Diversity in Practice

By Kathy Dorgan

Each community design center (CDC) has a unique and winning personality. The character of these participatory public interest professional design practices are shaped by the communities they serve, their funders and, perhaps most importantly, their leadership. Centers vary widely in their organizational structure, the constituencies served, the type of projects undertaken and the type of services offered. All community design centers, however, move beyond the boundaries of traditional professional design practice to make use of political, communication, financial and other skills, as well as those of the design arts to, in partnership with their clients, change the world.

Despite their many differences, community design centers are united in their commitment to working across disciplinary and political boundaries to develop comprehensive community solutions. All share a commitment to providing services to active, engaged low- and moderate-income communities, promoting excellence in design and creating livable and sustainable neighborhoods. Community design practice is distinguished from other charitable work carried out by design professionals in a number of ways. It is incremental, reflective and based on long-term sustained engagement. It also recognizes that buildings cannot be separated from their political and social context, and it values and includes low-income stakeholders as decision-makers.

Unlike other movements in architecture and planning, there is not a single stylistic or formalistic approach to community design. Practitioners revel in the diversity of solutions achieved in their work. They draw from the local vernacular, the diverse cultural heritages of stakeholders, all the stylistic camps of the academy and each designer’s personal artistic vision.

Likewise, there is no typical community design project. Practitioners are as likely to be found detailing a front porch rail to be built by a property owner’s eleven-year-old son as they are to be found studying the implications of community form on public health. Community design projects may involve building straw bale homes with the Northern Cheyenne on the open plains of Montana, crafting storage cabinets for residents of single room occupancy shelters in San Francisco ‘s Chinatown or patenting designs for mobile homes. Community designers plan street theater with artists in Detroit, draft technical language for federal regulations, propose connections for urban greenways, design mixed-use developments, build community gardens, develop details for roll-in showers, analyze the embodied energy in building materials, construct footbridges with AmeriCorps volunteers and plan statewide bike paths. Each community design center offers a complex array of services and programs, which generally fit into the six categories discussed below.


Most community design centers undertake some type of educational activity; many incorporate educational activities in participatory design processes. Centers work to provide the information resources and transparency necessary for truly participatory processes. They offer educational programs that encompass community design principles and bridge the gap between research and practice as well as between professionals and the community. For example, the Metropolitan Design Center (MDC) at the University of Minnesota hosts exhibits and lectures, publishes design briefs, curates an image bank and develops training programs for elected officials, community groups and the general public. The Nashville Civic Design Center maintains a library of drawings and publications, sponsors continuing education courses for professionals and the general public and hosts exhibitions that have explored topics such as visionary transit systems, proposals for One Percent for Art, green buildings and community planning. ASSIST Inc. in Salt Lake City undertakes a variety of activities to increase community understanding of the need for accessibility, includ ing working with area television stations and Paralympians on news stories and publishing a guidebook about the accessible home. And the East Tennessee Community Design Center helps young people shape public spaces with its Skateboard Park Manual, while the Design Coalition of Madison provides Patterns in Traditional Neighborhoods, a tool for analyzing development proposals.


The fastest growing component of community design center activity is, arguably, research, which is allowing community designers to pursue the questions generated by community design practice. The growth in research has been driven by a number of factors, including: 1) funders increasingly need research to establish and support funding priorities; 2) academics are more accepting of community action and research in the academy; and 3) there are many tools, such as mapping programs, available to support research-based inquiry. This growing body of research provides an important resource for community design practice. Sheri Blake of the University of Manitoba, for example, is documenting the participatory techniques of community design practitioners. The Florida Center for Community Design + Research at the School of Architecture + Community Design at the University of South Florida developed the Tampa Bay Community Indicators Project and documented its study of portable classrooms in The Use of Relocatable Classrooms in the Public Schools of Florida.Asian Neighborhood Design (AND) in San Francisco collected insights from hundreds of designers, developers and managers of affordable housing to produce The Materials Handbook, while Environmental Works studied the embodied energy in a variety of materials used in affordable housing and published its methodology and findings in a set of Green Building Materials Fact Sheets. And finally, the City Design Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago compiled an online national database, called Design Matters: Best Practices in Affordable Housing, of excellent affordable housing design.

Project Initiation

One of the most important functions of community design centers is to work with members of the community to identify local needs, and then to find ways to address those needs by building the identified project or creating the needed program. Design centers perform an important role in making things happen, as opposed to reacting to projects proposed by investors. For example, after San Francisco ‘s AND identified the need for additional housing and work options, they followed through to develop the first model live/work units in the city. The Troy Architectural Project finds new owners for abandoned buildings and supports them through the redevelopment process, while the Community Design & Development Center in Cincinnati provides real estate development and fundraising assistance to its clients.

