Designing Futures for Equitable Neighborhoods in Philadelphia

On October 5, 2018, ESI Senior Advisor Natalie Nixon collaborated with Rob Fleming, director of Jefferson University’s Master’s degree program in sustainable design, and Tayyib Smith, co-founder of Little Giant Creative and the Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship, to facilitate a scenario planning event as part of the DesignPhiladelphia festival. The purpose of the session was to explore visions of equity for Philadelphia neighborhoods in the midst of the gentrification process. They used methods typically employed in design charrettes: brainstorming, collaboration, and culminating with tactics to make the ideas a reality.

Gentrification is a common theme that cities across the United States are facing. So far no one has been able to figure out a model of gentrification that also ensures socio-economic diversity in urban communities. Tayyib Smith is a recipient of a 2017 Knight Foundation grant, along with Meegan Denenberg, and they co-curated, “A Dream Deferred- Redlining Past, Present, Future” exhibit (September 21, 2018 through November 15, 2018). Smith supplied critical background information and statistics about the racial wealth gap and income disparities in the Philadelphia region. Some examples of these statistics include:

  • Black and Hispanic youth are disconnected or underemployed from work at a rate 537% higher than white youth;
  • The share of black young adults who are disconnected (19.8%) is 6.5 times the share of young white adults (3.1%);
  • White Philadelphians received 10 times as many conventional mortgage loans as black Philadelphians in 2015 and 2016; and
  • Despite controlling for applicants’ income, loan amount, neighborhood, etc., blacks were 2.7 times more likely than whites to be denied a conventional mortgage in Philadelphia.

This helped Nixon, an innovation strategist at Figure 8 Thinking, and Lindsay Durkalec, Marketing Assistant at ESI, develop personas in advance which embodied a range of types and composites of Philadelphia citizens. These personas included:

  • Randy Dickinson: A re-entering citizen who had been incarcerated for the past five years;
  • Kate Connors: An upper-class empty nester moving back to Philadelphia from the suburbs;
  • James Wheeler: A millennial who just graduated with their MBA, deciding to make roots in Philadelphia; and
  • Brittany Williams: A single mother worried about Philadelphia’s public school system for her two children.

Each team was assigned a persona which became a framing tool to be very specific about the future scenario that they were proposing. The framing question for the 30 people assembled was “What might prosperity and equity look like for your persona in 10 years?” Their task was to identify innovative resources and means for their persona to prosper by factoring in STEEP drivers: social, technological, economic, environmental and political factors. Mr. Fleming pushed the group to give constructive feedback in terms of “optimisms and cautions” for each idea that was presented. The photos below are a sampling of some of the envisioning work that occurred.


Anchor Library: An ambitious reconsideration of the role of the library in retaining talent, building equity and generating wealth in Philly neighborhoods.
Enlightened Self-Interest. This group studied the potential impacts of a shifting social consciousness from “Me” to ”We” among future gentrifiers of Philadelphia. A new conception of “wealth” may allow for more equitable communities.
Urban Transformation Playground. This group really got into the mindset of their Persona, choosing to design a “playground” of actions that denote a privileged life. In a design charrette, it is not uncommon for different teams to take a different approach than what was expected. The entire group can learn from this Team’s work.
Active Senior Utopia. This group took a deep dive into senior living in Philadelphia. The proposed solutions offered a vision of a sustainable urban neighborhood where seniors can not only “Age in place” but “Thrive in Place”
Home Opportunity Prosperity and Entrepreneurship H.O.P.E. This group modeled a holistic and cyclical vision to assist their Persona as he made his way out of a difficult past into a brighter future.


About DesignPhiladelphia: As the oldest design festival of its kind in the country, DesignPhiladelphia highlights the work of thousands of local designers, architects, and creative professionals to demonstrate Philadelphia’s reemergence as a 21st century city shaped by thoughtful design, collaborative business practices, and community engagement. Over the course of ten days each October, places such as universities, cultural institutions, civic associations, city agencies, retailers, manufacturers, and startups across the city participate in over 100 engaging events including panel discussions, fashion shows, participatory workshops, studio tours, booking signings, professional development classes, design exhibitions, and imaginative celebrations.





Natalie W. NixonNatalie W. Nixon, PH.D. is a hybrid thinker who’s consulting and research interests are at the intersections of creativity & strategy and business & design. At Figure 8 Thinking, LLC, she helps organizations ecclerate innovation and growth by developing meaningful strategy through design thinking and ethnographic research.


Rob Fleming, AIA, LEED AP, is the Co-creator and Director of the award-winning Master of Science in Sustainable Design Program at Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University). The program has received national awards from the United States Green Building Council and from the National Institute for Building Sciences.


Tayyib Smith is co-founder of Little Giant Creative and the Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship, which are dedicated to cultural competency and the ability to engage multicultural audiences.

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