Monthly Archive: May 2016

Semi-Finalists Announced in “Memorials for the Future” Competition

“American Wild: A Memorial,” one of the semi-finalist designs, would project high-definition visuals of the 59 national parks onto the interior of D.C. Metro stations. (Credit: Van Alen Institute)

Thirty semi-finalists have been announced in the “Memorials for the Future” design competition, an open call that invited teams to submit ideas not only for new memorial forms in Washington, D.C., but also for new memorial concepts, reports Architect Magazine. Initiated in April by the National Parks Service, the National Capital Planning Commission and the nonprofit Van Alen Institute, the competition’s novelty lies in this open-endedness: The public is being asked what to memorialize, how and why, raising questions about which histories public monuments have privileged in the past, and what public concerns merit memorialization into the future.

In this first round, 30 proposals have been chosen as semi-finalists out of 89 submitted projects. “We saw a huge variety of projects and approaches,” jury member Mark Gardner, principal of Jaklitsch/Gardner Architects in New York, told Architect Magazine. “The competition called for diversity, and I think the designers really answered that request.” Many of the designs break from traditional forms to propose virtual memorials accessed by smart phones, pop-up memorials that engage people in conversation about the past and future of their neighborhoods, and dispersed memorials that take the monument off its pedestal, incorporating remembrance into the daily life of the city.

The designs also took on a multitude of histories and subject matters, from Japanese Internment to the Underground Railroad, from democracy to biodiversity, from immigration to grief, even the late musician Prince. The competition is anchored by the belief that traditional memorials, like the granite, marble and limestone monoliths that dominate D.C. today, may not speak to or resonate with an increasingly diverse population, in design or content.

“In a way, Washington, D.C., is a collective memorial that tells the story of the country’s history, and represents a number of people and their stories,” says Gardner. “This competition is an opportunity to provide a voice for the changing population of this city,”

“Climate Chronograph,” proposed by Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter, envisions a “memorial for the future rising sea.” Their design consists of a platform surrounded by water and planted with a grid of cherry blossoms. As sea levels rise, the trees on the edges will die in place, creating a visual catalog of former shorelines and representing the displacement of people as a result of climate change.

Climate Chronograph proposal (Credit: Van Alen Institute)

The design “Memorial to Victims of Gun Violence in America,” proposed by a team led by Jessica Jamroz, visualizes the toll of gun violence in each of the 50 states using water. Each state would be represented by a fountain, whose activity would be dictated by gun violence statistics in that state, waters building up and “becoming more turbulent with [each] loss of life.”

Several proposals would invite residents to participate in their own remembrance projects. “Neighborhood Memorials” is a concept for distributed, site-specific memorials utilizing existing infrastructure like bus shelters and park trees. Residents would be engaged to create content using low-cost exhibition materials like portable projectors and even sunlight, in the form of shadow art. Other proposals call for viewers to become participants, submitting images or text via their smartphones.

About half of the submissions were site-specific to Washington, D.C., but the rest could be located in other cities. “The benefit of having certain memorials be mobile is that there are different experiences within other settings,” Jessica Lax, associate director of competitions at the Van Alen Institute, told Architecture Magazine. “Some peoples’ stories are not always heard, so in bringing the memorial to them, that can be achieved within that setting.”

Three finalists will be announced on June 8. Each will receive a $15,000 stipend and strategic assistance to research and design their final proposal. The winner will be announced in the fall, though winning doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the project will be constructed. As Kriston Capps of CityLab noted when the competition was announced, “The contest is purely for honors, not to produce a built memorial. But any memorial starts with a grassroots campaign. A gripping memorial design associated with Black Lives Matter, for example, or Vision Zero — or abortion or suicide or gun violence or drug abuse or really any controversial subject in life — could generate its own momentum.”

Your City Needs a Local Data Intermediary Now

(Photo by couchmedia via flickr

Imagine if every community nationwide had access to their own data — data on which children are missing too many days of school, which neighborhoods are becoming unaffordable, or where more mothers are getting better access to prenatal care.

This is a reality in some areas, where neighborhood data is analyzed to evaluate community health and to promote development. Cleveland is studying cases of lead poisoning and the impact on school readiness and educational outcomes for children. Detroit is tracking the extent of property blight and abandonment.

