Guidebooks as Knowledge

How the CUP designs (and decides) knowledge.


The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) created “What is Zoning?” as a toolkit to aid community advocates in better understanding zoning rules in New York City. The kits main purpose is to provide technical knowledge to advocates so that they can “meaningfully participate” in public hearings and town halls. The kit simplifies jargon and encourages interaction among participants. It could also serve as a communication piece between community members, the private sector, and advocates to discuss problems and propose solutions.  The main parts of the toolkit are a game board, colorful blocks, and a guidebook, which help facilitate the in-person workshops that are conducted (for a fee) in different neighborhoods in NYC.

It is the 75-page guidebook that serves as the main vessel of knowledge, as it contains the expert-curated advice and design by the CUP and their partner institutions. The unassuming child-like illustrations and user-friendly text simplifies the urban landscape into a series of lines and boxes, which gives the reader the feeling of order and uniformity. I suppose it is an attempt to remove the complexities of the urban space that surrounds us. However, as a reader, you can’t help feel that the city almost becomes monotonous. As if most zoning issues are similar even in vastly different neighborhoods. The guidebook also contains 6 workshop activities that participants will be participating in. The collective activities are made possible by the gameboard which facilitates the interaction and experiential learning of participants. Individual activity sheets are also being used for participants to fill out.

(L-R) CUP Envisioning Development Toolkits


What is Zoning, is part of the larger Envisioning Development Series, which are workshops that address the information gap between policy experts and the constituents affected by using design to seamlessly connect both worlds. The toolkit on zoning is just one toolkit in the series. It is complemented by a toolkit on affordable housing and another on urban land use review procedure. All of which are meant to increase meaningful citizen engagement in the city’s political landscape. Below is a picture of the Northwest Bushwick Community using the kit during a regular meeting.

Northwest Bushwick Community Picture

The CUP employs the classic top-down approach by using knowledge from policy experts to pass on to community advocates. They frame intelligence as knowledge and measure their success by casually assessing the increased technical knowledge of participants. It is a straightforward and no-frills solution to the goal of getting community advocates to understand the politics and policies that will affect them.

The CUP does a remarkable job in translating jargon into understandable text through simple drawing and large fonts. However, my main issue with the idea of a guidebook is that the origins of knowledge are opinions and beliefs coming from policy experts and advisory boards of housing organizations. Where does the real knowledge of the community lie? Is it not in the people living in the communities (i.e. families, young people, and retirees). In addition, are community advocates the only people with a stake in this process?

Perhaps, we can reframe the knowledge process. Instead of policy experts teaching communities how policies will affect them, maybe communities can contribute to building the body of knowledge themselves. How? They can archive their own community knowledge. The conversation does not become limited to the input of community advocates alone but instead a body of work that represents all the constituents of the community. Maybe it will shift the conversation from a one size fits all solution to a context based conversation between the real partners of the community.


1 Comment

  1. Hey Melissa,
    I wanted to respond to your post because I appreciated your critical approach to examining the form and deployment tactics of CUP, in particular pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of “the guide book”. I was surprised that you interpreted their work as an example of a “classic top-down approach,” and I’d like to push back on that statement, in particular, examining if the tool kits and participatory activities might be intentional prompts to form alternative discussions and or forms of knowledge that are not represented in the more technical guides (the thing you felt was missing).

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