Cristina Garmendia: Spurring Community Revitalization
Cristina Garmendia is (re)building community. She crosses architecture with real estate and government policy and is considering dabbling in real estate finance. Hopefully her unique path may inspire you to follow a new one of your own.
My nontraditional career path has been in pursuit of answers to a single question: What spurs community revitalization? Much of my work has revolved around the themes of the built environment, social impact, and facilitating interdisciplinary collaboration. I’ve gone from architecture to real estate development to government policy, going progressively upstream in terms of who shapes what gets built. (Don’t be surprised if I dabble in real estate finance in the years to come.)
While my questions remain the same, what has changed over time is my vocabulary and the hypothesis I am testing. For example, let’s take the real estate technology company I cofounded in 2013. Technology might seem a little far removed from the reality of placemaking, but what tech is good at is making vast amounts of information more accessible and digestible. In this case, we created a platform for governments to share information about their underutilized and vacant real estate inventory and to help citizens navigate the process of buying real estate from government sellers. The hypothesis being tested? Better access to information will allow more people to participate in property redevelopment.
As I’ve gotten older, I find it’s more important to invite people in to solve problems that vex me, instead of endeavoring to answer them on my own. In response to that realization, in 2012, I founded the Harvard Journal of Real Estate, an interdisciplinary yearly publication that facilitates dialogue between diverse stakeholders in real estate. In particular, I was interested in understanding how students perceived and discussed the topic of real estate differently across the Harvard programs that teach the subject (Arts & Sciences, Design, Business, Law, Public Policy). I’m also part of a team in the midst of founding a think tank for the field of tactical urbanism, which will advise governments, funders, and practitioners on best practices.
The Quick Details:
Name: Cristina Garmendia
Location: Boston, MA
Occupation: Real Estate
Title: Project Manager, Team Better Block
Degree(s): Masters of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government; Bachelor of Arts, Washington University in St. Louis with Concentration in Architecture and Minor in Anthropology Personal Hero(s): I’m inspired by people who take action in the face of uncertainty and who unapologetically take on big challenges. My friend Lindsey Scannapieco is a great example. She’s a young developer taking on an incredibly ambitious and inspiring adaptive reuse project- the Bok School in Philadelphia. For resourcefulness, I look to Dan Phillips at Phoenix Commotion, where he considers the potential good that could be created from every step of the building process. Whenever I need refills on Vitamin A(udacity) and B(rilliance), I call on architecture school classmate Caleb Harper, who founded MIT’s CityFarm, which studies the future of urban agriculture. As well, I greatly admire the founders of Team Better Block- Andrew Howard and Jason Roberts have built a global movement and model for everyday people to catalyze community reinvestment.
What made you first interested in architecture?
Like many, I was first attracted to the field because of the promise of having a tangible impact on the world. In particular, I was personally invested in using design to improve the quality of affordable housing- having grown up in a rural part of the country where depressing, isolated trailer parks are the norm.
I habitually re-engage in the field of affordable housing- I’ve made a documentary film on innovative affordable housing design, with stints at a nonprofit housing development company, and, most recently, at the Affordable Housing Institute- where I evaluated the feasibility of new financing model for the sector: pay-for-performance, also known as the social impact bond.
What do you do now?
Today, through my work at Team Better Block, I help city and state governments activate their commercial districts through real-life visioning- mocking up complete streets, testing new businesses, and organizing the community. To borrow lingo from the start-up world- we build MVPs, a minimum viable product, of a revitalized city block.
I am managing our projects with the Transformative Development Initiative at MassDevelopment, the State of Massachusetts finance and development authority, who is interested in spurring reinvestment in the Gateway Cities- medium-sized cities that are primarily post-industrial and poor, but have many assets with untapped potential.
Do you apply your architecture background to your current job?
Although I graduated from architecture school, I have never worked for an architectural firm and have always been on the outskirts of the field- constantly engaging with architects, but not quite one of them. While I quickly became disenchanted with the structure of the architectural profession, I very much believe in the ability of architects themselves to positively impact society- and part of my professional mission has been to create greater opportunity for them to do so.
Day to day, I frequently introduce myself by referencing my foundations in architecture. It’s the equivalent of declaring oneself Switzerland in the battleground shared by government and real estate interests. More generally, I think the core activities of architecture, crafting compelling visions of the future and practical problem-solving for the present, are very much a daily component of life as a consultant and entrepreneur.
What’s in store for the future of the architecture education, the profession, and/or the building industry?
I believe architecture education will generalize more towards degrees in design to reflect both the growing interest in design thinking by employers across sectors and the cross-disciplinary lives we lead today. In addition, I think there will be greater demand by students to learn skills that will enable them to be more autonomous in the application of design- this means courses in business, finance, real estate, and economics.
While the panicked murmurs and fears of irrelevance from architects have quieted as we recover from the recession, I think my generation’s memory of that time of instability will spur future leaders in architecture to spend more time marketing their value and diversifying their customer base. In addition, the popularity of tactical urbanism is a precursor to more formal permutations in the form of design-build firms and architect-developers.
As far as the future of the building industry goes, it will grow in new ways at the convergence of some key trends: 1) urbanization 2) mass customization and 3) the sharing economy. In short, I think there will be a lot more work occurring in the categories of adaptive reuse and infill development requiring custom solutions, quality design, and community-based financing.
Any last thoughts?
If you are an architect who is active in tactical urbanism, urban prototyping, or creative placemaking- introduce yourself!