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Community engagement 2.0

We’ve all been to the public meetings with endless Powerpoints and a few very vocal citizen-activists who dominate the conversation. Perhaps you even presented at one such forum or sat in the audience wondering, How much of this is seeking public input, and how much is placating the public? How can community-engagement efforts become more ... well, engaging? A growing number of planners, designers and technologists are exploring social media, multiuser virtual environments and other interactive technologies to increase participation in the planning and design process. How do these new technologies complement the traditional public process, which values the immediacy of face-to-face interaction? And how can planners and designers make the best use of the gads of information generated from these technologies?


One class of participatory technologies is helping planners and designers better communicate the complexities of planning issues to a wider public, freeing them from the tyranny of Powerpoint presentations, flipcharts and a rigid workshop format. Interactive workshop tools such as the Envisioning Development Toolkits, created by the Center for Urban Pedagogy, enable laypeople to participate in conversations about changes in their neighborhood by teaching them about planning and design concepts and terminology.

Information Gathering

Another class of technologies seeks to turn members of the general public into information gatherers and tap into their local intelligence as the basis for sound planning interventions. Mobile applications such as Boston’s CitizensConnect allow people to easily report the state of their city; OpenStreetMap makes it easy for the layperson to represent features of his or her built environment that a map surveyor might have missed. Both are already having a huge impact in terms of better municipal service delivery and operations, and it’s not difficult to imagine the potential kinds of collectible data that will give designers a better sense of what they are designing and who they are designing for.

Some practitioners have found promising ways of integrating these technologies into traditional analogue public processes. In a recent planning workshop in Somerville run by Denver-based PlaceMatters, participants walked in groups to take pictures of their neighborhood and sorted them into subjective categories such as “desirable use” and “needs improvement.” These then composed a large online photo database and acted as a catalyst for small group conversations. The end result is not only a rich visual repertoire of the residents’ local knowledge but also a great deal of mutual purpose that arose from discussions among neighbors.

Participatory Chinatown, developed by the Asian Community Development Corporation, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and Hub2 of Emerson College and funded by a MacArthur Foundation grant, aims to create the same sense of mutual purpose within a community—but through gaming. Community members explore a digital replica of Boston’s Chinatown as one of 15 avatars, each of which represents a certain set of interests. For example, one avatar is an elderly Chinese immigrant who wants to live near other senior citizens, and another is a Tufts student. By taking on the guise of an avatar, participants come to understand the concerns and interests of others.

To some practitioners in the area, the mainstream adoption of participatory technologies simultaneously holds great promise and demands thoughtful and critical attention in their use. Rob Goodspeed, a PhD student in planning at MIT, says that innovations in participatory planning must be well grounded by effective “offline” ways of working. The recent Internet & American Life Survey by the Pew Research Center seems to bear this out. Although people of all ages, races and incomes are moving online swiftly, the access level is greatest among the younger, the wealthier, and the whiter. This raises valid questions about disparities in access to web-based public participation and the troubling image of a new sort of “echo chamber,” as the technologically fluent dominate virtual public-discourse forums.

More immediately, how will planners and designers operate in a progressively more egalitarian and participatory online environment? Do things such as Next Stop Design, where a worldwide audience shares their opinion and votes on a future bus stop’s design, mark the dissolution of boundaries between experts and the public? Goodspeed doesn’t think so. Design professionals, he says, still have a role in putting forward assertive and creative solutions, but innovative participatory planning could ideally turn that into more of a two-way street, where the public, in the process of finding solutions to common problems, builds cohesion and a sense of inclusion, and design professionals, by tuning into the collective intelligence of the public, become more astute, dexterous and therapeutic in their problem solving.

Meera Deean is a designer in Boston.

Siqi Zhu is an urban planner and information designer at Utile. Prior to joining the firm, he studied urban planning at Harvard Graduate School of Design, where his work focused on the intersection between urban design, innovative visual communication, and environmental and social sustainability. At Utile, he has been involved in several public-realm-enhancement projects, including a streetscape study for Acushnet Avenue in New Bedford, Massachusetts; a study of a pedestrian mall in Salem, Massachusetts; and the ongoing Boston Complete Streets initiative. As part of the latter project, he worked on developing aspirational design standards for future Boston streets and devised visual and information design strategies that seek to better inform and involve a wider public.

Top: Photograph by Nathanial Hansen and Matthew Hashiguchi. Reproduced by permission of Engagement Game Lab.

