Honestly, I feel a little bad for the folks at the Kounkuey Design Initiative. The international nonprofit says its mission is to “partner with under-resourced communities to advance equity and activate the unrealized potential in their neighborhoods and cities.” Recently, the design collective teamed up with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to address a very real problem. Most LA bus stops lack any sort of structure offering shade in the daytime or light at night. KDI secured funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and began studying how a better bus-stop design could be part of LADOT’s “Gender Equity Action Plan.” KDI designers “traveled around the world to understand how other cities made their transportation systems more gender inclusive,” the company bragged in a tweet.
All over the globe, foundations and nonprofits are playing a growing role in setting policies and building infrastructure intended to help poor communities. Many of these organizations look a lot like KDI, which was started by six Harvard graduate students. They’re composed of highly educated, well-connected do-gooders who want to put their progressive values to work helping “under-resourced communities,” to use the current approved terminology. If a project goes well, its designer might even be invited to give a TED talk. I don’t mean to be too cynical; these groups often do important work. But all too frequently, it seems, their grand progressive plans wind up colliding with messy reality.
The big unveiling of KDI’s bus-stop mini-shelter took place on May 18. A city council member was there, along with representatives from LADOT, the design firm, and plenty of reporters. The event, Bloomberg noted, “seemed unintentionally engineered for internet comedy.” Indeed, it was a bit like the scene from the film This Is Spinal Tap in which the massive Stonehenge replica requested by the band turns out to be 18 inches high and “in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.” KDI’s bus shelter/light structure—which was dubbed “La Sombrita,” or “little shade” in Spanish—would be easy to overlook. The “shade” consists of a strip of perforated steel, just 24 inches wide, attached vertically to a single signpost. About nine feet off the ground the steel sheet starts to curve until it forms a small overhang projecting a foot or so over the sidewalk. Imagine a snow toboggan lashed to a post, with the curved end facing the sky, and you won’t be far off. The whole thing is painted teal, giving it the look of an incidental plumbing fixture at a public swimming pool.
Even at a glance, one could see that the tiny, curved overhang would shade only a few square feet of sidewalk, and then only if the sun cooperated by remaining stationary at the exact right angle. In mornings and afternoons, the tiny shadow might be cast far out in the street or onto nearby buildings. The solar-powered light fixture wasn’t much better. If you’ve ever purchased those dim little solar garden lights, you’ll get the idea.
The backlash was instantaneous. It seemed that everyone from right-wing skeptics to progressive idealists thought the design was ridiculous. “Where is the bloody shadow, you grifters??!!” one person responded on Twitter. “This has to be a joke. LA is unreal,” added another. The New York Times, Slate, Vice, and others offered bemused takes. Local residents weren’t impressed either. “No cubre nada,” one woman told a Univision reporter. “It doesn’t cover anything.”
KDI’s colleagues in the largely left-leaning design community were especially brutal. Naomi Wu, a popular online DIY tech and design guru, unloaded on the project: “You traveled the world to research the development of a lamppost and then did a sh— job because, frankly, you are untalented. From conception to execution—the scale, proportions, the color—even the typography, everything is amateurish.” She was just getting warmed up. “The lamppost has no bearing on gender equity so it undermines efforts that actually deserve funding,” Wu continued. “That you played any part in its conception and execution should fill you with crippling remorse.”
At this point, I’m tempted to defend the roundly reviled KDI designers, at least a little. The design firm wasn’t responsible for the constraints on the project. Many LA sidewalks are too narrow for conventional bus shelters, and the city has failed to invest in building more shelters in any event (which is why KPI’s prototype was funded by a foundation). Building something more substantial would require navigating the city’s byzantine permitting processes, holding public hearings, and obtaining approvals and funding. That could take years. KDI tried to design within those constraints. It wound up with a blue toboggan on a pole.
But progressives should ask why it is so hard to build a simple bus shelter in Los Angeles. “The fact that there were more officials there to celebrate La Sombrita than could fit beneath it was an illustration of the out-of-proportion process that prevents the construction of larger, more adequate structures,” Reason reasonably noted. All those permits and approvals are the result of LA’s progressive governance over many decades. Every inch of the city is regulated to the hilt. The need for endless hearings reflects the left’s obsession with “community engagement.”
There’s another reason Los Angeles neglects its bus stops: Progressives aren’t really interested in busses. They like trains. Democratically controlled cities across the U.S. have spent hundreds of billions building light-rail systems over the past several decades. (Don’t even get me started on California’s high-speed-rail debacle.) To the liberal mind, buses are grubby and boring. Light rail is sleek and glamorous. New rail lines mean lots of union jobs and opportunities for ribbon-cutting ceremonies. But those light rail lines almost always turn out to be underutilized and wickedly expensive. According to a Cato Institute study, sections of LA’s rail system have cost over $700 million per mile to build. Meanwhile, buses can usually move more people faster and at much lower cost. And bus routes can reach every neighborhood, which rail lines cannot. But rail remains a progressive obsession. Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $80 billion to upgrade the nation’s rail network. Meanwhile, the mostly low-income riders of LA’s neglected bus system are still standing in the blazing sun at thousands of bus stops across the city.