But good data doesn’t just happen.

These activities are possible because of local intermediaries, groups that bridge the gap between data and local stakeholders: nonprofits, government agencies, foundations and residents. These groups access data that are often confidential and indecipherable to the public and make them accessible and useful. And with the support of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), groups around the country are championing community development at the local level.

Without a local data intermediary in Baltimore, we might know less about what happened there last year and why.

Freddie Gray’s death prompted intense discussion about police brutality and discrimination against African-Americans. But the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA) helped root this incident and others like it within a particular place, highlighting what can happen when disadvantage is allowed to accumulate over decades.

BNIA, an NNIP member, was formed in 2000 to help community organizations use data shared by government agencies. By the time of Gray’s death, BNIA had 15 years of data across more than 150 indicators that demonstrated clear socioeconomic disadvantages for residents of Gray’s neighborhood, Sandtown-Winchester. The neighborhood had a 34 percent housing vacancy rate and 23 percent unemployment. The neighborhood lacks highway access and is poorly served by public transit, leaving residents cut off from jobs and services.

With BNIA’s help, national and local media outlets, including the New York Times, MSNBC and the Baltimore Sun portrayed a community beset by concentrated poverty, while other Baltimore neighborhoods benefited from economic investment and rising incomes. BNIA data, which is updated yearly, has also been used to develop policy ideas to revitalize the neighborhood, from increasing the use of housing choice vouchers to tackling unemployment.

Local data intermediaries like BNIA harness neighborhood data to make underserved people and unresolved issues visible. They work with government agencies to access raw data (e.g., crime reports, property records, and vital statistics) and facilitate their use to improve quality of life for residents.

But it’s not easy. Uncovering useful, actionable information requires trust, technical expertise, knowledge of the local context and coordination among multiple stakeholders.

This is why the NNIP is vital. NNIP is a peer network of more than two dozen local data intermediaries and the Urban Institute, working to democratize data by building local capacity and planning joint activities. Before NNIP’s founding partners, there were no advanced information systems documenting and tracking neighborhood indicators. Since 1996, NNIP has been a platform for sharing best practices, providing technical assistance, managing cross-site projects and analysis, and expanding the outreach of local data intermediaries to national networks and federal agencies. The partnership continues to grow. In order to foster this capacity in more places, NNIP has just released a guide for local communities to start a data intermediary.

When used properly, data can reveal patterns within anecdotes, suggest potential solutions and validate the lived experiences of people too often overlooked. As open data efforts spread, government agencies will release more and more data to the public. Local data intermediaries will be even more valuable in helping users sort through the data to surface, explain and address the issues distressed communities face.

When Prefab Is Painless

Marmol Radziner–designed prefab house

When Abbie and Bill Burton hired Marmol Radziner to design their prefab weekend home, their two requests were “simple-simple, replaceable materials,” says Abbie—such as concrete floors (poured offsite in Marmol Radziner’s factory) and metal panel siding—and “the ability to be indoors or outdoors with ease.” Deep overhangs provide shade and protection from rain, so the Burtons can leave their doors open year-round and hang out on their 70-foot-long deck even in inclement weather. They visit the house once a month, usually for a week at a time, with Vinnie and Stella, their rescue Bernese Mountain dogs. Their two adult children occasionally join them. The couple hopes to one day retire here.

Burton Residence


Bill and Abbie Burton have experienced their share of construction drama. The Solana Beach, California– based landscape architects have been working together for 25 years, overhauling landscapes and buildings alike. So when the time came to build a vacation house on the 330-acre oak-speckled woodland they purchased in Mendocino County, nine-and-a-half hours north of their main residence, they opted for the easy way out: a custom prefab house designed by Los Angeles firm Marmol Radziner. “We weren’t able to make lots of trips up here, so we couldn’t babysit the process,” says Bill. “Stick-built construction requires a lot of hand-holding. Going prefab made it pretty seamless.”

