Designing the Conditions: The Return of the Public Developer

The studio explores the role of design in emerging forms of public-sector housing development in the United States. Our testing ground is a former industrial site in Central Falls, Rhode Island currently being acquired by the municipality. Given the need to consider a range of physical scales and temporal dimensions in this endeavor, the studio explicitly seeks to include students from across the school's programs.

Direct public-sector development of housing has been a political no-go in the United States since the mid-1970s. After the purported failure of federal public housing, the private sector was considered better equipped to build and operate housing for low- and moderate-income households. The fact that such housing is made profitable only with massive public investment through tax breaks and rental subsidies, or that this housing remains affordable for a limited time only, is often left unsaid.

Today, the persistent lack of affordable housing has turned this argument on its head. Why subsidize the private sector if the public sector could more cost effectively finance, build, and operate homes and keep these affordable in the long term? Several jurisdictions have begun to set up new entities toward this end. They include Montgomery County, MD; Seattle, WA; and Atlanta, GA. California, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island are considering similar measures at the state level. Rather than building public housing that serves only the poor, however, these new models create social housing for a broader demographic.

What often falls short in these legislative efforts is a consideration of the role of physical design. When speed, quantity, and affordability are the goal, design quality—however understood—quickly takes a back seat. Most bills thus make only vague, if any, references to siting, housing type and size, flexible programs, energy efficiency standards, or other aspects crucial for the long-term viability of the public investment.

How, then, can architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and planners articulate, in intelligible and politically actionable terms, how design decisions contribute to public-sector housing development and vice versa? We will explore his challenge through a proposal for the Central Falls site. In addition, we will focus on the various ways in which housing design is codified and made replicable, including through design guidelines, funding formulas, performance criteria, and procurement processes, to name a few. Designing these conditions is an essential part of the exploration.

Throughout the semester, readings on the relationship of design ideas and public-sector housing will expand our understanding of the historical dimension of contemporary challenges. On a field trip to Atlanta we will engage with the past, present, and future of the public developer in a fast-changing city. In the 1930s, Atlanta was home to some of the first federal public housing developments; by the 1990s, these projects were demolished and rebuilt as mixed-income housing in public-private partnerships; in 2023, the creation of the Atlanta Urban Development Corporation moves control of development back to a public entity.