Along the Lumbee River, North Carolina

Q&A: Along the Lumbee River, North Carolina

Morgan Augillard & Joey Swerdlin

Main Street in Laurinburg, the seat of Scotland County, North Carolina. Credit: John Fechtel/Group Project

An interview with report editors Morgan Augillard and Joey Swerdlin.

Read the report on communities Along the Lumbee River in North Carolina.

When designers are asked to think about a community, the charge they are given is often focused on thinking about what new physical infrastructure or development is needed, or how specific buildings or spaces could be used. Based on your experience reporting on the Sandhills Region of North Carolina, what do you think the usefulness or limitations are of using the lens of the built environment to think about overall community health and needs?

Joey Swerdlin (JS): I think the built environment is an important contributing factor to community health and needs, but it is not well-suited as a lens through which to view these challenges. In our report, we simply used our position as thinkers about the built environment (and the wide range that this endeavor offers) to develop relationships with a variety of people who all share similar social justice frameworks. 

Morgan Augillard (MA): The immediate limitation of this lens is putting buildings before people. I think you have to start with the people in the community, and hear from them what they believe are the strengths, weaknesses, and places to grow and improve in their community. Often, beginning with those conversations leads to uncovering possibilities for built environment interventions.

What is the role of design—or of designers—in identifying and addressing the challenges of a community? What are its limits and opportunities? What is scalable? What needs collaboration?

JS: Communities themselves are fully capable of identifying the challenges they face. I’m not sure that designers have the agency to identify these challenges unless they are working in their own neighborhood or space. I think designers can help realize the imaginations of communities or offer different alternatives, though.

MA: I don’t think it’s necessarily a designer’s role to name a community problem—especially when the designer is not a part of that community. I do believe that after communities voice their challenges, it’s the designer’s role to translate that concern into a “problem statement,” and then to facilitate ideations around possible solutions. This all requires collaboration: there are moments for different stakeholders to step in and step back, but there should be a continuous feedback loop. 

Identifying the problem statement you’re trying to tackle as a group is also helpful for understanding the limits of the group working on the project, future opportunities and interventions, and the possibility of looking for other applications of a successful intervention and scaling them. 

If you could set the agenda, what needs to happen next to make the Sandhills Region of North Carolina flourish in the years to come?

JS: Give capital and influence to the community members who are in touch with the reality of life on the ground, including the contributors to this report, and let them set the agenda.

MA: I think there are already aspects of life in the region that are flourishing. There’s so much energy already around various projects that I’d just want to figure out how to hone that energy and move a project/initiative to its next step. 

Regarding the report, the next step for me would be to get down there, get report contributors together, and start thinking about what a project that touched on each of their specialties/interests looked like. 

As an editor, what did you learn about doing this type of work? How can you give voice to a community? What might design professionals learn from this project about working in communities not their own?

JS: I relearned the importance of listening and providing a platform for people doing incredible work to be able to share their experiences, motivations, and work with more people. I hope that design professionals learn to be humble, to listen, and to offer inspiring ideas that build from the local visions that communities have for themselves.

MA: It’s extremely challenging to do this work remotely, or at least without any possibility of speaking/working with people in person. Getting to speak with people multiple times was challenging. I don’t think of the work of this report as giving voice to the community. Communities have voice regardless of designers’ interventions. The people we spoke with are doing the work whether this report exists or not. The community is already talking. I just hope this report increased the number of ears hearing it. 

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.