Origins of Community Design

By Henry Sanoff

Community design stands for an alternative style of practice, based on the idea that professional technical knowledge is often inadequate in the resolution of social problems. It is an umbrella term covering community planning, community architecture, social architecture, community development and community participation, all of which emphasize the involvement of local people in the social and physical development of the environment in which they live. Community design represents the addition of moral and political content to professional practice, however, the representation of these ideas has changed over four decades of practice. Today, Community Design Centers (CDC) are too often left dealing with small-scale solutions to issues of poverty and disadvantage while affluent groups use citizen participation techniques, many developed in the community design movement, to secure their own advantaged positions. The community design movement now faces a new challenge: to create a wider civic vision that crosses social and physical divides and promotes a broad understanding of social and environmental justice.

Community design has been defined, in the broadest sense, as a movement for discovering how to make it possible for people to be involved in shaping and managing their environment. Community architecture is the activist term used in England, which embraces community planning, community design, community development and other forms of community technical aid, while social architecture is used for the same concept in the United States. Social architecture aims to create critical consciousness among citizens. Community participation, on the other hand, covers all the scales and techniques but refers to the processes involving professionals, families, community groups and government officials in shaping the environment. In contrast to the political activist role assumed by CDCs, another approach, facilitation, which uses participatory methods for both problem definition and design solution generation through design assistance techniques, has emerged. Facilitation is a means of bringing people together to determine what they wish to do and helping them find ways to work together in deciding how to do it. Yet, another view of community design is that of creating communities, as described in the recent book entitled Community by Design: New Urbanism for Suburbs and Small Communities.

Historical Development of Community Design

Community consciousness in many low-income neighborhoods emerged in the early 1960s. Direct involvement of the public in the definition of its physical environment and an increased sense of social responsibility constituted a new movement. Following this movement, CDCs, aiming to offer design and planning services to enable the poor to define and implement their own planning goals, were established in the United States.

Influenced by Paul Davidoff’s advocacy model of intervention, many design and planning professionals rejected traditional practice. Instead, they fought against urban redevelopment, advocated for the rights of poor citizens and developed methods of citizen participation. Federal programs of the 1960s, such as the Community Action Program and Model Cities Program, encouraged the participation of citizens in improvement programs. With these programs, people outside the professions were allowed to make decisions about planning and financing. Citizens were given the right to participate in planning and implementation processes through grants and technical assistance.

Community Design Centers

As a result of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act’s Community Action Agencies and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Neighborhood Development, the economic development role of grassroots organizations and the usefulness of professional advocacy networks, such as the Association for Community Design, were strategically enhanced. CDCs became the staging ground for professionals to represent the interests of disenfranchised community groups. The social momentum of the Civil Rights Act and the innovations of the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas Program were rapidly building a framework for change throughout the nation.

CDCs were dedicated to providing planning, architecture and development services unavailable to emerging civic organizations, or established Community-Based Development Corporations (CBDCs). Design center organizational structures ranged from architect-led non-profit corporations to university-based service-learning programs to private practices to volunteer programs sponsored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) or local communities. Support for design centers came from Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and other sources of funding to facilitate volunteerism. Services provided by most CDCs then and now have included the following:

• comprehensive, participatory and strategic planning;

• technical assistance in the selection and financing of development projects; and

• advocacy and support for the acquisition and management of housing and community facilities.

The 1960s and early 1970s was a time of great organizational flourishing. Organized in 1963, the Architectural Renewal Committee in Harlem (ARCH) fought a proposed freeway in Upper Manhattan. In Cleveland, Architecture-Research-Construction (ARC) remodeled hospital wards, community-based treatment centers and group homes, working with patients, staff and administrators in a participatory design process. In Tucson, the design center there removed over one hundred pit privies from barrio homes and replaced them with prefabricated bathroom units.