Prefab pool area with shade cloth curtain

In the foreground are Float beanbag chairs and poufs from Paola Lenti. Mamagreen sofas nestle near the house on the sun-dappled deck. A 9.5-foot-tall shade cloth curtain seals off the entire length of the house when the couple is away, keeping the heat out of the interior and preventing accidental bird suicides against the floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

The couple met with the firm just six times to hammer out the design: a two-bedroom, 2,200- square-foot house with an additional 1,440 square feet of covered decks. Made up of ten prefabricated steel modules, the structure took three months to build in Marmol Radziner’s dedicated factory, including installation of all cabinetry, plumbing, fixtures, and drywall. The modules were trucked to the site one morning, and were swiftly craned into place atop concrete block piers.

Exterior view of prefab weekend home

A Simple Plan

A Marmol Radziner–designed prefab house, trucked onto a remote Northern California site, takes the pain out of the construction process. Photo by Dwight Eschliman.

“We literally sat on the hill in lawn chairs and watched the house come together,” says Bill. “It was instantaneous. We went from having just a foundation on our site to walking around our house a few hours later. You never see architecture come together like that.” Six weeks later the finish work was complete—seams where the modules met were patched, an 18-foot kitchen island was installed—and the Burtons moved in.

Click here to view our extended slideshow chronicling how the residence was assembled in a single day.


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This High-Flying Home Tackles a Sharp Slope

Modern canyon house outdoor incline

To deal with a Malibu site’s sharp incline, architect Bruce Bolander set the steel, concrete, and glass house on caissons. A deep wraparound porch nearly doubles the home’s living space and offers the ideal perch for outdoor dining and taking in spectacular views of the surrounding canyon. The garage serves as resident Dave Keffer’s home office.

Blair House


Several years after architect Bruce Bolander built a house for his family in a chaparral-filled canyon in Malibu, California, the steep lot across the road came up for sale. Bolander knew he had to move on it or risk watching a coral-pink mini-McMansion go up smack-dab in the middle of his sight line. “I wasn’t sure the lot was even buildable,” says Bolander, who bought the 2.5-acre site anyway. He spent the next four years wrangling permits for a one-bedroom, one-bathroom structure, its 900-square-foot footprint dictated—per city building codes—by the property’s previous house, which had been destroyed in the 1940s yet immortalized in a fuzzy old aerial snapshot. “The broad-stroke design happened pretty quickly,” says the architect. “The size was a given—the rectangular shape, even—and the rest was more about what felt good, what felt right in the setting.”

Modern kitchen hallway with wood-paneled wall

A colorful, laminate-clad wall of storage stretches seamlessly from the kitchen—where it holds a full-size built-in Sub-Zero refrigerator and freezer, a Miele dishwasher, a Bosch cooktop, and a tiny convection oven—to the bedroom, where it contains the couple’s clothing, shoes, and linens.

For Bolander, what felt best was to integrate the house with the land. The resulting steel, glass, and concrete structure, protected by winglike roof overhangs, is set into the hillside noninvasively and is barely visible from the road below. Even so, as the house was being built, Dave Keffer, who runs a creative services firm, and Heidi Wright, an advertising executive, noticed its progress on drives through the canyon. “I started seeing this amazing structure go up and thought it was exactly the type of place I’d be into living in,” says Wright. The chance soon arose when Wright saw the rental listing in a local paper. Since Bolander had already outfitted the space with some of his own custom-built furnishings, the couple purged many of their own belongings, put the rest in storage, and moved in.

“When we really pared down, we realized that we didn’t need a lot of stuff,” says Wright. The solid wall of built-in storage running the length of the house, clad in petrol blue and light turquoise laminate panels, helped ease the transition to smaller quarters. “There’s a surprising amount of storage,” says Keffer. “We were thinking there would be no way we’d get all our stuff in here, but we did. Now we just have to be sure we put everything back where it belongs to reduce clutter.”

Modern bedroom office with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors

Bolander designed the custom steel desk where Wright works (above), as well as the bedside table (opposite), fashioned from a speaker tower base and a slab of white oak. The desk chair and table lamp are vintage; the bed linens are from Garnet Hill and Ikea. The floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors from Metal Window Corporation open the entire corner of the room up to the outdoors.

In the open-plan kitchen, dining, and living room, the home’s cool color palette allows key elements to shine, such as the steel-and-plywood dining table Bolander designed and paired with vintage Eames Wire Shell chairs, and the coffee table he hybridized from an Eames base and a large, round chunk of plywood. To Bolander’s selections, Wright and Keffer added some favorite pieces—she a 1950s kidney-shaped wood table, he something of his own design: a two-tiered triangular wood corner table that echoes Wright’s piece and neatly contains audiovisual equipment beneath the flat-panel television.

