Profile | Elizabeth Dean Hermann

Elizabeth Dean Hermann



Elizabeth Hermann is a Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design where she teaches urban design, international development, and design and social justice. She is Founder/Co-Director of RISD’s DESINE Lab, which works with partners in South Asia, Africa, Latin America and the US to develop and implement strategic, integrated and interdisciplinary multi-scalar social and economic empowerment strategies for under-resourced, post-conflict, and post-disaster societies. The Lab’s work covers health, education, capacity building, livelihood development, and the built environment and technology.

Hermann received her Ph.D. from Harvard University where her work focused on the medieval Muslim world and urban responses to prolonged periods of pandemic disease and political upheaval. She studied Landscape Architecture and Architecture at Cornell, and studied and worked in tropical medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. She has been visiting faculty at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT. She was a SPURS Fellow in Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, and is a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.

Hermann is a contributing author to the Encyclopedia on Women in Muslim Cultures (EWIC) and author of the in-progress books Cities of Silt and Sand: Urbanization, Environment and Cultural Identity in the Bengal Delta, and Designing Justice: Topographies of Choice and Cooperation. She has been adjunct research faculty at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, and Social Innovator-in-Residence and a Visiting Scholar in Babson College’s Social Innovation Lab and Entrepreneurship Program.





City of Central Falls, RI



Central Falls is Rhode Island’s smallest, densest, most culturally-diverse, and most economically-stressed city. There for the last three years through DESINE Lab-based research, RISD’s Department of Landscape Architecture’s spring Urban Systems studio, and the summer design-build academy run in collaboration with Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia (the country of origin of much of the city’s population) DESINE Lab has been addressing the social, economic and physical needs of the city. Efforts began with the completion of a physical master plan for Central Falls which emphasized cultural, recreational, educational, and innovation and production hubs for this square-mile city of 19,000. Creating a sense of community, emphasizing the village scale and walkability of the city, the possibilities for greater interconnectedness, and identifying programmatic clustering and potential linkages and partnerships were all part of the plan.

Following the closing of the Osram Sylvania plant, the city’s last large employer, DESINE Lab produced a vision statement for the company and facility that proposed an industrial-academic partnership between Osram Sylvania; Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, their Department of Neuroscience and their Engineering School; and the Rhode Island School of Design’s Departments of Industrial Design, Glass and Ceramics. The idea was to create a high end innovation lab that could help drive the regional and national economy, while offering the local community jobs as well as programs and spaces offering skill-building, maker spaces, and entrepreneurship mentoring, in partnership with area nonprofits. Year two of the Urban Systems studio focused on this industrialized northeast quadrant of the city and its potential as a culture and innovation district. Over the summers of 2014 and 2015, the summer design-build academy has created two public open spaces in formerly abandoned lands.


Centre for Design and Sustainable Development, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka



In 2011, two years after the end of the country’ s almost three-decade civil war, DESINE Lab was invited into the country by human rights organizations seeking to assist the 90,000 war widows, many living without the security of homes, jobs or intact social networks. Since that time the Lab’s involvement has evolved and current efforts include the development of a new Centre for Integrated Design and Development in the Tamil-majority northeast. In partnership with an existing vocational training program, the new institution is intended as a high-intensity innovation laboratory and incubator where a coalition of local and non-local artists, designers, business people, NGOs and students from underserved communities collaborate to address issues faced by communities living in the post-conflict regions of the country.

Currently the development of the Centre is being planned in the graduate seminar ‘Art and Design for Development’ and in the Department of Landscape Architecture sponsored wintersession course. Fieldwork focuses on skill-building for RISD students and community members through design-build activities and design workshops that test approaches being planned for the Centre. In fall 2015, an advanced Architecture/Landscape Architecture studio is being offered to specifically study and make recommendations for the urbanization process currently being played out on the barrier islands of Sri Lanka’s east coast, territory vulnerable to sea-level rise and heavily impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.


African Institute for Health Transformations: Innovations for Solutions, Sagam, Kenya



This effort, led by Daniel Feldman, Co-Director of DESINE Lab, focuses on a multi-scalar understanding of the role and impact of innovation, health care, education, communications, and entrepreneurship in rural Kenya. Working in partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Global Health and Human Rights, DESINE Lab is creating a vision, project, and implementation strategy for re-imagining the way health care delivery, education and infrastructure are offered in rural communities in Africa. Construction is currently underway of work done for the Sagam Hospital in a RISD spring 2015 seminar offered by Industrial Design and Architecture, and led by Feldman and Kyle Belcher.


We’ve Place, Central Falls, RI


Summer 2014

In summer 2014, DESINE Lab completed construction on a .125 acre public plaza on Dexter Street in downtown Central Falls, on what had previously been a foreclosed property. The plaza was built over six weeks by a team of RISD, Brown, Javeriana University (Colombia) and Central Falls citizens. Recycled and donated materials were used wherever possible and included 16,000 bricks from building that had been demolished in the city.


Birch Grove Park, Central Falls, RI


Summer 2015

In the summer of 2015 over six weeks, DESINE-Lab completed a design-build effort with RISD and Brown students that transformed a tot lot off of Dexter Street into a cultural park for all age groups. The site is embedded in one of the most dense and problemmatic areas of the city (drugs, unemployment and crime) and is positioned at the border of two different census block groups with two different median household incomes: $20,771 (Summer) and $33,073 (Garfield).


Banyan Grove, St. John’s Boys Home, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

RISD Course

January 2015

For three weeks in January 2015, students from the Rhode Island School of Design, partnering with students and faculty of the St John’s Vocational Training Center, built a place of community gathering and performance under four massive banyan trees at the St. John’s Boys Home in celebration of the VTC’s 25th anniversary and the American
Mission in Ceylon’s 200th. Eventually, this space will connect to the Center for Design and Sustainable Development, the remainder of the VTC site, and will serve as the central point of contact between the campus and the outside world.



Contact Elizabeth Dean Hermann