A SEED for change

Bryan Bell, Design Corps founder and a 2011 AIA Latrobe Prize winner, is banking on the fact that many of us are hungry for opportunities these days. When I sat down with him recently to talk about public-interest architecture, he drew a pie chart to explain why he doesn’t believe pro bono work offers a legitimate opportunity to either the public or architects. A tiny sliver—2% of the pie that is the built environment, he said—is where most architects find their work. Within this 2%, if you allocate a small percentage of each firm’s output for non-fee-based projects, the resulting portion is infinitesimal. To make matters worse, pressure from developers, contractors and others threatens to make our 2% piece of the pie that much slimmer.

Bell has made it his mission to bring the rest of the pie—the 98%—into the scope of architects and designers, to increase our opportunities to work and to make a difference. To do this, he says, we need to work more directly and transparently in the public interest so that we can communicate the value of our work to that majority of the public that falls outside the self-consciously design-consuming elite. Bell’s wager is that this message will fall on willing ears in the profession, as it has among students, in a time when the recession has left many looking both for a bigger piece of the pie and for ways to make a difference.

In a way, returning to engage the profession’s mainstream is an attempt to bring his own circle to a close. Twenty years ago, Bell left a position at Steven Holl Architects to live among migrant farm workers in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to see if he could use his design skills to improve their living conditions. He could. He found, as he had a few summers earlier working with Samuel Mockbee, that he had a deep respect, and even reverence, for his working poor clients: “They were as worthy of design as anybody I would ever meet.…When people have everything you can’t tell what their values are; they don’t have to defend their values. But for this family, it was a struggle to exist; they had to be so clear about their values to put them at the top.”

Above: a bus shelter for a New Orleans community recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Bell found that the best values of these clients were worth exemplifying and nurturing in the buildings he made for them, so he didn’t have to look further afield to find meaning to drive his designs. Bell described for me the Luckett house, with its gable-roof and a space carved out for the father’s trucks. The father had two old vehicles, using one for parts to fix the other, which he needed for his work; neither had a hood, so keeping them sheltered was practical. But housing the vehicle within the volume of the house, visible to its interior, also allowed the father to share his work with his family. And it meant that the composition of the house was completed when he was at home. All this exemplifies the kind of pragmatic, poetic response to the client’s life and values that Bell is most proud of in his work.

In doing these projects, Bell also found that he had expanded on the designer’s typical areas of responsibility. He actively solicited clients, helped secure necessary grants, worked closely with stakeholders to establish the program and other parameters, and handled the construction. He was making use of his creative abilities in a wider sense to serve a community. With an enthusiasm that belied his more than 20 years in the profession, Bell talked about how this approach jibes with the reasons why most of us came into the field in the first place. He told me that when the Boyer Report, a 1998 commission on “Reinventing Undergraduate Education,” asked students to name the top reason why they studied architecture, 44% responded that they wanted to make a practical application of their creative abilities, while 22% wanted to serve communities. (The third most popular response was the generically stated “to improve the built environment.”) These values, Bell pointed out, are hardly mutually exclusive. In his own updated version of this survey, students and professionals can choose up to three key motivating values, which Bell believes will provide a fuller picture of why we do what we do.

Bell expects that the results of this survey will support an initiative that he cofounded in 2005 called SEED, or Social, Economic, Environmental Design, and its aim is to strengthen the ability of design to act in the public interest throughout the built environment, and not only for the top 2% of clients and projects that conventionally occupy most of the profession’s attention. The SEED metric and process also underpin a Public Interest Design Training Program that Bell is leading in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design’s Executive Education Program from July 20 through 22, 2011, together with several other leaders in this field.

The way I see it, one of Bell’s biggest challenges lies in translating his skills and philosophies in ways that will allow him to engage the clients, designers and other stakeholders of the majority. Much of his Design Corps practice, working with migrant workers and the rural poor, has been developed in service neither of the elite nor of the middle majority, but of some of the most underserved segments of our population. The ways in which one generates and communicates value for the middle 96% is likely, after all, to be as different from that of the bottom 2% as it is from that of the top 2%. Bringing the wealth of expertise and interest that he and other SEED Network partners have generated into the mainstream of the profession is, Bell admits, a challenge. But in this challenge, Bell says, lies opportunities for us all.

Bell’s Public Interest Design Training Program, an Executive Education Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design is held from July 20 through 22, 2011.

Lian Chikako Chang has a PhD in history and theory of architecture from McGill University and is currently a MArch I student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. She loves tennis, gardening and food.


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