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Chicago urban designer Emmanuel Pratt wins this year’s MacArthur ‘genius’ grant

Pratt was recognized for his holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to neighborhood revitalization

An African-American man in a t-shirt and protective glasses uses a chisel on pieces of lumber. Photo courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

For his groundbreaking work in community-driven development on Chicago’s South and West sides, local urban designer Emmanuel Pratt was among the 26 artists, activists, and creative thinkers to be named a 2019 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and receive a “genius” grant, the organization announced Wednesday.

Pratt, who studied architecture and urban design at Cornell and Columbia Universities, is co-founder and executive director of the Sweet Water Foundation. He is recognized for his innovative work which integrates agriculture, education, and design and turns neglected neighborhoods into places of growth and vitality, said the MacArthur Foundation in a statement.

“One of the challenges on the South Side and West Side of Chicago is there’s been a depletion of resources, access to capital,” said Pratt in a MacArthur Foundation video. “So a lot of times we don’t start with the dollars and the capital. We start with what assets are there: what humans are there, what spaces are available.”

Sweet Water currently operates a 2-acre farm site known as the Perry Avenue Commons in Chicago’s Washington Park and Englewood neighborhoods and is in the process of rehabbing a nearby 1891 house into a gallery topped by a live-work space. The organization plans to eventually build ground-up housing incorporating the lessons learned on previous community projects, Pratt says in the video.

Pratt’s holistic approach to neighborhood revitalization is also reflected in Sweet Water’s ongoing urban ecology apprenticeship. The multi-disciplinary design-build program exposes high school students to a mix of architecture, construction, carpentry, and agriculture.

Emmanuel Pratt isn’t the only “genius” grant recipient with a Chicago connection. Oakland, California-based landscape architect Walter Hood and New York visual artist Jeffrey Gibson studied at the School of the Art Institute, notes the Chicago Tribune. Brooklyn-based theater artist Annie Dorsen recently taught at the University of Chicago.

More than 1,000 individuals have been named MacArthur Fellows since the program began in 1981. Recipients each receive a $625,000 stipend, paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years.