In a collaboration with students from Virginia Commonwealth University, mOb studio and Storefront for Community Design, we held a cross-cultural workshop that sought to identify and create a new directory of underutilised spaces, assets, goods and skills of local people and places in the city of Richmond in Virginia, USA.
The workshop aimed to encourage inhabitants of local communities to reflect on the value of their tangible and intangible assets in an effort to revitalise a spirit of grassroots self-reliance. To realise this concept, we took direct inspiration from the arabbers – street merchants who once plied their goods from horse-drawn carts in cities across the East Coast but today remain only in Baltimore. Over the course of one week, over 30 participants took part in designing a street cart that came to be known as FRED (Free, Reusable, Everything Desirable), which was then constructed using waste and found materials.
Much like the arabbers, FRED was towed by bike around the city centre in a colourful procession – though instead of money, the goods peddled from FRED were exchanged for a service that the customer could offer others in their community, be it cooking, woodworking, or home cleaning.
The enduring result of FRED, therefore, was the creation of a skills directory that the community could draw upon, thereby strengthening interpersonal bonds between neighbours. Abandoned lots were also identified throughout the city which could potentially be transformed into future community spaces.
Staying true to our emphasis on community engagement and participatory design, FRED fostered a greater sense of belonging among residents to the locality while simultaneously creating moments of wonder through the unexpected interactions that a simple but serendipitous exchange of goods engendered. In FRED, we were able to spatially demonstrate the potential and opportunity for community-led spaces.
“While they have become known for mobile structures that are more than a bit avant-garde, it is the instigation of engagement and dialogue within the communities where Aberrant works that is perhaps the most enduring aspect of their practice. And in a field where the structure itself often is the focus, the insistence that people are the most important aspect of architecture is truly deviant. This project had inspired so many.”
– Sam Witter, local freelance design journalist
Virginia Commonwealth University
Richmond, Virginia, USA