Architect and urbanist Deborah Richards, AIA, and social-impact planner Vanessa Morrison began the Oklahoma City–based Open Design Collective in 2021 with a shared observation: The communities they hoped to plan and design for knew what they needed but were often disregarded by the architecture and planning experts designing their neighborhoods from the outside in. That understanding led the two, who both serve as faculty at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Architecture in Norman, Okla., to work in deep partnership with the residents who know their neighborhoods best.
Open Design’s first major project, commissioned by the Oklahoma City Redevelopment Authority, was a master plan for property owned by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority. The goal was to repair the damage from decades of urban renewal in the largely Black community of South of 8th Street. The area bears deep scars: population displacement to less walkable neighborhoods, a highway that created a barrier, and the demolition of buildings, all of which contributed to cultural erasure, disinvestment, and the loss of Black wealth.
To ensure resident involvement, Open Design created a tactical committee of intergenerational community experts, enlisting “legacy residents, people with lived experiences, community leaders, and cultural producers,” who were paid honorariums for their input, Richards says. By working with committee members and the broader community, Open Design was able to make recommendations to OCURA on how to strategically release OCURA-owned lots to the public through an open RFP process, that can be reimagined for transformative uses, stitching back together the city fabric.
“The neighborhood we were looking at was really known for Black creativity in music and performative arts before urban renewal, but today, you can walk around and not see that,” says Morrison, who grew up in the city. “How do we revive that history while thinking about the future?”
While their first projects have focused on Oklahoma City, the pair is already envisioning projects nationwide. Wherever they work, though, their goals remain the same: As Richards describes it, the fundamental objective is to “understand how people who aren’t trained as designers can participate in the design of architecture and place.”
This article first appeared in the October issue of ARCHITECT.