Katie Swenson is a Senior Principal at MASS Design. She joined Mass in 2020 after having worked for many years on affordable housing with Enterprise Community Partners on issues of design and sustainability. Her role at MASS, which has built a reputation as a design practice that embraces issues of economic and social equity, is to help them to define MASS version 2.0.
With a career that has spanned both arts and design, Katie grew up in Washington, D.C. and Boston, and studied comparative literature at Berkeley. Then, for six years she immersed herself in the modern dance community in New York City. When she finally decided to attend graduate school, she chose architecture as her discipline.
After graduating from the University of Virginia, she received an Enterprise Rose Fellowship to help initiate the 10th and Page Street Neighborhood Revitalization Project, working with the local Piedmont Housing Alliance. And that’s when the magic started to happen.
“It allowed me to become a community-based architect,” she says, “one who brings big ideas to the local level and works with the city and community to make things happen.” She founded the Charlottesville Community Design Center soon afterwards, leading it for the next two years, during which time she co-authored Growing Urban Habitats: Seeking a New Housing Development Model, with William Morrish and Susanne Schindler.
In 2007, Katie was asked to head the Rose Fellowship program itself, and went on to spend over a decade at the parent organization, Enterprise Community Partners. She has taught at the Boston Architectural College and Parsons School of Design, and in 2018-19, she was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate Design School.
Listen to Katie talk about the importance of ‘community’ for impactful development.
Insights and Inspirations
- Diversity is not an abstract word.
- Katie’s mom was her architectural mentor.
- Home can mean so many different things.
Information and Links
- Katie stays tuned to designvanguard.org for the creative edge in design and technology in the social sector.
- Katie loves listening to Eric Cesal’s social-design-insights conversations with social justice designers.
- Mia Scharphie is one of the greatest champions of women in design and Katie loves following her buildyourselfworkshop.com and highly recommends taking a Build Yourself workshop.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:17] Hi there, thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing.
Eve: [00:00:24] My guest today is Katie Swenson. Katie joined MASS Design in 2020 as a senior principal after having worked for many years on affordable housing with enterprise community partners. There she was, a vice president of Design and Sustainability. Her role at MASS, a design practice that embraces issues of economic and social equity, is to help them to define Mass Version 2.0.
Eve: [00:01:06] Katie’s career has spanned both arts and design, from comparative literature to modern dance. When she finally decided to attend graduate school, she chose architecture as her discipline. And that’s when the magic really started to happen. “It allowed me to become a community-based architect,” she says, “one who brings ideas to the local level and works with the city and community to make things happen.”
Eve: [00:01:37] Be sure to go to rethinkrealestateforgood.co to find out more about Katie on the show notes page for this episode. And be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you can access information about impact real estate investing and get the latest news about the exciting projects on my crowdfunding platform, Small change.
Eve: [00:02:00] So hello, Katie. Thank you so much for spending some time with me today.
Katie Swenson: [00:02:04] So glad to be here. Thank you, Eve.
Eve: [00:02:07] I’m really fascinated. You’ve built a career around this question: How do we create an equitable, sustainable, affordable city? And I’m just wondering how you would answer that very big question.
Katie: [00:02:20] Yes. Thank you for that question. How do we create an equitable, affordable, sustainable city and communities, I would say, as well.
Eve: [00:02:30] Yes.
Katie: [00:02:30] You know, my work has taken me into communities mostly across the United States, both large cities and small cities, rural communities and tribal communities. And I think at the base of everything that we’ve been trying to do is to understand how people can create lives for themselves and their families that give them the opportunity to become and be the people that they want to be, to live lives with purpose and dignity and have the resources and abilities to contribute to the world at large and to their families. So I think that has to happen and in all kinds of environments, certainly so much of the focus of both the sort of economic engines as well as a lot of the environmental work has been around densifying cities and creating cities as urban centers where so much of our work and life can happen. But I think it’s also important to understand the broad spectrum of communities that we have throughout the United States and understand that we need to address critical issues around housing and jobs and health and education resources for everybody in the country.
