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Mapping Power
Using design to get where we want to go

by John Emerson

How do you turn your dreams into reality? You can start by mapping them out and visualizing them.

The High Line is a Depression-era, elevated rail line that zigzags for 1.45 miles above the west side of Manhattan. For decades it rotted away unused, dripping rust onto parking lots and auto repair businesses below. Considered an eyesore and albatross by many, the Line was slated to be torn down until a motley group of citizens intervened. Over the years, the line had slowly sprouted a spontaneous garden of weeds and wildflowers. This natural elevated greenery inspired a  handful of artists, writers and dreamers to found the Friends of the High Line in 1999, to save the Line from demolition and transform it into a unique, elevated public park.

When I first wrote about the High Line in these pages in 2004, the group had secured $15 million from the City of New York. By 2008, the Federal government had pledged $22 million, plus the City had committed an additional $97 million to design and build the park. Despite the current recession, the public funding is secure and construction on the Line is underway with the first phase scheduled to open by year’s end. How did this happen? At a time when so many public projects are being slashed, how did they pull it off?

Visualization of the High Line's redesigned southern terminus. Image © 2006. James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio Renfro. Courtesy the City of New York.

The secret was a savvy mix of community outreach, celebrity clout, creative public design and concern for the environment. As part of the strategy, the organization held a series of open meetings where it used effective visuals to present the community, media and public officials with a captivating vision of how the park could be revitalized and redeveloped. They held an open design competition soliciting any and all ideas. One winning entry featured a 1.45 mile outdoor, elevated swimming pool. Another included a roller coaster. The range of solutions and exciting visuals expressed an inspirational celebration of the Line, its possibilities and New Yorkers’ llove of the City; it was also a brilliant tactical move that garnered glowing coverage in the New York Times and drew even broader public support for the project.

The Friends of the High Line held a final design competition and selected design, architecture and landscape firms to begin the design work proper. The timeline graphic shown below was a part of the group’s public presentations. Designed by the landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations, the image artfully evokes the evolution of flora and fauna over the course of four years. The graphic is an example of the power of design to fire the imagination—and in the process cultivate political power and support. The Friends of the High Line have paid careful attention to their graphic materials from the start, using compelling visuals to project their vision vividly and ultimately to pry loose the millions of dollars of public and private financing necessary to make this fantastic idea happen.

Chart used by the Friends of the High Line to excite the public and win its support. This projected timeline shows plantings and bird species they will attract to the High Line during the first four years. Image © 2004. James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio Renfro. Courtesy the City of New York.

Say what you will about the cognitive style of PowerPoint1, An Inconvenient Truth is essentially a slideshow that touched millions of people and went on to help win Al Gore both an Academy Award and a Nobel Prize. Designed by Duarte Design, the visuals describe the magnitude of humanity’s effect on planet Earth. As the presentation describes the global scale of these massive changes, it also shapes a consensus viewpoint, or at least a sense of urgency, encouraging people to take action and put pressure on policymakers. While the presentation describes the impact of humanity on the environment, it also builds the political power to change it.

Still image from An Inconvenient Truth. Image © 2006 Paramount Classics.

But what is power? It’s an abstract dynamic, an engine behind the visible world. Power can be found in relationships, in the flow of resources or information, in signs, symbols and ideas or built into the environment. There’s no doubt that visual media has the power to influence an audience, but visual media can also be used to visualize power itself. Visualizing power is a way of interpreting and understanding it. And this understanding can become a basis for challenging it. Design can be used to describe and locate power, to pressure those who hold power, and ultimately to facilitate and generate power by bringing people together. So why do so few designers take advantage of this persuasive power?

A classic tactic used by human rights advocates is to shine a light on abuses. This is often the first step toward embarrassing the responsible parties and their supporters in the push for change or taking steps toward prosecution or other remedies. Bringing hidden abuses into the light of day often takes the form of the publication of documentation of evidence of the human rights violations, describing some historical and legal context, and proposing recommendations or remedies. In this presentation, design can play an important part communicating what is happening and spawning embarrassment or outrage and finally a call to action. Emerson
John Emerson is a designer, writer, programmer and activist in New York City. His writing on activism and design has been featured in Communication Arts, Metropolis, Print and the Wall Street Journal and is collected at