Founded in 1973, Asian Neighborhood Design (AND) began working on issues in San Francisco ‘s Chinatown. Today, AND is a full-service professional planning and architectural service that has an annual operating budget of about $4 million and is dedicated to housing and community development throughout the region. In Salt Lake City, ASSIST, Inc. has continued to provide accessibility design services, seeing more than 100 projects through to construction each year. Architects, landscape architects and planners, working as volunteers and paid staff in community design centers, complete hundreds of similar projects annually.

Over the last forty years, CDCs have been effective in providing a broad range of services to economically distressed communities. For the design and planning professions, community design centers have been the equivalent of what health clinics are to medicine and what legal aid is to law. People are served through pro bono professional assistance, but often after the injury has occurred. Long-term community-based planning and visioning processes require linkages between design centers and community organizations, with a full-time commitment to relieving distresses in urban and rural environments.

Many of the major non-profit community development corporations in the United States began as civic groups resisting development. This community economic development movement has now shifted from grassroots activities resisting change to community building and development.

In response to the economic and political pressures of the 1980s, some CDCs remained project-based. Such a center is generally organized as a non-profit by an administrator through a local AIA chapter, and supported by CDBG and other sources of funding.

Other, more comprehensive community design practice is carried out by centers that promote community-based control of local projects with related community improvement activities. Because these centers concentrate on providing a variety of services, they help to generate projects for which architectural services will eventually be required. Community design centers look to organizers, neighborhood planning groups, individual low-income clients, community service committees and non-profit boards of directors for its leadership in building communities.

Community Design Reform

Today, more people participate in local planning than ever before. This participation is supported by local authorities and provides unique opportunities for increasing public awareness of a variety of community issues. The capacity of community design centers, however, to address issues of environmental risks and poverty has diminished because powerful local interests tend to dominate. Such centers are too often marginalized in local political processes serving the disadvantaged, while those with more resources use participatory techniques to resist urban change and reinforce their own power.

Citizens today are often short-sighted in their efforts, which are increasingly segregated along class and racial lines. As wealthy citizens have embraced participation and environmental risks have become clearer, an increasing number of dangerous land uses, such as landfills, toxic sites and polluting industries, have been located in poor communities. Today, participation has been used to preserve the quality of life for affluent and powerful citizens. Those who already have economic clout are involved in politics in ways that disproportionately increase their influence, making the practice of democracy increasingly biased against the economically disadvantaged. Similarly, citizen input has largely been reduced to reacting to, rather than initiating, projects.

Quality-of-life participation and efforts at neighborhood protection frequently rely on the methods of advocacy that were developed initially to empower the poor. This citizen motivation is evidenced in positions like Not On Our Street (NOOS), Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) and Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULU).

Only by refocusing on the initial reasons for community participation can local problems be effectively solved. This suggests that the grassroots must be empowered with the authority and responsibility for taking proactive local action, not just blocking actions.

Local groups with similar goals that lack communication or cooperation may undermine the potential for mutual benefits. The dominance of narrow special interests needs to be replaced by a broader civic vision that penetrates social and physical barriers. A reformation of participatory processes, which stresses the conscious pursuit of a sense of community, a new form of governance that empowers local communities and the creation of sustainable communities, is needed. This new approach to participation should examine the cumulative impact of actions and their social and ecological implications. Community building, in contrast to the 1960s federal programs where outside professionals selected priorities, sees resident groups playing a more central role in planning and implementation. It is dedicated to the idea that residents must take control of their own destiny and that of their community. Instead of seeing the old idea of citizen participation in government programs, community-building advocates see government participation in citizen initiatives.

Participation has become a tool for defending exclusionary, conservative principles rather than for promoting social justice and ecological vision. Professionals need to assume a new proactive role that distinguishes them from their more traditional counterparts. The new professional needs to employ a visionary approach that allows a community to expand its vision through participatory processes.

Proactive practice begins well before there is a paying client and continues long after the contract ends.

Henry Sanoff is professor emeritus of architecture at the School of Architecture, North Carolina State University.

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