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Boston AIR Spotlight: Ellice Patterson and Boston Transportation Department

For her residency, Boston Artist-in-Residence Ellice Patterson has been working with Jacob Wessel, Public Realm Manager at the Boston Transportation Department.

Her residency project has focused on examining accessibility challenges related to transportation, and exploring ways to make Boston’s streets and sidewalks more responsive to the needs of community members. Below is a conversation with Ellice and Jacob about the work they’ve been doing together.

Ellice and Jacob photo
Photo of Ellice Patterson (left) and Jacob Wessel (right) during one of the virtual community conversations on accessibility and transportation in Boston.

Can you give us an overview of your residency project so far? What have you been working on and what do you have planned for the future?


It started with a lot of research and discussion, with the Boston Transportation Department and other agencies like MassDOT, to get an understanding of the nature of transportation, how it works in the city, how it works in other places, and how it could work. From there, I took a trip to Montreal, and, in thinking of all these transportation concepts, I was really struck with the ease of how I was able to move through their city more easily than I could in Boston. That led to an op-ed that was originally published in CommonWealth Magazine and is now included in a book called Resilence Matters: Collective Action for Healthier Communities, which is a collection of essays that discusses different ways to increase urban design for a fairer, greener future. During this process, I realized that I wanted to include more voices than just mine, since I only represent a very small portion of the deaf and disabled community. We ended up having a total of three community conversations. It was really insightful to be able to learn and understand from different identities and how they’re interacting with the City, the different needs they might have, and their hopes for the future. All of that has been incorporated into a writing called a “Manifesto Against Defensive Design”, which I’m finishing up now. That was really inspired by myself and others who just wanted to understand some of these principles better, and I’m writing them in a way that is more accessible for non-transportation officials. I’m working with an illustrator to illustrate some of these concepts, and it will be printed and shared with different libraries and community members. And some of those concepts will have videos incorporating dance, which is my primary form of artmarking, to capture some folks who are more visual learners or learners outside of just reading.

Jacob, what have you learned so far through your partnership with Ellice and how that impacted the work of BTD?


I think the partnership with Ellice has done a lot to expand the way Transportation staff thinks about certain projects or challenges when it comes to street design. We have done a lot of thinking about experience when it comes to the street, and are doing a better job at connecting with users that are actually experiencing streets that we might be making changes to. Ellice has brought in multifaceted ways of thinking about these problems. Through her research on everything under the sun when it comes to transportation, it has made us need to be more solidified in what processes and practices we are using to design certain interventions on the street. And it has also been great at connecting us with different people in the community, or different events and artistic practices that have really helped us reflect a bit on how we do engagement, and who we are or are not talking to when it comes to trying to make our streets safer, more efficient, and more effective.

Tell us more about the community conversations and what you learned from them.


There have been different types of approaches to the community conversations. Some of them have been more open format, asking participants what is working for them and what isn’t. The past couple have been a little more direct, asking about certain initiatives like Copley Plaza and other more specific areas. There have definitely been a variety of different needs that have come up that I wouldn’t necessarily realize day to day because of my own identity, like the need for more audible walking signs. So that was really helpful.


I think it’s helpful to have conversations with community members, particularly those that face a variety of mobility challenges, when there’s not a specific project being discussed and we’re talking about the city at large. So there are some things, like Ellice mentioning the audible walk signals, where we have policies in place to update those signals, but we don’t do a lot of talking to the public about how those are being implemented. So it’s really helpful to me and my colleague Charlotte Fleetwood, Senior Planner for the City of Boston, to have been able to discuss and listen to how that is being received out on the streets.

What do you imagine the long-term impact of your work looking like?


Long term, I hope that there is more understanding on the community side of how transportation plays an important role in their day to day lives, and how things can be enhanced to further improve their quality of life. And on the transportation or City side, I hope that there are more ways to think about engaging different communities in different formats, and how they’re able to represent their work in different ways to different communities depending on what their identities are, and what elements they might need to understand.


I hope that we are able to figure out better ways to have some of these deeper connections, and connect with people outside of just those that are super interested in transportation. I also think that we need to go back to places after we have done some sort of design to visit with people using wheelchairs, folks that are cane users, etc., to really see whether that design that we predict will work better is actually working better, so that it informs our next design. Doing a visit to Tremont Street with Ellice to see how some of our design choices were not working was really helpful to inform some future projects.

What do you have coming up next?


My residency will end with thinking about the bodies as movement through movement crawls, which originated with the ADA protest crawls in hopes of a more accessible country. With these crawls, we’ll be thinking about asserting our presence in the city, thinking about ways that we can make the city more accessible in a variety of formats, including different community engagement forms, and just advocating for more accessible and inclusive streets and sidewalks.

I’m also thinking of other ways that community members can be integrated into the Boston Transportation Department’s goals, whether it be through accessibility or other measures that can enhance their work year round, even if it’s not a formal artist residency.

To learn more about Ellice and the other Boston Artists-in-Residence, visit the Boston AIR website. 

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