Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

What It Means to Design a Space for ‘Care’

Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned Central Park as a place where access to nature could foster good health. Photo by Nisian Hughes/Stone RF.

A municipal Department of Care could make sure the trash was picked up and the tree pits were weeded. A Department of Care could pay teens to tend to public spaces and teach them stewardship skills. A Department of Care could check on seniors in a heat wave and basement apartment dwellers in a flood. A Department of Care would start by asking, as urban designer Justin Garrett Moore suggests: What do you need? What do you hope will change? How can we best accomplish this?

Of course, the Department of Care doesn’t exist — yet — but the concept of care as a driver for city planning is already gaining traction. Designers, planners, curators and historians are talking about care for an obvious reason: The pandemic exposed just how much labor is involved in child care, health care, street and park maintenance, and technological upkeep. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke last month at an event hashtagged #CareCan’tWait about the importance of fair pay and training for care workers — and Build Back Better could go even further.

Once people see it, the need for care is hard to unsee. In an architectural context, care links the labor of cleaning with the design of the surfaces to be cleaned, physical infrastructure with social services for its users, landscape with mental health. Care can be demonstrated through org charts and through organizing, through serving food and setting aside land to grow food, through creating public space and training people to take care of it. This is a lot to pile on to a four-letter word — care also has the potential to be just another buzzy term for the same old architecture.