Eve: [00:04:01] Basically, one one size does not fit all, right?
Katie: [00:04:04] You know, America is much more diverse, I think, than we necessarily give it credit. I’ve had the incredible opportunity over the last dozen years to really travel quite a lot throughout the United States. And last year, I partnered with a photographer named Harry Connolly and the two of us have been working on a book that we called ‘Design with Love at Home in America’. And we went and revisited 10 of the communities where we’ve been working in partnership for many years with local community development corporations. And the experience kind of re-revealed for me how diverse America really is, from border communities to very rural tribal communities. We worked in geographic diverse locations from the Mississippi Delta through Yakima, Washington, which is sort of the breadbasket of America for produce and fruit production, through inner cities in Baltimore and elsewhere. So, I think one size does not fit all in some ways and in other ways, of course, there are so many common themes that unite best efforts throughout the country.
Eve: [00:05:33] Yes, I think about one size does not fit all, I immediately think about, you know, the very typical residential project that developers will build, which really seems to be one size for all. And what you’re describing is something very much more diverse.
Katie: [00:05:53] Yeah, I think that communities need to grow to reflect themselves. That’s the essence of place-based attitude towards building MASS Design. We have talked too often about the provenence of a building. You think of, let’s say, wine that comes from a certain region and is grown from a certain type of soil. And buildings and communities also have the opportunity to be grown from their place and to be designed, really, in concert with the values and ambitions and aesthetics and goals of the people who both are responsible for creating them and then will live and grow their own communities. So, yes, I think it’s really important to understand that diversity is not an abstract goal, but is the result of, sort of, expression of an environment and that of people and community values that create something that’s unique and individual to a place.
Eve: [00:07:09] Yeah, I love that thought that a building has a provenance. I think that’s great. So, the question of the architect’s role within community has sort of continued to grow and change in recent years, but I don’t think it’s fully formed yet. And how would you like to see that role continue to evolve?
Katie: [00:07:28] You know, through our work with the Enterprise Rose Fellowship program, we’ve learned a lot about a role that an architect can play in local communities. So, just to give a little bit of context, I worked for almost 15 years at Enterprise Community Partners. Back in 2001 to 2004 I participated in a program called the Enterprise Rose Fellowship Program and as an aspiring architect, I was partnered with a community-based development corporation. And the goal was to bring an architect or designer on to the development team of a community development group. The Community Development Group could use the resources of a dedicated designer, and the designer would be able to learn the ins and outs of not only affordable housing development, but also community engagement processes and the regulatory processes that contribute to the creation for affordable housing. So, over these past nearly 20 years, Enterprise has partnered 85 Rose Fellows with community-based groups, and it’s been an incredible privilege to be able to witness the growth that has happened through these partnerships. Each one has looked very different. In all cases, there are definitely some sort of underlying values. The architects who are attracted to this work and who succeed at it are generally very humble people who approach the work with the desire to uplift, first and foremost, the goals of the community, but also have to be able to be both brave enough and resourceful to bring the best resources from the architectural and design communities to sort of bear in the local work. So, it’s been wonderful to watch these relationships and partnerships grow over time, and each one has resulted in very different kinds of outcomes.
Eve: [00:09:49] Do you want to give me some examples? What should a community architect be thinking about that’s perhaps different than a rock star architect might be thinking about?
