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Fall 2018 — Workshop #1 Season Kick-Off > Process Makes Permanent


SEPTEMBER 10, 2018




Kicking off the fall 2018 session City Open was Monica Chadha, AIA, founder of Civic Projects. In the architecture community, Chadha is known for her powerful community engagement work, and her firm’s ability to transform community engagement projects into best practices that can transcend professions. From architecture to urban planning, journalism to nonprofit and arts administration, her practices are rooted in a unique process.

Chadha began by providing a “timeline” of engagement initiatives, noting that much of her work has begun with asking questions. She spoke about her project Impact Detroit, in which she worked closely with community members and organizations to help create pop-up spaces in vacant retail corridor that was once considered the Motor City’s Garment District. Once thriving and now unused, she worked collaboratively to create an ongoing series of temporary businesses.

Key to this work, however, was programming. “We made sure we offered a multiplicity of activities that kept people coming back,” she said, articulating that ongoing programs for visitors of all ages helped build consistent public interest and return investment. Foot traffic, then, becomes as much of an investment as cash. Soon, her team found that the temporary businesses began renting out other storefronts in the corridor, moving from temporary pop-up’s to permanent, brick-and-mortar establishments. “They were services made permanent,” she said.

This was also true with her Urban Activators project. A partnership with the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Bronzeville Retail Initiative, Civic Projects led the development of a series of prototypes for the temporary activation of vacant storefronts. She and her team created a set of portable elements that could easily be moved between vacant storefronts in a community. Retailers were selected, and the events attracted more than 200 individuals from the community.

One of those retailers, Rachel Bernier-Green, used the Urban Activators project to pop-up her bakery. Laine’s Bakeshop went on to open a permanent storefront in Woodlawn designed by Chadha in partnership with designer and woodworker Norman Teague. Today, Laine’s Bakeshop supplies their treats to Whole Foods and other retailers.

Chadha’s projects involve a large team of designers, community members, civic organizations, and more, all working in tandem to catalyze investment in under-served neighborhoods. “I love that my work becomes obsolete,” said Chadha, noting that many of her projects take on lives of their own, and are eventually powered by those individuals and groups who take ownership over the work.

Many of the evening’s questions for Chadha helped provide some insight into the sometimes-difficult, often-fragile nature of working in communities that one might not live or normally work. “I’m always invited to participate,” she noted, conveying that her professional and social connections have invited her to the table. She also explained that, in this line of work, there are often just as many stories of failure, of not knowing which questions are the right questions to ask when engaging a community, or not having the fullest picture of neighborhood assets and needs.


Anjulie Rao is a journalist focusing on architecture, public spaces, and urban development. She is the editor of Chicago Architect magazine, and her bylines can be found at Chicago Magazine, Curbed Chicago, The Reader, LUXE Magazine, among others.

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