There is no shortage of buzzwords that have emerged in recent years to describe innovative approaches for reimagining the community design process. Design thinking, human-centered design, co-design, participatory design — these ideas all offer some variation of the concept of cooperative design, which originated in the 1970s in Scandinavia as a response to communities requesting more stake in big design decisions.
Though the name may be ever-evolving as we try to refine this comprehensive, inclusive, community-informed approach, the core idea of this process is what’s really crucial for project success—that a variety of perspectives and voices are being shared and implemented in the design concept. Though I am examining this approach through the lens of urban design and placemaking, it has been executed in the design of everything from airplanes to the zephyr.
To share a story about one of my experiences working with a community who took this approach, I’d like to take you on a journey to Opa-locka, Florida, a city of about 16,000 people in Miami-Dade County. I had the pleasure of working with the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation (OLCDC), who took ownership of revitalizing a blighted local park in the Magnolia North neighborhood. With the goal of making this transformation a community-informed and highly collaborative process, they set to work recruiting a diverse group of stakeholders and community organizations to participate in a kickoff design workshop.
An interesting thing to note about this is that the OLCDC has direct connections to local designers and landscape architects, and if they had wanted to simply contract those services to begin making all of the design decisions, they had the resources to do so. Instead, they chose to take an arguably more difficult approach. It’s a significant amount of work to open the design process to the greater community, distribute and follow up on outreach materials, and plan and host an event to bring different minds, opinions, and backgrounds together in one place, but the results were amazing. For their awe-inspiring revitalization of the park, the OLCDC was awarded the 2014 APA Florida Award of Excellence in the Grassroots Initiative category, and has continued building upon the vision catalyzed by this initial community meeting and design workshop. Check out the project and more of their awesome work in transforming the Opa-locka community at www.OLCDC.org.
The Magnolia North neighborhood before the transformation.
The neighborhood afterwards.
There are many elements of the OLCDC’s approach that I find to be key principles of engaging community in the design process for a successful outcome. I have outlined some of my favorites below:
- Engage a diverse community in the process with inclusive outreach materials.
This point is easily the foundation and prerequisite for all the other tips in this list. The targeting and inclusivity of outreach materials is possibly the most essential piece to get the community engagement process started off successfully. If you distribute fliers written only in English, guess who is mostly going to show up for your event? I know this sounds obvious, but it can be easy to forget that accessibility to the necessary information initially draws a diverse group in to the project. Even in an age where we access much of our information in a digital format, there are still many people without this opportunity.
Having the resources on hand to translate materials and offer interpretation services is not common, but accounting for this in your planning is well worth it and ensures that more voices are heard. Also, extend this consideration of inclusivity to the physical spaces where you are sharing information about the project. Who frequents these spaces? Are you thinking of all the places that a diverse community would visit to seek out information and get involved?
- Kick off the project by inviting everyone into the conversation.
Start strong by beginning the process with a community meeting, workshop, or charrette to get everyone in the same room and to get ideas moving. The more diverse the skill sets and backgrounds in the room, the more comprehensive and informed the outcome will be. Everyone has a unique perspective to bring to the table, and this first step of inclusion will begin to build trust with the community and project stakeholders.
- Give participants a direct voice in the conversation during the community workshop.
You can achieve this in a myriad of ways—group presentations, open forum brainstorming discussions, and sharing out of design solutions are all great techniques for turning the spotlight on the community during workshops and other events. When you allow them to run the show, you’re gathering some great ideas while fostering an environment of empowerment.
- Include multiple community touch points following the initial workshop to share progress and solicit feedback.
In this multi-step process, you can create rapid feedback loops by keeping a thread of communication going. Check in, follow up, and be on the ground as much as possible to ensure transparency and to continue building trust. Stay in touch by doing weekly check-in conference calls between your in-person meetings.
- Continue to give participants stake in decision-making throughout the design process.
This can take place in the format of voting on design schemes, community polls for the timing of the next meeting, or offering a board for comments while the design is still in progress.
- Host a presentation for the agreed-upon solution to bring the process full circle.
Planning an event to celebrate and share the design solution is a great way to continue the conversation and remain transparent about the decisions being made. It will also maximize the benefits of the engagement process, as many of the stakeholders up to this point will be invested in the concept and will continue to show up.
- Always welcome feedback on the process to ask how it can be improved.
This process isn’t perfect and is different for each community, so soliciting feedback on how it can be improved will only make you a better designer and leader, not to mention human being.
- There will always be challenges, but anticipating community needs leads to stronger, more inclusive design.
This is a good time to reiterate that this is not the easy way to design. You will still face challenges and some resistance along the way. You can’t please everyone all the time, but the best you can do is try to understand perspectives different from your own, and in some cases, different from that of nearly everyone in the room. Even the outliers have something important to share and can teach us a lot.
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Talk, Talk Again
Even if 100% of the community isn’t on board with the concept in the end, success comes from continuing this conversation so the solution can keep evolving to serve the greater good. After all, it’s the journey to the final product and the relationship-building in the process that is the foundation for a successful project, and more importantly, a lasting connection with the community.
I can continue on sharing my take, which comes from various experiences, but I’ll leave you to try it for yourself in your next design project. As different types of designers are gathering more information about this approach, we continue to find evidence supporting what was formerly just a matter of opinion on how to conduct our work. It seems that doing this work “not the easy way” may, in fact, be the best way. For me, it’s certainly the most fun.
Please share your favorite tips in the comments section on how you engage with communities to participate in the collaborative design process.