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New York Design Commission awards own president

Signe Nielsen’s landscape architecture firm has won awards from government agency eight times

Signe Nielsen has been the government agency’s president since 2012

The New York City Design Commission presented its annual awards for excellence in public design on 7 July—and among the winners is a company run by the commission’s president. Signe Nielsen, who has been the government agency’s president since 2012, is also a principal at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects. The firm is among those recognised this year for their proposed work on the New York Botanical Garden, which is one of ten winning projects.

This is not the first time that Nielsen’s firm has been recognised by the Design Commission while she has been at the head of the award-giving body. In 2012, the year she became president, her company was acknowledged for its work on Governor’s Island, a popular summer destination. The next year, her firm was among a group awarded for their efforts in restoring New York’s boardwalks following Hurricane Sandy. Nielsen has been on the commission's board since 2003 and since then, her company has been among the award winners eight times, including recognition for two separate projects in 2005.

No money is given as a part of the prize and Nielsen says that commission members "recuse ourselves from own firm’s projects during award selection. This is the standard operating procedure".

However, the situation still raises questions about a potential conflict of interest. Because the Design Commission reviews all public art, landscape and design projects that occupy city-owned land, its 11-member board has enormous influence on the city. The ten award-winning projects selected this year were picked from hundreds of proposed works, as has been the case in prior years.

The commission publishes minutes of most of its meetings, but notes from the discussions in which the award winners were picked were not immediately available.

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