Katie: [00:09:58] Absolutely, I’d be happy to share a few examples. I think I would start back in the early days, maybe in 2001, when David Flores was partnered with a community group in San Ysidro, California, called Casa Familiar. A local non-profit that is now about 50 years old and has been working as a kind of community organizer in San Ysidro for many years, helping families navigate life on both sides of the border and provide affordable housing and other community development resources in San Ysidro. And David Flores was a member of my class of fellows, so we both started work in 2001. At the beginning, David started building what he called Casitas, small houses along some of the alleys in the historic part of San Ysidro. But I think he quickly started to realize what the larger challenges that families were facing at the border, including, of course, the border itself. And as the San Ysidro land port of entry has expanded and increased its, I guess, militarization of the border process for crossing, it also took up more space and land space in the community, more energy and also, because of the long wait times to cross the border, was creating environmental effects from stalled vehicles. So David, not only has been working as the design director at Casa Familiar, he was there for almost 20 years working to oversee the development of affordable housing in the neighborhood, but he also joined, for a time, he led the Planning Commission efforts and he got involved in the design and planning of the border control station so that it would be more receptive and welcoming to pedestrians and people crossing each way. And he got involved in environmental studies and testing air quality in the region.
Katie: [00:12:16] So I think that architects and designers like David show that an architect’s job is not only on distinct projects, that, absolutely he’s been involved in helping to realize some very beautiful pieces of architecture including a project which just opened recently that Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman designed for Casa Familiar, a longtime project in development. But that these building blocks of housing and libraries and parks also need to be knitted together into a larger point of view and larger ability to help a community, as a whole, feel supported and able to grow a family’s life and capabilities in some of the most stressful, you know, environments that we have here in the country.
Eve: [00:13:16] That’s a lovely story. So, I’d really love to hear about how you came to be such a powerful advocate for equitable cities and communities and where did that passion come from? I think you started life academically in a very different place by the sounds of it.
Katie: [00:13:32] Yes, I was asked recently who one of my architectural mentors was and, as a child, and I said my mom and the response was one of surprise, actually, and I thought it was so interesting because my mom was a professional, but she was also a home maker. And I’ve been thinking about these words, not homemaker, one word, but home maker, maybe two words. And I think in many ways, I grew up with a very strong attachment to home, the idea of home, the physical reality of home, how both the design and feeling of your home as well as the stability and platform that your home kind of provides you is just a critical piece of this formation of who you are. And I think in high school, while I had a very stable and wonderful home, I also had the chance to volunteer for what started as a month engagement and ended up being a little over a year and a half at a homeless shelter in Boston. And I think that in the mid-eighties, when homelessness was starting to, kind of, take hold of America and we had, kind of, a high point in the mid-80s, I realize now that actually has not dissipated much. So for me, as a high school student, sort of understanding this dichotomy, not just the power of my own home and what it meant for me, but what happens when you don’t have a home and how slippery a slope it becomes and how quickly life can fall apart without a stable home. So I think that this has guided so much of my passion for my work and while it hasn’t necessarily been a linear path in terms of my career, I studied comparative literature as an undergrad and I have spent time as a modern dancer and I’ve done a lot of different things throughout my life, but some core essence around the importance of home and making homes, making my own home and making homes for others has been something that has driven me as long as I can remember and to this day.
Eve: [00:16:12] You also sound like you’ve had a lot of fun. And, you know, I think people have this idea that your life should be linear. But I think, you know, all of those interesting things that you’ve done must surely feed into what you do now and the way you look at the world and I love that idea. I wanted to talk a little bit about the pandemic as well. It’s taken me a while to get my brain around it, but I’m starting to think about what does it mean? And what does our world look like when and if it comes to an end? And if it wasn’t already bad enough, the affordable housing crisis just got a lot worse with the onset of the pandemic and many people losing their jobs. And I don’t even know how to begin to think about how the U.S. can tackle this monster problem and I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about that.
Katie: [00:17:04] Oh boy. Well, I wish I could say that I was able to get my mind around what this is going to mean for all of us. I think we’re still in this period of profound uncertainty. And I am really grateful for the wide-spread activism that I’ve seen from the housing community, first and foremost, on protecting renters and working to stop evictions and understand that that’s one critical base of all of this is, again, I guess, the importance of having a home right now. We talk about stay at home, right? Stay at home.
Eve: [00:17:43] If you don’t have a home, how do you stay at home, right? Yeah.
