Planning Magazine

Hip Hop Is One of Urban Design's Best Community Engagement Tools

Michael Ford, founder of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, explains why — and which songs planners should be adding to their playlists.

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Michael Ford, founder of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp. Photo courtesy of Michael Ford /The Hip Hop Architecture Camp.

"If you look at hip hop — the lyrics, the aesthetics — it tells us what happened in our communities. It gives an unfiltered history of bad urban planning and bad architecture."

That's according to the Hip Hop Architect himself, Michael Ford, AIA, NOMA. Ford is the founding principal of BrandNu Design Studio in Madison and creator of the beloved Hip Hop Architecture Camp, a free, national summer program dedicated to introducing underrepresented youth to architecture, planning, creative placemaking, and economic development. Through the camp, he helps young people analyze songs from local artists to uncover critiques of their cities, then learn how to address those issues by changing the built environment.

But kids aren't the only ones who have something to learn from hip hop, Ford says. Following his keynote speech at NPC22, he spoke with Jason Pugh, AICP, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), for a special episode of APA's People Behind the Plans podcast. Read on for a preview of why planners should be paying attention to the lyrics — and which songs they need to add to their playlists. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the whole conversation at or wherever you get your podcasts.

PUGH: You opened up NPC22 with an amazing keynote, in front of an audience that probably typically isn't fully aware of the work that you are doing in a lot of underserved and marginalized communities. And one of the most impactful quotes that you've added to that is your quote about hip hop being a post-occupancy survey of ghettos and underserved communities for the last 40 to 50 years. In fact, it's an unfiltered, unsolicited, post-occupancy survey of the built environment. And so, in that vibe and lane, name a few songs that you think planners should listen to, and why.

FORD: Hip hop as this post-occupancy evaluation of modernism, it is a conversation that allows us to link architecture and planning to hip hop in a tangible way, right? It's not, "I want to bring hip hop into these design professions because I love hip hop," or "I grew up on hip hop," or "I think there are some unique design perspectives that are embedded within the culture." It was a way to tangibly tie the culture to architecture and planning. And what I always encourage people to do with music is give hip hop the same attention that we give other pieces of notable literature.

When we listen to or read Shakespeare, we're going to read it once, twice, three, four times. We're going to go buy CliffsNotes. If you're in high school, you're going to try to understand what's being discussed by Shakespeare. And with hip hop, we oftentimes listen to it once and then discard it. The language maybe was too fast, we couldn't understand. So what I encourage people to do is print off lyrics and really understand some of these, as you said, these unsolicited, raw and uncensored, unfiltered critiques of urban space. Some of the songs, at an entry level, you can hear them critique ideas that were created by planners. And you can hear them critique buildings that were designed by architects, and it's a direct contradiction to what our professions thought they were bringing to the table. It's like the urban reality of urban renewal.

"The Message"; by Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five is one song. And then you have a number of other pieces, too, like — one of the most hilarious ones is "Every Ghetto"; by Talib Kweli. You know, he starts off talking about the patterns of some of the businesses, when you cross over into cities. He's like "gun store, gun store, liquor store, church."; Now he's describing this urban fabric in this pattern and challenging us to think differently about the things that are in our neighborhoods and communities.

But to end that, I have a playlist and a ridiculous Excel sheet that I've had since 2005 in college and I've been adding songs to. It's been going from hard drive to hard drive, different email to email, now Google Docs. But this list has hundreds of songs. When I ride in a car, when I'm talking with friends, anytime I hear the word "architecture"; or "planning"; — "my block,"; "my hood,"; "my community"; — mentioned in a song, I'm saving it and using it as some type of reference to guide young people to create solutions to some of the problems that they hear people talk about in music.

PUGH: And you're going above and beyond that. You're not just creating your own playlists. My understanding: You have created a list, I think it's either the top 20 or top 50 hip hop artists, right, and how they rank. You have a rubric grading system, so to speak, that you evaluate these artists, these very well-known artists that we all know and love today, and how they respond, critique, or talk about the built environment. So tell me a little bit about that. I think that's really interesting.

FORD: I did a TEDx that had that title, "Hip Hop as a Post-Occupancy Evaluation of Modernism."; And after doing that TEDx, I received a lot of questions about "can you give me a playlist? Can you tell me who really talks about their cities, their communities, et cetera?"; And I would always give this list of songs, and people ask me, "Well, is there an order I should listen? Does something take precedent over the other one?"; I don't know, you know, I will just name off who my favorites were. And I started to come up with this system to see who talked about some of the most issues that were relevant when it comes to planning and architecture. So we talked about environmental injustices. And this rubric, which I've been developing since the pandemic, is something that I'm looking to make available and actually have these creative listening sessions so that we can score more artists, get more people involved with this process.