Bolander’s maximization of space has everything to do with the views. In the living room and bedroom, floor-to-ceiling glass walls retract, opening both corners of the front facade to the elements and the surrounding vistas—a move partly inspired by the master bedroom of John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein house. “The mountains across the way are almost like another wall—they contain the space to the point that you feel like you’re in a much bigger space, that you’re part of the overall landscape,” says Bolander.

The architect employed other tricks to perceptually extend the house: He wrapped the facade with a six-foot-wide deck that bumps out to 12 feet off the living room, the best spot for taking in the ocean views. He seamlessly continued the gray hue of the cork linoleum floor from the interior onto the Dex-O-Tex deck; similarly, the skinny Hem-Fir slats on the interior ceiling extend through the glass walls to the roof overhang, appearing to thrust the house outward. Bolander makes unexpected use of a common design accent by running the bathroom’s Heath Ceramics Ogawa Green tile into the living room and out onto the exterior wall, allowing the interior to further wend its way outside.

Modern balcony deck with wooden ceiling and metal fence

Wright and Keffer (standing) hang out on their deck with Bolander, who lives just across the road. The chairs, designed by Bolander, are upholstered in Sunbrella fabric.

Both Keffer and Wright have plenty of workspace—her territory is a thin steel desk Bolander designed especially for the bedroom, where she’s up and on calls to New York the moment the sun rises over the mountains. Keffer runs his company from a home office in the detached garage, furnished sparsely with various musical instruments, a sofa from Wright’s previous abode, and a new, bright red-orange Womb chair and ottoman by Eero Saarinen. “I’m in love with that chair,” says Wright.

And when the occasion calls for a celebration, the house easily converts from work mode to play. “Entertaining here is simple,” says Wright. “We open up the doors, fire up the grill, and seat people outside. Living in a small space within this environment is actually very easy—the quality of life is amazing.”

The Off-Grid Home That Doesn't Worry About Too Many Gadgets

Sustainable home with galvanized steel shed roof and siding
The 925-square-foot house Maggie Treanor calls home blends into the landscape somewhat; with a galvanized steel shed roof and siding, it looks like a high-design little brother to the barns on the surrounding farms. Image courtesy of © Derek Shapton.
Treanor Residence


After years of city living, Maggie Treanor was ready to move to the country, though she didn’t know how far her journey would take her. She first migrated in 2002, from the Ontario city of Guelph to a small town nearby, which “was like going on vacation,” she says. “Amazing sunrises and sunsets. I knew then that I wanted to move into the landscape.” A decade later, not far from Auburn, Ontario, in a rural corner of Huron County, she’s done it. Her living room looks directly onto cornfields, without a road or a power line in sight.

The 925-square-foot house she calls home blends into the landscape somewhat; with a galvanized steel shed roof and siding, it looks like a high-design little brother to the barns on the surrounding farms. And its energy footprint is equally subtle: Designer Lisa Moffitt (whose partner is Treanor’s son) built it with an array of sustainable features that take the simple home off-grid.

For Moffitt, the project represented a chance to put into practice ideas she explores in her work as a designer and professor of architecture, ideas about sustainability and shaping buildings around climatic conditions. For three years, she and Maggie’s son, Nick Treanor, traveled from their home in Toronto to do “field work” on the property, a 25-acre plot set among much larger working farms. The couple even went so far as to survey the land themselves, planting steel poles topped with windsocks to map the terrain and weather. So when Treanor commissioned her to design a house, Moffitt knew the site intimately. “There’s a presence to that place—it’s vast, and constantly shifting,” Moffitt says. “It was clear that this house should be an observation shed for the changing landscape beyond.”