Katie: [00:17:47] Oh, my goodness. I mean, that means very different things for different people. And the importance of home has maybe never been so, kind of, revealed, right? I heard Governor Cuomo talking about the subways in New York, ridership is down 92 percent and they were going to start to close the subways in the mid-morning hours because many people were in many ways taking up residence on the subways.
Eve: [00:18:16] Oh wow.
Katie: [00:18:16] So this kind of crisis around home, whether it’s becoming increasingly unaffordable because you’re out of work, whether it’s a place that is not safe, perhaps. I mean, not everybody is living at home in a safe environment or you have no home. So, we think this moment, certainly we all want to, kind of, understand what is the future of, you know, our public transit system, what is the future of our work spaces, what’s the future of the restaurant and food industry? There’s so many questions, but I think one of the most elemental questions is going to have to be what is the future of our housing policy and are we going to use this moment when it could not be more clear how important it is, both for each of us as individuals and for all of us as a society, to be able to safely house every member of our community?
Eve: [00:19:26] Yeah, and more, you know, you can’t really say that home is just a roof over your head because there’s so much inequity around who has a computer and who has broadband, and if you even have a place to work in your home. And I think all of that, surely, has to come into play as well. If we’re really looking at schools being closed, and I know my husband’s a teacher and his university is already talking about online classes only in the fall, all of that is going to really matter quickly. I mean, as an architect, I’m grappling with, you know, what does that mean in the way we even design homes and cities?
Katie: [00:20:07] You know, in some ways, you’re right in that this is sort of exciting time to think about home, right? I think everybody’s looking around and going like, oh, my goodness I have to sort of expect so much more of this space. And I hope that that notion of expecting more from our buildings and our spaces is one of the things that will come out of this time. You know, the idea that our buildings need to keep us healthy is an idea that really attracted me originally to MASS Design Group who started during a tuberculosis epidemic and designing hospitals with the goal of having the hospital itself, the building itself, participate in enhancing the health of the staff and patients and visitors who experienced it. That the buildings have such a role to play. Buildings shape us, they shape our experience. They shape our health outcomes. And so, I hope that this will be a moment where we are understanding that we need to ask more of our buildings and participate in a greater spatial awareness and spatial literacy to understand the profound effects that the built environment in general, and the buildings that we occupy in specific, have on our health outcomes and our quality of life and productivity outcomes and that we gain a sort of awareness and capabilities around our ambitions for the built environment.
Eve: [00:21:59] Yeah, and that, you know, the buildings shape cities. And I think cities, too, will need to be re-thought in terms of how do you make them safe places for larger groups of people? You know, some cities in other countries are starting to think about changes to their transportation patterns or, in Lithuania they’ve given over all public spaces to outdoor restaurants so restaurants can operate again. I mean, these are kind of baby steps but in amongst the misery of all of this, it’s interesting to watch how creative people can be. That’s encouraging, I think.
Katie: [00:22:37] It’s hard to talk about silver linings at this moment. I mean, I think people are going to be experiencing so much grief of all kinds from lost loved ones to lost, you know, hopes or experiences. So, there’s going to be just a wide swath of, kind of, having to recover from this moment but, as you say, there’s also a lot of opportunities that are being revealed. Like in New York City, where they’re coming up with strategies to re-occupy the city streets in a different way, I think that’s so exciting. And I think it’s really important, I mean, if home is important, though is. I guess, you know, the old words home and garden, right? Home is as equally reflected in the sort of outdoor space. and I think our ability to kind of get more creative about understanding how we can use our outdoor spaces more effectively is really important.