KDI isn’t the only progressive nonprofit to see a clever design idea fall flat. In 2005, PBS’s Frontline reported on an exciting new idea to serve poor African villages. The PlayPump connected a children’s playground merry-go-round to a pump that would raise well water into a raised tank. The idea sounded great: Children’s carefree play could supply water to off-the-grid communities. Soon the Clinton Global Initiative, AOL founder Steve Case, and other charity heavyweights were pouring money into the project. More than 1,000 PlayPumps were installed in rural villages. But the pumps never really worked. To raise enough water, they had to spin all day, and yet they weren’t that easy—or any fun—to push. That childish play turned out to be more like child labor. Eventually the whole scheme collapsed.
There are dozens of similar examples. Popular Mechanics, where I used to work, once gave an award to four Harvard undergraduates who figured out how to put a tiny generator and battery inside a soccer ball. The idea was that poor children in areas without electricity could kick the ball around during the day; the motion would charge the battery. Then, at nightfall, they could plug in a low-voltage LED light and do their homework under its glow. We weren’t the only people impressed with the “Soccket Ball” concept. The four young women behind the idea received glowing press coverage, and their project to distribute the balls was funded by the Clinton Global Initiative (are you seeing a pattern here?). The student inventors were smart and sincere. But they soon learned that, like the PlayPump, their Soccket ball was a bit too clever to work in the real world. Some of the balls they delivered to poor villages lasted only a few days before falling apart.
Efforts to bring the benefits of science and technology to disadvantaged people don’t always fall flat. Take the American agronomist Norman Borlaug, who worked for decades developing high-yield, disease-resistant strains of wheat and other crops to help poor farmers. The Green Revolution Borlaug launched may have prevented a billion deaths by starvation. But all too often, do-gooders with big ideas—and NGOs with big budgets—wind up disregarding the wisdom of local communities and imposing one-size-fits-all solutions. In the process, they can distort local economies and wind up doing more harm than good.
Here’s an example from our own backyard. A few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, I took a reporting trip to New Orleans. I visited the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood that was mostly wiped out when a failed levee sent a wall of water through its streets. The “Lower Ninth” became famous overnight, but all the attention and money that started pouring into the neighborhood brought questionable benefits at best. To understand why, it helps to have a little background. Before Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward had been losing population for years, much like other poor New Orleans neighborhoods. But the Lower 9th is particularly vulnerable to flooding and is cut off from the rest of the city by a major canal. After the storm, residents faced a decision: Should they try to rebuild in their devastated neighborhood, or use the funds being offered in state and federal programs to buy homes in denser, less isolated parts of the city?
It is a truism in urban planning that fully populated neighborhoods are safer and more economically vibrant than those that are partly abandoned. Moving to better neighborhoods would have made sense for virtually all Lower Ninth residents. But here’s where the do-gooders swept in. First came ACORN, the notorious far-left political organization that would collapse in scandal a few years later. ACORN set up camp in the ruins of the Lower Ninth, urging residents not to accept buyouts and promising to help “rebuild” the neighborhood. (The group did build at least two houses there.) Then came Hollywood. In 2006, actor Brad Pitt announced the launch of a campaign devoted to rebuilding the Lower Ninth. His Make It Right nonprofit was supported by celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, Snoop Dogg, and—what do you know?—Bill Clinton again! Pitt recruited celebrity architects, including Frank Gehry, to design more than 100 modern, energy-efficient, flood-proof houses. “We’re cracking the code on affordable green homes,” Pitt said at the time.
I returned to the Lower Ninth several times over the years. I watched those “Brad Pitt houses” popping up like high-tech mushrooms—topped with solar panels, naturally. But it was clear, almost from the start, that a handful of exotic, architectural experiments was not going to save the Lower Ninth. And neither would ACORN’s attempts at community organizing. Today, the Lower Ninth remains mostly unpopulated. There are no supermarkets or any businesses of note. Tellingly, it costs far more to build houses in the neighborhood than those homes are worth on the market.
And the Brad Pitt houses? They’re falling apart. According to one report, residents complain of “black mold, porches rotted through, stair rails collapsing,” and more. Many of the houses are now boarded up and abandoned. Some have been torn down. “Although some of these structures are not yet a decade old, my data shows only six remain in reasonably good shape,” urban-studies researcher Judith Keller wrote in a recent report. Today, the Make It Right foundation itself seems to have vanished. Lawsuits are flying. And the residents who were lured back to the Lower Ninth by promises of continuing attention and support are stuck in their crumbling, leaking, mold-infested homes.
I don’t doubt that Pitt and his celebrity friends were sincere in their desire to help the people of New Orleans. But isn’t it telling that they focused their efforts on the one neighborhood with international name recognition, the one that would guarantee maximum publicity? Pitt and his supporters could have spread their money around to all the city’s poor neighborhoods. Or they might have handed a big chunk of cash to every Lower Ninth resident to help buy or rebuild a home wherever might suit his needs. But then there wouldn’t have been any architect-designed, “proof of concept” green homes to pose in front of. Pitt and his friends may have genuinely hoped to make up for past wrongs, to “make it right.” Instead, as one resident told Keller, “they made it wrong twice.”
It’s good that rich celebrities want to help the poor, just as it’s nice that some graduates of elite colleges want to help the disadvantaged instead of working on Wall Street. But changing the world is a delicate business. It’s easy for good intentions and progressive values to backfire. Perhaps the people who think they know best how to fix things should start with a little humility.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.