This led Moffitt, who left her job with Toronto’s Plant Architect to run the project, to sculpt the house around some carefully chosen views while keeping in mind the patterns of the sun and wind. Moffitt’s brother-in-law Peter Long, who has worked in construction, did the framing and and roofing and installed doors and windows—“assisted by the unprofessional likes of my son and a couple of my daughters,” Treanor says. A local farmer and electrician, Ken Shortreed, brought his bucket truck and his family to help out. Another acquaintance who fixes farm machinery fabricated and installed the exterior guardrails and steel mesh panels on the mezza-nine sitting room. “That was how things went,” Treanor says. “Many of the workers did jobs they never knew they had talent for, jobs they’d never done before.”

As you enter the house on its east side, you can see straight through to Treanor’s land beyond; a 50-foot-long wooden walkway extends from the west side into the field, carrying you toward the horizon of waving grain. A covered porch on the south side provides comfortably shaded outdoor space, and its roof keeps the high-angle summer sun out of the house. Likewise, triple-glazed windows provide even sunshine throughout the day, which, combined with the house’s largely open interior, saves energy on both lighting and climate control. In the winter, a radiant heating system, supplemented by the lower-angle sun, provides consistent warmth.

These elements, along with high-R-value insulation, help the house stay comfortable through the year, a tough task in a region where the temperature veers from zero to over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. “Often when we talk about sustainability we focus on the gadgetry, what makes things feasible off grid,” Moffitt says. “But to me there are more interesting things in passive design that rely on the available sun and wind.” An eight-panel solar array does chip in significantly, generating all the electricity the house needs.

Moffitt’s ideas resonated with Treanor, who is nearing retirement from her job at an engineering firm and who has a long-standing interest in environmental issues. “I wanted just enough for me—something simple and gracious, not ostentatious,” she says. “From the beginning, the premise was a house that minimized impact on the environment. We wanted the farming activity to carry on as before all around the house.” And it does; Treanor leased her land to a nearby farmer, who grows different crops there each year. This year it’s the corn that grows right up to the house and the wooden walkway.

Looking outside is what Treanor loves most about the place: deer in the field, bald eagles in the trees, yellow finches on the clothesline, and her neighbors “tilling the land, harvesting as the seasons roll around.” With that, she says, “I’ve always felt at peace.”

Small Victory

When building such a modest structure in a large landscape, designer and client often had to defend their vision to their collaborators. “We knew this house was going to be for Maggie and she would live there alone,” Moffitt says. “But people are always projecting for future resale. Putting in the smallest size of anything—to any subcontractor, it’s just not reasonable.” This is why Nick Treanor—a philosophy professor—selected all the mechanical and electrical systems. “When you do things yourself, you learn that there are a lot of myths floating in the building industry,” Moffitt says. “If you go to the source and talk to manufacturers, you learn that many things that supposedly won’t work are entirely feasible.”

Look Out

Though the house is only 925 square feet, Moffitt argues that it feels much larger, for which she credits three factors: its visual connections to the outdoors, its open spaces, and its simple interior-design language. “There’s not a single place where you’re not aware of the larger landscape,” Moffitt says. “The double-height living room is such a generous space that it feels big.” As for the interior detailing, “In contemporary construction you have a layered approach to materials. Everything is on top of something else. We tried to avoid that.” Indeed, the house’s materials are few and hardy: polished concrete, maple, and Douglas fir, and white walls with a few bold accents of green and blue.

Midcentury Modern House Shelves by Judson Beaumont for Straight Line Designs

If you can’t afford the real thing at present you can always opt for the miniature. By that, we mean the Midcentury Modern House Shelves by Judson Beaumont for Straight Line Designs. The designs first appeared online last year, but the range has just been refreshed with this selection of Butterfly house shelves, all of […]

On the market: Apartment in the 1930s Berthold Lubetkin-designed Highpoint I in London N6

Not the first time we have featured something in this building, which is because an apartment in the 1930s Berthold Lubetkin-designed Highpoint I in London N6 is always popular. You probably know all about Highpoint, one of the best examples of residential modernism i the capital and as a result, grade I listed by English […]

After Years of Public Conversation, New Orleans Says It’s Ready for Bike-Share

A woman bikes past Finn McCool’s Pub in Mid City New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Bike-share is coming to New Orleans. The city released a request for proposal in April and would-be system operators will be submitting their bids on June 1. The city hopes the operator will launch a privately-funded, 700-bike system sometime next year.

