Amber Wendland recently joined the board of directors of the Neighborhood Design Center.
Founded in Baltimore during the civil rights movement, the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) has for decades been committed to engaged and participatory urban design to advance equity and strengthen communities. This has proven, wide-ranging positive impacts with over 3,500 projects across Maryland.
Amber has worked tirelessly over the years focused on improving Baltimore and its communities, including the East Baltimore Revitalization Plan. We spoke with Amber about her role with NDC.
What does being on the board entail?
The board has a number of subcommittees, but the general purpose is to help support NDC’s mission and grow their reach. NDC has a close relationship with their board, and they look to it for expertise and support. The organization is formed with a deliberate dedication to diversity in all its forms, including gender diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, diversity of experience, and diversity of talent. There are a lot of different backgrounds and knowledge people bring to the table and part of my responsibility as a board member is to uphold this heterogeneity moving forward.
How does this connect with the work you’ve done?
The Neighborhood Design Center is dedicated to the growth of healthy, equitable neighborhoods, and this appointment allows me to further advance my passion for designing with and advocating for under-invested communities while also advancing the mission of Ayers Saint Gross. NDC prioritizes engagement and this is a great opportunity to continue connecting resources and getting people involved in designing a more equitable, beautiful, and just Baltimore.
NDC does so many incredible projects for the City of Baltimore. Their dedication to promoting equity and ensuring an inclusive and collaborative design process resonates deeply with me.
So much of the East Baltimore Revitalization Plan was about ensuring the community had agency in the process and set the direction and vision of the plan. You could design a beautiful master plan, but it is meaningless without community voices and the passionate support from local leaders. Historically, urban planning and policy has often marginalized Black and Brown communities through a top-down planning approach, resulting in many of the challenges we see across Baltimore today. Reversing that approach by fostering a community-led planning and visioning process must start with listening and building relationships with the community. This relationship needs to be prioritized and fostered, and among the best ways to do that is to listen intently, celebrate the voices of the community, and empower leaders.
At its heart, planning is about providing a roadmap—a series of options to fulfill the needs and desires of the community and a path to move forward. A plan brings cohesiveness and a shared vision, which in turn allows for clear messaging of the community’s needs, and allows funding, investment, and philanthropy to be sought, procured, and effectively allocated. Ensuring that community voices are the foundation of that cohesive vision and that they are intimately entwined with the process and thus represented in the product—a true sharing of knowledge—are critical elements to the success of a neighborhood plan, and I’m eager to bring the lessons learned, and continue learning, with the work of NDC.
So, what’s next?
The work that NDC does to improve neighborhoods, amplify the voices of community members, and fight for racial justice is incredibly important and continuing that mission is paramount. This work is especially salient as we as a city and country continue to push for equity and civil rights.
Over the past six months, we have had to adapt how we engage with communities, expanding virtual engagement and taking social distancing precautions for in-person meetings as the pandemic continues.
Another goal moving forward is to build a closer relationship between NDC and Ayers Saint Gross. The relationship between our organizations goes back decades, ebbing and flowing throughout the years. Now is a great time to reconnect and continue to build strong connections as we move into the future. Several of our staff have volunteered with NDC in the past, and this will increase volunteering opportunities. Much like a successful planning effort, this association will provide ways to engage and volunteer in a more cohesive way.
Amber Wendland is a senior associate in the Planning and Architecture practice groups, working in Baltimore.