And the ultimate goal there is creating a database that allows anybody that's working in any city, any neighborhood, to be able to look up music from their city and see what people are talking about. Because oftentimes, you know, you're an architect, you're also a planner, you do these community engagement sessions. And the first thing you hear is, "We can't get black people to come to the community engagement sessions. We can't get any minorities. We don't know what they're saying about the neighborhood."; And I always say, with hip hop — it's going to be 50 years old next year — it's a 50-year backlog of complaints and critiques. And going beyond hip hop, you got the blues. I mean, it's called the blues. You can listen to the lyrics and stop dancing through it, stop dancing to the lyrics, and start responding to what they're saying. You'll see that we have more than enough critiques of what we're doing as a profession. We just haven't taken the time to really hear what people have been saying in the music.

PUGH: And I know some of those artists are very popular artists that we know today, right? Talking Jay-Z, Nas, but I have a question for you. What artists maybe are out there that are on this list, this list of your top 20, top 50, right, that maybe most people do not know much about? Are there a couple that you can list their name and why you think they're important, why they're on the list to begin with?

During the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, participants listen to songs from local hip hop artists, identify issues that can be solved through urban design, and write and record songs that showcase their ideas.

During the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, participants listen to songs from local hip hop artists, identify issues that can be solved through urban design, and write and record songs that showcase their ideas. Photo courtesy of Michael Ford/The Hip Hop Architecture Camp.  

FORD: Yes, so I'll name a few. Rapsody. Rapsody to me is by far one of the greatest MCs — I won't say one of the greatest women, she's just one of the greatest MCs ever. Rapsody's music definitely critiques space and place, talks about women in spaces — and she shared some of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp work of a number of times on Instagram, so shout out to Rapsody.

Lupe Fiasco has been a champion of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp since he first got introduced to the idea. He's introduced me to other folks within the business or in the world of hip hop. His music, I mean, it touches a number of different topics — from Habitat for Humanity, he talks about mathematics and sacred geometry, things that make you question what you haven't learned, and, like, what else don't I know? Lupe's lyrics are littered with a lot of references to architecture and design.

And last, another person that I think is not as well known — he's one of the pioneers — Kool Moe Dee. Kool Moe Dee has a song called "I Go to Work."; And in the second verse, he says, "I go to work like an architect."; It's a masterpiece on how we can use rap and, you know, lyrical compositions and the construction of a rap verse to actually inform how we construct buildings and neighborhoods. And it is, again, nothing short of a masterpiece. He's laid out this framework, which has aided me in creating the curriculum for the Hip Hop Architecture Camp.

PUGH: Aside from the artists and the students that you've been able to work with, have you found opportunities to also engage local residents and stakeholders from the same communities where you're doing these projects?

FORD: Yes! So one thing that gets overshadowed about the Hip Hop Architecture Camp's start is, it started off as this partnership with the city of Madison's planning department, their mayor office. As they were updating the city's comprehensive plan, it was all about getting residents to come out and be civically engaged. And I have gone to some of the community engagement meetings by the city. And I know they were trying. But everybody agreed that they were missing the mark. They had these demographic questions, you do the live Q&A, and they will show you the answers afterwards, you know, what's the average age in a room? How many men, how many women, other demographics, et cetera. And I went to the mayor's office and the planning department, I said, "You know what, I can get people."; And after having so much back and forth, at the end, I said, "Yeah, I'm gonna do all of this, but I'm gonna use hip hop to do it."

We worked with residents around the city of Madison to look at the maybe 12 or 15 points that the comprehensive plan was focused on. These were kids who were like 8 to 12 years old. And the city's comprehensive plan looks 25 years into the future. So these young people will be, you know, entering their prime, once everything has been put in place in this competition. But then their parents were there, too. So their parents are like, you're playing Biggie, what's happening? The parents were, like, lingering around to a point where the parents have conversations.

PUGH: They're intrigued.

FORD: Right, right. So that was one scenario that, again, gets overshadowed sometimes. You see the music videos, you see like this unique approach to design. But it started off as this way to get residents involved with what's happening with their city, and Madison was a start. But we've done that with other cities, with other projects, not just city governments but also private developers who want to make sure that they get input from residents. So we've used it as a tool to not only listen to current residents but also that creative listening I was talking about earlier. Let's listen to some of the music that was produced in that neighborhood and see if there are nuggets in it that you as a developer, or us, you know, the mayor, whomever is doing some type of development or project in this neighborhood, if you should be listening to it.


PUGH: And you know, it's wild, having seen the evolution of the camps and everything you've been tackling and touching, I did not know that. I did not know the details of that, that it started, you know, through the mayor's office in Madison, Wisconsin, and it kind of just exploded from there. And you started to take it to other cities.

FORD: When I started it, it is my fault that people didn't notice. I was like, ah, it started with the mayor's office, the planning department, that's cool, but that's not going to be the draw. Right? Let's use LEGOs, let's use this, let's try to rebuild rap lyrics. I wanted to make it, you know, more, quote unquote, of the culture.

And as the years have gone on, and after trying out a ton of different approaches to this topic, we went back to our roots of, let's do the thing that really allows our young people to critique what's going on in their neighborhoods, dream about what's going on in their neighborhoods, and, you know, focus on actual projects. There's still some times when we're dreaming. But let's really use this as a way to get young people civically engaged and let them propose buildings and design concepts to their neighborhood leadership.

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Lindsay Nieman is APA's senior editor.