According to Naomi Doerner, a New Orleans bike advocate and former program director at the Alliance for Biking and Walking, advocates have been pushing for bike-share since 2010 when the city released its bicycle master plan. The effort kicked off in earnest in 2012 when local advocacy organization Bike Easy produced the first bike-share feasibility study. In 2014, the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission funded a more robust feasibility study that determined the city could potentially support a bike-share system without investing public dollars.

The city has visions of a system that serves both New Orleans’ robust tourism industry and acts as a new form of transportation for residents.

“Bike-share will be a really powerful addition to the public transportation landscape in New Orleans. We’ve struggled to get bus service back to where it was before Katrina,” says Bike Easy Executive Director Dan Favre.

Doerner expects the primary riders will be a mix of existing, self-identified cyclists, white-collar workers in the downtown business district and tourists.

But she also thinks bike-share has potential to serve as a piece of the transportation network for low-income communities with less transit access.

“It’s really critical that we are thinking about this entire system as a whole and how it’s complementing and filling gaps as it’s being built,” she explains. “Hopefully whoever the operator is, they’re thinking of low-income communities of color who are unbanked, really thinking about healthy active lifestyles and have a need for good transportation.”

The fact that the bike-share system will be built and operated without public funding has raised some question about how much it can do to subsidize usage or operate outside of high-density, high-traffic areas. But, the city’s RFP requires that the system be both “an international model for equitable bicycle sharing programs” and “operate in a fiscally sustainable manner.”

The city’s equity requirements include online, mobile and cash payment options to better serve unbanked residents; reduced-cost annual passes for low-income users; and kiosks that operate in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

“As much as we’ve been pushing for bike-share and felt an urgency to get it sooner, I think we’ve learned some lessons from other cities by waiting,” says Favre. “We’re really excited to see bike-share come online and hope to be able to balance the need for equitable service as well as tourism economy.”

Because there won’t be public subsidies, Doerner thinks it will be all the more important that the city and the bike-share operator work with existing community organizations to accomplish their equity goals.

“The operator should be looking at the Better Bike Share Partnership and some of the things they’ve done to connect community based organizations that are focused on active, healthy lifestyles,” she says. “Particularly in underserved neighborhoods and thinking about how they could use bike-share to compliment that kind of work they’re doing.”

Favre says New Orleans has one geographic advantage that many cities don’t have that could help serve the city’s equity goals.

“We have a pretty compact core area of the city that encompasses a huge range of incomes,” he says. “From French Quarter with the highest incomes, then a mile-and-a-half away average household income can be less than $30,000. It’s a checkerboard mix of income demographics.”

Though he notes that there are many low-income neighborhoods outside of the city core, Favre thinks the mixed-income city center will make it easier to serve lower-income communities than in cities where low-income residents have been pushed to the edges.

Beyond equitable system access, Doerner also hopes the city is considering equitable workforce development opportunities. The RFP requires the operator to maximize local hiring to fill job openings.

She says, “It would be smart to set criteria around exactly what percentage of jobs they want to fill with low-income priority hires. It’s not enough to say ‘these jobs are available.’ There has to be training, identifying who you’re going to work with, workforce development programs.”

In general, Favre is excited about what bike-share could do to bolster bicycling and bike advocacy efforts in New Orleans.

“I think bike-share will do a lot to increase visibility around bicycling in general,” he says. “It will help build public and political desire to build a network of high-quality bike infrastructure.”

New Orleans recently built its first protected bike lane and its bike-infrastructure network recently crossed the 100-mile mark, though Doerner points out the majority of that mileage is sharrows.

The city plans to make its final operator selection by the end of June.

vo trong nghia’s architecture aims to reconnect people with nature

at the venice biennale, we interview the vietnamese architect who has created a small bamboo forest to highlight his firm’s recognizable work with bamboo.

The post vo trong nghia’s architecture aims to reconnect people with nature appeared first on designboom | architecture & design magazine.

5 Cities Get Support for Dismantling Systemic Racism

Philadelphia, above, is one of five cities that will get support for improving racial equity and advancing opportunity for all. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

On April 19, 2015, Freddie Gray died as a result of injuries received while in custody of the Baltimore Police Department. Reactions were all over the map, from outrage, to sadness, to disillusionment. People of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as different levels of privilege, felt something. Two weeks later, in one very privileged room, a collection of high-level financial executives and foundation leaders from around the country felt compelled to do something, but they didn’t know what.