Project Design

Some community design centers provide professional services that meet community needs for high-quality, affordable design and construction. Experience with public participation, self-help construction and funding requirements are essential to advancing many projects. High volume can facilitate the provision of service to low-budget projects. A portion of services may be undertaken via joint ventures with traditional firms. Services may address a special need, such as in the case of a program run by ASSIST Inc. in Salt Lake City, which facilitates repairs and home modifications for accessibility for low-income elderly homeowners. Some centers, such as the Community Design Collaborative of AIA Philadelphia, limit their work to preliminary design, undertaking projects like a conceptual streetscape design or a neighborhood identity strategy. Such centers advance their projects to the stage where public approvals or funding can be obtained. Other centers, such as the Troy Architectural Program, the Pratt Center for Community Development (PICCED) at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and Environmental Works in Seattle, use their knowledge of the building process to follow projects through construction.

Policy and Planning

Through engaged processes, community design centers generate proposals for local and regional planning and design as well as environmental policies to be enacted by government. This work takes many forms. The Portland Center developed illustrated design guidelines for infill construction. ASSIST, Inc. conducted a participatory regional transportation planning process in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. The Hamer Center developed a tool to help municipalities develop zoning regulations in Pennsylvania. The Small Town Center at Mississippi State University planned a strategy for incorporating bike trails though the entire State of Mississippi, prepared guidelines for new highway bypasses and proposed architectural solutions to rural health care. And PICCED studied inclusionary zoning, helped organize a citywide coalition of housing and social justice groups and worked with elected officials to adopt new housing policies


Many community design centers move beyond the drawing board to construct housing and community facilities. The attention to detail inherent in design-build has resulted in some of community design’s most visually arresting works. Design-build projects, which rely on volunteer labor, employment training programs and, often, donated materials, construct model buildings and other structures that advance the knowledge of community practice, meet key community needs and provide an opportunity for students and community residents to learn about construction techniques. Perhaps the best known design-build program is Rural Studio at Auburn University, which has been adding homes and community facilities in rural Alabama for both the young and old since 1993. The State University of New York at Buffalo ‘s Department of Architecture has a long tradition of community engagement that has resulted in the construction of bus shelters, a pocket park, bike racks and an addition to an art museum. And at the Rensselaer Design Center, students have taken on the more modest project of installing lighting in the vertical art gallery at the Kennedy Towers senior housing project.

Design-build can also be employed in production work. A cabinet shop that started at AND has since become an independent operation, employing local residents to build beautiful cabinetry that increases the utility of small spaces. And while Ball State University no longer arrives at projects in their studio on a large truck bed, community design practitioners continue to find innovative ways to structure and offer services. Many follow one or more of the following models.


Volunteer-based community design centers enlist the local design community to provide services. The design center staff, critical to these efforts, carefully trains volunteers in participatory processes, assists community groups to define their needs, matches professionals with projects, monitors and tracks services and connects individual projects to a community-building initiative. Professionals work on the projects pro bonoor for an honorarium. This model has the potential to engage a large number of professionals in the issues affecting disadvantaged communities. At the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, professional volunteers consult with local homeowners on appropriate approaches to renovating historic buildings using a valuable rehabilitation and resource book developed by the center. In addition, the center staff also assists non-profit organizations to secure appropriate preliminary design services from local professionals using foundation grants. Volunteer-based community design centers also include the Community Design Collaborative of AIA Philadelphia and the Neighborhood Design Center of Baltimore.

Private Practices

Limited liability corporations, C corporations, partnerships or sole proprietorships can be community design centers if their mission is the practice of community design. This structure provides the maximum flexibility for a public interest practice; there are fewer reporting requirements and the principals retain full authority to deploy organizational resources. Pyatok Architects Inc., which is, arguably, the most accomplished designer of affordable housing in the nation as well as an articulate advocate for community design, exemplifies the private practice model. One of the challenges of this structure, however, is that it may be difficult for a private practitioner to establish credibility and continuing contact with the community. Furthermore, private firms cannot apply directly for most grants. Many private practices, like Pyatok, meet these challenges by establishing close working relationships with non-profit community development corporations. In fact, Pyatok has on staff a full-time grantwriter who assists the firm’s clients in pursuing the support necessary for their advocacy and participatory work as well as for engaging local artists in the design projects.