Katie: [00:23:39] I also think that different kinds of projects. We have just been involved in a project in a community in West Baltimore where neighborhood leaders started leading the charge to create a park where there had been three homes which, over time in a disinvested area of Baltimore, had been first made vacant and then started to deteriorate and eventually were taken down and the lots that were left had become a dumping grounds. And one of the local neighbors, so a block leader, a block captain on his block, his name is Donald Quarles, started working with one of our Rose Fellows and his neighborhood group and the Bon Secours Community Development Group to clean up first this lot and now turn it into what has become this incredibly beautiful small pocket park that they call Kirby Lane Park. And the process has taken about two years and we figure that in the end, it’s been mostly volunteer labor, but the hard costs have been less than one unit of housing costs to create in that community. And it’s provided this outdoor space, a kind of backyard or a front porch, whatever you want to call it, for this community at large. So I think from big ideas to how do we re-occupy city streets and city parks and beaches, to small ideas of how to prioritize and re-integrate smaller outdoor spaces into our day-to-day lives, there are lots of models and ideas that we need to be working on simultaneously at different scales.
Eve: [00:25:41] I think what excites me is the people I talk to who are incredibly creative and they’re all going to put the brainpower to this. I can’t wait to see how they make things better. It’s fascinating to me. But, in the meantime, I would just like to ask you one final question, and that is what’s next for you? You have a brand, new job with MASS Design Group and where’s that going to lead you?
Katie: [00:26:06] Oh yes, it is so exciting. I started at MASS Design on February 3rd. I’ve been a friend and sort of champion and cheerleader to the organization since 2010 when I first met them and then had joined their board. So, I came on full-time in February, thank goodness, really just in time to be able to participate in this moment with this incredible group.
Katie: [00:26:34] So, the very first morning that we, sort of were all getting on our first Zoom call with one hundred and twenty five people from around the world at nine a.m. Eastern Time on Monday morning, one of our design directors, Chris Scovel, had gotten a call from one of our partners at Boston Health Care for the Homeless, saying that were going to be putting up some makeshift tents to be able to test and treat people without homes in Boston and would we look at the plans? And so, Chris and a team got on to making really makeshift design recommendations. We’re not calling them designs because it’s not about designing a tent or creating something ideal in any way, it’s about trying to apply our experience and design for infection control that we’ve learned over many years through, not only tuberculosis, but also Ebola and cholera, and to understand with our medical partners how Covid19 is manifesting itself and what can we do from a spatial guidance to help limit contagion and keep health care workers and patients healthier. So we started in on this immediately and realized that if one group needed it, as one partner needed it, probably so did others. So, we set off on this kind of larger understanding about, how can we use our spatial cues, spatial literacy, to help respond in this crisis? You know, I think that obviously architects are not on the frontlines of this crisis. Health care workers are on the frontlines of this crisis and make no mistake about it, but the rub is that our buildings are on the front lines. And so, we need to be there, showing up to understand how do we need to adapt? What are the retrofits that we need to do? How can we learn from this experience so that our buildings are able to support health care workers, to be able to support our communities, getting back into our lives in so many ways, but to do it safely?
Katie: [00:29:04] It’s been an incredible process and I feel very, very lucky to work not only with an incredible team at MASS, but also such a robust network of amazing partners both in the medical fields and in all of the sort of social service fields.
Eve: [00:29:22] Well, I really can’t wait to see what comes next. And thank you very much for spending this time with me today.
Katie: [00:29:30] Thank you. Really a pleasure to join you and we’ll look forward to having this conversation evolve and thanks for highlighting all the creative efforts. Appreciate it.
Eve: [00:29:41] Thank you.
Eve: [00:29:56] That was Katie Swenson. I loved that her early professional years meandered through the arts from comparative literature to dance before she landed on architecture. Her trajectory shows that climbing the ladder is not necessarily the path to success. Her career as a community architect started later than most but that didn’t stop her from becoming a star in the field. And she brought with her creativity and a human passion for making better places for everyone.
Eve: [00:30:27] You can find out more about impact real estate investing and access the show notes for today’s episode at my web site, rethinkrealestateforgood.co. While you’re there, sign up for my newsletter to find out more about how to make money in real estate while building better cities.Eve: [00:30:44] Thank you so much for spending your time with me today and thank you, Katie, for sharing your thoughts. We’ll talk again soon but for now, this is EVe Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Katie Swenson