, the organization erected the Boogie Down Booth as part of its Under the Elevated project to underscore those points. The temporary installation transformed an underused space beneath subway tracks in the South Bronx into a seated bus stop with solar-powered lighting and directional speakers playing local artists’ music.

Recalls Design Trust executive director Susan Chin, “Music brought people together. This has been a vital step in demonstrating the potential for a vibrant streetscape that is home to thriving local businesses and a sustainable and proud community.” In addition to proving that the underside of New York’s elevated infrastructure can host community functions beyond mere passage, the Boogie Down Booth tested pragmatic strategies for lighting, safety, and acoustical dampening. Observing that the United States contains almost 7,000 miles of such interstitial spaces, Chin concludes, “As we embark on our next 20 years, the world population continues to climb exponentially and needs quality public space in cities. We believe shared open space is the heart of the city.”


Creative placemaking, in which art and cultural interventions directly impact economic and community development, has entered mainstream thinking in recent years. So we posed our question to ArtPlace America’s Jamie Bennett. The Brooklyn-based executive director used grantee Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood to illustrate the progressive concept. Located inside the David Adjaye–designed Sugar Hill Development for at-risk families, “the museum physically integrates the building into the city, by complicating the foot traffic of who walks in and out—you cannot assume that everyone walking into the building is formerly homeless,” Bennett says. “And it engages the building’s children in storytelling. There is an emerging body of work that shows the role that creating narrative can play in trauma recovery and psychological health issues.”

Another ArtPlace America grantee promises long-term impact throughout its hometown, Bennett adds. The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts’ created an Office of Neighborhood Development and the Town Square Neighborhood Development Corporation: “A cultural institution has taken a leadership role in the holistic development of the entire downtown Miami neighborhood,” says Bennett. Today the entity weighs in on development plans’ contributions to public life prior to city approval, about which Bennett says, “Other cultural institutions act as community anchors, but few have this broad or comprehensive an infrastructure and approach.”


While prompting larger public discussion is an outcome of all the efforts cited in our year-end overview, some organizations focused specifically on supporting idea exchange. For example, Graham Foundation director Sarah Herda says that, in 2014, the Chicago-based organization supported 115 projects that “propose new ways of understanding the contemporary condition, expand historical perspectives, and stake out innovative possibilities for the future of architecture.” Among them, the Graham Foundation supported three national pavilions at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, as well as the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial. “In addition, the Graham Foundation has partnered with the City of Chicago to present the inaugural 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial—the largest international survey of contemporary architecture in North America, which will open in fall 2015.” Herda is curating the event with Joseph Grima.

New York–based Storefront for Art and Architecture played a key role in OfficeUS, the Graham Foundation–supported American pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and Storefront’s Eva Franch i Gilabert says that this conversation does not stop with the biennial’s conclusion. “The project…will open its permanent home in New York in the fall of 2015 as a new research institute bringing experts and visionaries to reshape the world around us,” she says. The executive director and chief curator also counts its Letters to the Mayor exhibition and World Wide Storefront digital platform as the most significant contributions to the built environment in 2014. The former “not only displayed the importance of having an architect at the table for the shaping of cities and territories, but it also enabled the conversation between politicians and architects,” Franch i Gilabert says, while the latter conveys the architecture biennial into the digital age. 

At the Van Alen Institute, a specific kind of discussion went under the microscope in 2014. “We have initiated and organized hundreds of design competitions in our 120-year history, and over the past year we have revisited ways to engage communities more effectively in these processes,” says executive director David van der Leer. “We wondered why community participation so often consists of workshops at a roundtable, door-to-door interview sessions, or block parties.” Van der Leer cites the Van Alen’s National Parks Now, Future Ground, and Rebuild by Design initiatives as opportunities for new methods of stakeholder engagement. “Seemingly lighthearted” events like parades and bike tours actually “can be more effective ways for the communities, as well as for the actual designers, city officials, and funders to start understanding each others' needs and desires better. We feel we are on to something and hope to open this alternative process of participatory planning further in 2015.”


RECORD finally posed its question to two organizations devoted to historic preservation, and their responses reveal stewardship’s role in contemporary life. The World Monuments Fund named its restoration of the Mughal Gardens in Agra, with the Archaeological Survey of India, as its most important work in the built environment this year. Bonnie Burnham, the New York–based group’s president and CEO, says the capital of the Mughal Empire “was once an earthly paradise” whose buildings ultimately informed the making of the Taj Mahal. Restoration will “make Agra a major tourist destination in central India, and help visitors better understand the astonishing architectural evolution that led to the building of the Taj.” Communities in the vicinity will reap infrastructure and sanitation benefits from the tourism business. 

Indeed, “Preservation is about looking ahead, saving the important places from our past to build a more culturally rich, vibrant future,” says National Trust for Historic Preservation president and CEO Stephanie Meeks. To that effect, this year the Trust launched and expanded the Hands on Preservation Experience Crew program, which helps young people practice historic-preservation techniques in the field. “By passing on skills to the next generation of preservation leaders, while also working to restore some of America’s most significant historic places—including the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta—the HOPE Crew program is helping to ensure a bright future for America’s important historic places.”