It was a board meeting of Living Cities, a collaborative of 22 of the world’s largest financial institutions and foundations dedicated to improving life for low-income people in cities. “The board said let’s set aside time in that meeting to talk about Freddie Gray, to talk about Baltimore, and even more importantly to talk about race in the United States,” recalled Living Cities CEO Ben Hecht, at an event last week to launch Racial Equity Here, the response they landed upon as a group.

“It wasn’t just in response to Freddie Gray, it wasn’t just in response to police behavior, it wasn’t just new programs. It was what could we do that was more systemic, that could actually get to the underlying issues, which really is that we have a long history of racial exclusion in America’s cities,” Hecht continued.

Racial Equity Here, a $3 million initiative at launch, will support five U.S. cities committed to improving racial equity and advancing opportunity for all: Albuquerque, Austin, Grand Rapids, Louisville and Philadelphia. The first thing each city government has been tasked to do is to look at itself in the mirror. Over the next two years, with support from the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, each city will complete a racial equity assessment of their core government operations with an intentional focus on “opportunity youth” — adults and youth of color aged 16 to 24, who are disproportionately out of school or work. The hope is that the transparency itself will spur discussions that lead to new programs and more importantly a new operating mindset that considers racial equity in all decisions, including and especially annual budget decisions.

“Government helped create a lot of the inequities, it institutionalized them,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said last week, referring to a legacy of racial housing segregation in Austin that started in the 1920s, physically embodied in a freeway built essentially along the racial divide, all contributing to decades of disinvestment and mal-investment for communities of color in East Austin. “It’s important for the government, the city government to address racial inequity, not just because of the conditions, but also because we helped create it.”

“The reason we’re excited about Racial Equity Here, is the ‘here’ part of it,” Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry said. Since every city’s context of racial inequity is unique, Berry says, “I think what’s important about this is we’re going to take these dollars and we’re going to study ourselves.”

Albuquerque recently went through a similar process around gender equity, looking at its own operations and ultimately passing an ordinance to give businesses seeking city contracts an incentive to offer equal wages to both men and women.

“When you’re transparent about your organization, you take a hard deep dive look at yourself, there’s some political downside to that. We’re going to find things that are interesting, we’re going to find things that are impactful for people, we’re going to find some things that we wish we didn’t find, but that’s what we’re here to do,” Berry added.

In Austin, the Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Advisory Commission had been proposing for two years to create a City Office of Equity, when it finally happened near the end of last year, and with little opposition, according to Adler. “It was adopted and we put money for it into the budget,” he notes. “The dynamics of our city are changing and unless we’re able to grow in a more equitable way, we’re going to lose what is the spirit and soul of Austin, Texas. People recognize that.”

Previously, Austin’s anti-poverty and affordable housing efforts looked primarily at class, not race. The new office, Adler says, will be the first to specifically have racial equity as part of its charge.

“It’s very easy for this conversation to go to class, and differences in class, but this conversation is not quite that. It is deeper than that, more serious than that,” Adler said at last week’s event. “When you look at the outcomes, when you look at the policies, when you look at the practical effect of the institutions as they’ve worked, you can’t avoid the conclusion that there is institutional racism.”

The details of how the new office will work in conjunction with other city agencies are still being formulated by the city manager. The city has yet to announce someone to fill the position.

“There were no discussions about more bureaucracy or just creating more red tape,” Adler says. “Its charge isn’t to create additional barriers or thresholds. But the policy recommendations to come out of the office might end up with those battles.”

Another looming battle: state legislators who may oppose any measures adopted as part of a racial equity agenda. New Orleans recently defeated one such state house bill to nullify its racial equity-rooted local hiring program. Adler anticipates similar opposition, particularly related to Austin becoming the first Southern city to ban the box, just a month ago.

“Austin is a city that was described by our governor as being the blueberry in the middle of the tomato soup,” said Adler. But, according to Adler, it benefits the state by attracting companies like Google or Apple or Facebook who have employees who want to live in a place like Austin. “My argument to legislators, that I know I’ll be making in just a few short months, is that some things should be left to local control, so that different communities can be the communities that they want to be,” said Adler.