About one-half of the accredited schools of architecture in the United States are affiliated with a community design center. These practices may be an integral part of the school’s educational program, a semi-autonomous center within the school’s structure, a single faculty member’s work or a sister non-profit. Institutional affiliation may provide significant benefits, including credentialing, salary support, free or subsidized space and equipment, the security of tenure for vocal advocates and student participation through class projects and internships. There may also be constraints as a result of school schedules, pedagogic goals or the culture of the academy, which may conflict with community needs. This type of engagement, however, is expected to increase as institutions and accrediting bodies continue to value service-learning. Advisory boards often inform but do not control the work of centers at colleges and universities, which are usually governed by the trustees of the sponsoring institution. The constitution of these groups varies. The Advisory Board for the Community Design Center at Syracuse University ‘s School of Architecture draws on expertise from the university staff, students and faculty and also includes some community representation. The MDC has separate community and professional advisory boards. PICCED draws in equal measures from the university, local corporations and the community. University-based practitioners such as Randy Hester, Henry Sanoff, Mary Camario, Chester Hartman, Nick Wates and Paul Davidoff have documented and published their projects. Their insights about their work and community design practices have contributed significantly to advancing the practice and theory of the field.

Independent Non-Profit

Community design centers structured under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service code for the purpose of providing community design have the advantage of a clear community mission. Their board of directors provide a direct mechanism for community control and participation. Funding, however, is a continual challenge for the unaffiliated center. Independent centers often develop mechanisms for going to scale rather than concentrating on demonstration projects, often favored by the institution-based centers. Independent practices have demonstrated the potential of community design to reach large numbers of people at an effective cost. For example, a single, very skilled staff member at ASSIST facilitated almost one thousand emergency repairs in ten communities last year.

Most community design centers serve a specific geographic area. A long-term commitment to incremental change within these communities is a defining characteristic of a design center. Local knowledge is among the center’s expertise. Service areas may be a city, a region or a state. A few centers work in multiple locations. The Center at the University of Pennsylvania works in Philadelphia and Lame Deer, Montana. The Yale Urban Design Workshop works in Connecticut and also consults regularly in Shanghai. Increasingly, centers are undertaking projects with a regional focus. Many centers have a primarily urban focus, while others concentrate on the needs of rural communities. The Troy Architectural Program (TAP), a design center in Troy, New York, serves a city with a population of 49,170. Executive Director Joe Fama, one of three staff members who have spent over thirty years employed by TAP, points out that almost one-half of the population live in communities with less than one million people, yet only 15 percent of the cataloged design centers are located in such communities, leaving many opportunities for the establishment of additional centers.

Centers are funded through a combination of fees, grants and fundraising. Many centers receive support from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which is administered locally. A few centers, including the Hamer Center, the Carl Small Town Center and the MDC, have endowments. The substantial private gifts that established these funds provide an important tool for allowing continuity of services. Fundraisers often include an educational objective. Pedal Pittsburgh, the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh’s annual community design bicycle tour, builds awareness of Pittsburgh ‘s architectural heritage and community development initiatives while raising critical unrestricted funding. Capitol Hill Improvement Corporation originated a Cooks and Kitchens tour to provide the public with an opportunity to see the organization’s work and keep past clients connected to the center. Fees for service may be on a contingent basis or sliding scale, or alternatively paid by a third party. Sources of funding are continually changing, and successful centers maintain an active outreach and development function.

Although the practice of community design is decentralized and locally controlled, most community design centers count themselves as part of a national movement. Many belong to and/or identify with the Association for Community Design. For thirty years, this all-volunteer membership organization, which was initially supported by the AIA, has hosted an annual conference where practitioners share information and reaffirm their common interests. Many centers also belong to Planners Network and other national organizations.

Despite the considerable accomplishments of the past forty years, we are just starting to understand the potential of community design practice. Technology is providing new tools for sharing information and conducting complex participatory processes in a transparent manner. Research is helping to refine strategies. Practitioners are building the networks necessary to tackle multidimensional issues. There is a renewed interest among designers in making a difference and mainstream organizations are recognizing the value of broad-based participation. We see this potential being exhibited in the response to recent disasters. PICCED, for example, engaged more than 5,000 residents of New York City in a successful community visioning process following the 9/11 attacks. And supported by the recommendations of the governor’s taskforce, Mississippi State University is creating a new center to respond to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The movement will be challenged to retain its focus as more opportunities for the field emerge. Managing access to all of the information and research generated by centers is another challenge that needs to be addressed nationally. TAP could speak for the entire movement when it states that its center “began as an experiment in community service…. (We) have expanded to become an integral part of the non-profit delivery system in the region. Now thirty-six years later, we remain unorthodox, passionate, idealistic and persistent—an effective ally to those in need.”

Kathy Dorgan is principal of Dorgan Architecture and Planning, a community design practice in Storrs, Connecticut, and former president of the Association for Community Design.

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