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Ocampo Nominated to Run for President of BSA

Sasaki is pleased to announce principal Mary Anne Ocampo has been nominated to run for President of the Boston Society of Architects (BSA), an organization that seeks to create meaningful change through architecture and design.

Check out the following Q&A to learn more about Ocampo’s ongoing work with the BSA and her views on why resiliency and equity are key drivers in design, today.

Q: How does designing for a resilient future overlap with the need to design for social change and equity?

Great question. A colleague at the The Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism, Lawrence Vale, Associate Dean and Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), asks two questions when discussing resilience:

Resilience from what?

And for whom?

That two-part question is critical for how we understand the role of design in resolving the environmental challenges we’re confronted with today. Oftentimes, communities impacted the most by climate change are more socioeconomically vulnerable to change. Ultimately, resilience should always be centered on people.

Recently, I’ve been doing research on informal settler communities in Metro Manila, the capital region of the Philippines. These settler communities don’t have legal status of owning their land, and are constantly under threat of eviction. We found that although the settler communities are exposed to constant threat of flooding, it’s really the threat of eviction and the need for more job opportunities that are more important to these communities than flood risk.

We have to understand that the socioeconomic aspects of resilience are equally as important as environmental risks like flooding. And that comes back to focusing on people.

An article I co-wrote with Stephen Gray about socio-ecological urban design in Metro Manila digs into how as designers we often talk about the built environment but forget about where people are coming from, what their stories are, their jobs, their incomes—all of that plays into how we can successfully create more resilient communities. When you ask these questions, you see the nuance within each resiliency project, and how you can sensitively respond to context so your vision reflects the goals and values of the community, which enables you to collaborate on preparing for the future.

Being a Filipina American, I find myself asking, how do you give back to those who need it most? When doing this kind of work I strive to create space for people to tell their stories, and really listen to them, so that I can figure out how best to co-create solutions.

Q: Storytelling is a hugely important component in making industries more inclusive. Where else do you see the design industry making the biggest strides in advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Though I’ve been inspired by the new conversations cropping up around diversity, equity, and inclusion within the design world, I believe we need to push ourselves to move beyond dialogue and participate in a true cultural shift. The complex and pressing issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion will not be resolved overnight.

It’s wonderful that we’re becoming more aware of inequity as an industry, and now we need to make sure that awareness leads to action, and action leads to real cultural change. Grassroots bottom up, top down, sideways–we need all of it to help our culture evolve.

However, I’m uplifted by the increased awareness burgeoning in the dialogues taking place. We’re really understanding that in order to make the pipeline to the design world more inclusive, we need to reach out to youth at an earlier age. On the other end of the spectrum, more people from diverse backgrounds have been stepping into leadership roles, especially at prominent academic institutions, firms, and other organizations.

Q:  As the Associate AIA Director at the BSA Board of Directors for the past three years, can you share how the BSA is using architecture and design to create a more resilient and equitable future?

What’s great about the BSA is how they use civic engagement to tackle themes that reflect needs of residents today. How can you move across the city? How do you accommodate people who need affordable housing? Where do we address environmental justice concerns? The BSA raises awareness around these issues through discussions, exhibitions, and presentations that reflect the unique challenges and opportunities the Greater Boston community faces today. Having these dialogues within the professional design community encourages big firms, smaller firms, organizations, and community groups to exchange ideas and solutions so that we can best support one another.

In these dialogues we also move across different scales of design thinking, going from buildings to systems: we may start by looking at a single housing unit, which is an interior architectural investigation, then move to the building, the block, the neighborhood, district, city, and beyond.

Q: What are some local initiatives you’ve worked on with the BSA? Some global projects?

I loved participating on a BSA workshop to design and construct play-spaces for Syrian refugee children living in Lebanon. It’s important to create space for children to play in the makeshift housing communities emerging for refugees; I learned that the average time refugees spend in outside camps is 17 years—an entire childhood.

Our charrette, which involved design professionals from Boston and Lebanon, focused on designing a flexible and adaptable toolkit that allows for different configurations of the play-space, since the spaces playgrounds were set to be constructed and dissembled.

I also had the opportunity to be a moderator on the panel at an event put on in conjunction with Design for Diversity: The Aga Kahn Award, an exhibit showcasing the winners and shortlisted works from the 2014-2016 cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Not only is the award’s evaluation process incredibly rigorous and well thought-out, it goes beyond just celebrating the projects’ aesthetics, function, and use of technology, but also identifies how the architecture is contributing to the social good.

Fulfilling the Promise: Community Building and the Emerald Necklace,” is another impactful panel I had the opportunity to moderate. Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace is a 1,100-acre chain of parks and waterways spanning multiple neighborhoods in Boston. I sat in on the first discussion in the four-part series, “Setting the Stage,” which looked at how Columbia Road in Dorchester was a missing link in the expansive, multi-neighborhood greenway. People often don’t talk about the fact that this gap in green space occurred because it would have linked a white community to a black community via park space. Throughout the panel we discussed how we can understand open space systems as social amenities and ecologically functional landscapes that should be inclusive of all communities, and how we can better include people in the design process.

Q: What’s an upcoming project or initiative you’re really excited about pursuing in the coming year?

I’m comparing and contrasting post-industrial sites in Turin, Italy with Boston’s industrial sites as part of my next MIT Design Workshop. It’s fascinating to look from a global perspective at local issues surrounding technology, community processes, and ways we can re-imagine post-industrial cities in the context of Turin, with its legacy of being a key Fiat manufacturing center, and tie those themes back to Boston’s urban fabric and evolution.

Q: Speaking of MIT, this fall you co-created a Site Planning online course with Gary Hack, Professor Emeritus of urban design at MIT. How do opportunities like this bridge your professional practice and your academic practice?

This has been a very exciting project. Gary Hack has been a profound influence within urban design education. Site Planning, which he co-wrote with Kevin Lynch, another tremendous scholar and urban designer, deals with the economic and environmental forces that shape the built environment, the image of the city, and approaches to designing the city, all of which  have been greatly influential for my practice as a designer.

This fall, Gary wanted to expand this field of research into an online course so we could reach a global audience. It’s amazing to use technology to think through new pedagogies around site planning, which started out as a revolutionary way of understanding architecture, environments, and design post-WWII. We’ve already had over 1300 students enrolled in the class from all over the world.

Q: That’s incredible! What moves you to teach courses like this?

There’s an amazing link between my professional practice and teaching. Teaching allows me to reflect on my process and to question what I’ve learned and incorporated into my methodologies.

Working with future designers imbues my work with a unique optimism.

When you teach, you have the next generation of thinkers questioning your assumptions and pushing you to pursue your best work. For me, teaching is really about building a culture based on collaboration and creativity.

I like to think I live somewhere between teaching and practice. I’m inspired by our founder Hideo Sasaki’s legacy of creating a blended practice—one that brings teaching and professional experience together. That’s when you get the best of both worlds, because one influences the other constantly. Teaching keeps you on your toes because you are constantly debating, explaining, and rethinking integral parts of the practice.

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