Wildly Civic:

Globalism + Society

Designing Social Agency

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Sara Zewde MLA ’15

Student at the GSD

Armed with an undergraduate degree in sociology and a master’s degree in city planning, Sara Zewde MLA ’15 is committed to design that empowers people. Her childhood instilled an awareness of landscape and culture, and their influence on one another: the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, she grew up in both Louisiana and Houston. Zewde was recently recognized as the 2014 graduate level National Olmsted Scholar, an award that acknowledges students who use their ideas, influence, and service to benefit society, and to advance sustainable planning and design.

The archaeological site, 2014 A cross-section of the city's history is visible during the construction project in Pequena Africa, 2011 A cross-section of the city's history is visible during the construction project in Pequena Africa Musical traditions continue under the Claiborne overpass BBQing and other social activities under the Claiborne overpass Under the overpass, 2010 Claiborne Avenue, before the construction of the elevated expressway (1955) Source: Louisiana Historical Society Sara Zewde
Claiborne Avenue, before the construction of the elevated expressway (1955) Source: Louisiana Historical Society

Zewde believes there are fascinating things happening all over the world, and that some of most exciting solutions can be found in less studied places. Prior to joining the GSD, she traveled the globe working in impoverished areas. She recently returned to design a memorial for the Pequena África community in Rio de Janeiro, an urban landscape project that respects people’s values and needs. Zewde worked with city government and community organizations there, employing sociological methods in her research and design process. This same philosophy of inclusion is present in a previous project–the potential removal of an expressway that cuts through the historically black neighborhood of Tremé in New Orleans.

“There are political, social, and economic implications to what we draw as designers,” Zewde reflects. “We must fully represent people and communities in our buildings, landscapes, and plans.”

Looking at design issues in context is important to education at the GSD. The School has dramatically increased the number of global studios recently, offering over 20 such options to nearly 300 students in just the past year. As Zewde shares, “there’s an inherent affinity in the GSD’s framework—it helps us reexamine intellectual assumptions and strengthen the work we produce as designers.”

The world’s current and future challenges require broad perspective and social engagement for maximum impact. Travel grants provided by the GSD have enabled Zewde and other students to supplement their core education with important, hands-on experience in international locations. For the next generation of design leaders, such work creates critical connections to larger world, and helps promote social agency through design.

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