South Beach, Washington

Q&A: South Beach, Washington

Robert Hutchison & Daniel Abramson

An interview with report editors Robert Hutchison and Daniel Abramson.

Read the report Dynamic Landscapes on South Beach, Washington.

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 South Beach, 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?

To start with the limitations, 

  • compared to urban communities, rural communities are more tightly integrated and identified with the natural environment, whose dominant quality is unbuilt, and 
  • these communities are small and have limited capital for built interventions; framing these communities’ needs in terms of built solutions often sets too high a bar for investments and misses the underlying problems of social and spatial isolation, political-economic and cultural marginalization, and a changing natural environment. 

On the positive side, the story of how historic infrastructural and other built environmental interventions has generated the community’s identity and prosperity, as well as its current problems, can remind community members of how much they have accomplished and lived through; can clarify how human and natural systems are coupled; and can focus members’ attention on creative and long-term solutions that are both built and programmatic. 

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?

Being able to dream and project ways of anticipating the future is important to collective conversation and collaboration. Parafictional (i.e., “unrealistic” but rooted in reality) inspiration may be especially useful in confronting future events that are rare, unpredictable, unexperienced (in living memory), and existentially threatening or horrifying. Listening to community voices is the necessary starting point to meaningful design parafictions, and the end product should be spaces and structures that enhance everyday life and enable the community to adapt to an unfamiliar future. Such spaces and structures are locally emergent, but the process of arriving at them can be replicable across many contexts, if not always scalable to address a larger region. 

Regarding the topic of design of future infrastructures more specifically, opportunities exist to consider ways in which infrastructures can serve multiple uses and functions, rather than a single purpose, thereby providing greater value for the investment and allowing for greater connectivity with the community it serves. The studio course that Dan co-instructed on the basis of our American Roundtable contribution, framed the challenge thus: to “design for the extraordinary by designing for the everyday.” Structures that may serve the community as safe havens in a rare but catastrophic tsunami can only be justified if they also function as valued social infrastructural assets on an on-going basis.

If you could set the agenda, what needs to happen next to make South Beach flourish in the years to come?

Speaking of scalability, we are fairly confident that what would make South Beach flourish in coming years would also make much of rural America flourish: support for place-based social infrastructure (granges, libraries, schools, museums, parks, community gardens, farmer’s markets, local news media, etc.); policies, programs, and infrastructure that support diverse sources of livelihood, connection to the past, inclusive governance, and a balance of local community self-reliance and connectedness to regional economies; and finally, a broad association of health with social and ecological well-being. As current federal policy debates turn on the question of what constitutes “infrastructure,” we believe the South Beach story demonstrates more pressingly than ever that a broad and inclusive view of infrastructure is especially appropriate for rural communities. 

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?

As an architect, Robert saw this project as an opportunity to think more deeply about communities as contexts for specific design interventions, and more specifically to consider how we might draw upon the power of collective memory to provide communities the possibility to envisage their future. 

As a planner (with some architectural training), Dan saw the project as an opportunity to leverage the power of creative interpretation and invention for richer community engagement, as inspiration or provocation for community members themselves to generate hoped-for future stories.

In our case, our team of editors and writers were all “outsiders” to the community, but as one of our community partners reminded us, even small communities are not monolithic or static; their definition and boundaries are fluid, and they are characterized by a great density and multiplicity of social relationships and roles at a personal level. In one way or another, most community members are constantly reaching out for perspectives and allies that may help them address pressing problems. In our case, working with the local historical society and interviewing diverse community members allowed local voices and materials to inform our portrait of South Beach, and we hope their inclusion will provide a platform for continued efforts by community members to define their identity consciously and positively going forward.

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