Among Melita Rodeck’s many admirable traits were her keen sense of community engagement, her social awareness and activism, and her recognition of others’ needs. Her commitment to educating and encouraging citizenry to be active participants in shaping their environments was a defining characteristic of her life’s work, as evidenced by several article clippings and her personal writings.
In the early 1960s, Rodeck became involved in grassroots community organizing and commons-building projects. This, just when the applications of social theory to architecture (and the environmental impacts of design planning on urban communities) were starting to be theorized. These projects were spearheaded by architect-psychologist Karl Linn, whose initial efforts to reflect community needs in common living spaces expanded across multiple cities and transformed into a non-profit called Neighborhood Commons. Rodeck formed part of his team as his Assistant Director when working to revitalize several neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C. area. The projects were innovative in that they depended on an active corps of volunteers and sponsors, often drawn from the communities themselves, but also in their creative re-purposing of old building materials.
It’s safe to say that Rodeck became a student of (and later, a full-blown advocate for) responsive design, and, indeed, how architecture functions as environment and structures human relations and communication patterns. In 1969, she co-authored a short guidebook called People Space, to help community leaders cultivate a sensibility for how public and private spaces are structured and how they serve (or perhaps disserve or underserve) their inhabitants. In its introduction she writes about the following design ideal : “the process must be seen as organized space flowing from public to private to public space, rather than as a collection of unrelated piles and emptinesses” (1). According to this statement, public and private spaces should be informed by continuity rather than fragmentation. The guidebook is filled with fairly detailed instructions and questions for leading and developing discussions. It’s divided into several parts, such that participants can create and merge various functional profiles for their city or town.
Several years after the publication of the modest People Space, Rodeck wrote yet another piece – this one returning to her earlier work on the Neighborhood Commons projects in a kind of postmortem analysis. One can sense some of her frustration as she’s since returned to several of these “Commons” spaces, only to find them abandoned and neglected. She reflects on some of the shortcomings and difficulties of implementing and maintaining the beautification schemes for urban open spaces, and on the historical developments and sweeping social changes of the 1960s that influenced their lack of upkeep, while still reaffirming the underlying values that the projects represented. In fact, she illustrates a very interesting tension in her report: the occasional ambivalence and indifference of inner city residents to the projects, and the dissonance between what they perceived their needs to be and what architects believed their needs to be.
Her questions and meditations are remarkably timely insofar as our society is becoming increasingly urbanized. Fraught questions surrounding concepts like urban renewal, revitalization, gentrification, and population displacement are being posed with greater frequency and urgency. Her offerings broach the complexities inherent in approaching and sustaining such projects. They certainly give cause for deeper reflection on the “sense of interdependency of people in a defined space.”