Final Abstract

This thesis explores how design can bolster social capital in fragmented urban neighborhoods. Social capital – defined by Robert Putnam as the commodity of trust, reciprocity and respect between people – is a vital component for neighborhoods to be self-sustaining. However, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in which this thesis is focused and I reside, the rising gentrification breeds a de facto culture of in-group silos. This project posits design’s capacity to create space and opportunity for trust and reciprocity. The starting point for this exploration is through the physical structure of a Little Free Library, in which free books are made available to “leave an item, take an item.” Constructed in collaboration with a general store in Bed-Stuy, the tiny library serves as a platform for testing methods of garnering social capital. The main hypothesis of this thesis is that if a neighborhood is entrusted with caring for and engaging with artifacts that are left outside at all hours of the day, then heightened respect and reciprocity in the neighborhood will follow. This theory of object-based change builds on the already demonstrated success of Little Free Libraries and incorporates specific designed components to probe engagement. Designed touchpoints include: branded labels for the book spines so   users are reminded of the source of the books, bookplates inside the front covers posing questions about the neighborhood, promotion of a neighborhood tool library, and installation of a chalkboard to encourage passive dialogue. Also core to the library is its location; it’s purposefully installed in an intermediary public space in front of the general store so that it bears residual neutrality and welcomeness customary to that of a “third place.” In the two months thus far that the library has been installed, there has been a continues flow of book inventory, resoundingly positive response over social media and in-person, and even a neighbor that volunteered to build a library for the community garden. Although the lack of tangibility makes social capital a difficult asset to assess, feedback from neighbors indicates that the library installation makes them feel valued and that they are thankful for the structure. Only time will tell if this hyper-local platform will continue to nudge connection. From my own perspective, the project has added tremendous value to my social life. I truly feel like a member of my neighborhood, and the new friends, connections and sense of belonging will stay with me long after I close this thesis book.