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Recently, I discovered the world of “ditch architects”: urbanists who abandon the traditional office-style design studio and blur the line between urban planning, design, art, and social work. Rather than relying on statistics, they mapped out a city’s ‘kinetic’ energy through first-hand interaction with local people, to much success. For my own investigative project on a run-down lawn in Poughkeepsie (proposals were needed to change its public image), I decided to employ a similar approach by going to the primary source: interviewing the actual occupants of the space. Instead of sketching designs in a studio I found myself chatting with the lawn’s original owner, an old man whose family had lived here for over a century. His heartfelt stories went way beyond the lawn’s current decrepit image. There was a Victorian house that had stood on this very lawn—infested with mushrooms and violating regulations, it was forcedly torn down. The land was sold piecemeal to the neighboring college, my home institution, at a devalued price, and now it’s neither used by the public or by the college: a wasted space that was once full of human gesture and life.

Many similar conversations with the locals showed me that the ambiguous ownership of...

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