Community Engagement

By Ron Shiffman

Though the practice of community design has a history that includes over four decades of accomplishments, its contribution to the practice of architecture and its role in the rebuilding of communities, neighborhoods and cities is still often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Community design, when practiced genuinely, goes far beyond the planning, design and development professions contributing their know-how and talent to low- and moderate-income communities. It is, rather, a fundamental recasting of urban and regional planning, architecture and community building—from the “signature architects” and their top-down urban planning counterparts who take a product-oriented, know-what’s-best-for-you-approach to a more trans-disciplinary approach to design and community development. It’s an approach that moves from a superficial development of functional and, too often, dysfunctional forms to a substantive understanding of the way people live, work and develop.

This different understanding can often result in a more meaningful and more satisfying form of development and lead to a new and emerging aesthetic. In the process, community-based architecture and planning practitioners have become aware of how people really live, what they aspire to become and how community development processes really work. We have also learned of the adverse and unintended impact of many of the “visionary theories” we as architects and planners were taught to emulate, particularly as problems emerge from such developments and negatively affect those that live, work or play in the “shadows” they cast.

The practice of community design has made us conscious of the discriminatory patterns of development that many practitioners, because of an inability to listen, have foisted upon those whose attempts to communicate were too often ignored or made fun of. Environmental racism/discrimination, burdensome siting decisions and our knee-jerk conclusion that NIMBYism was at play blinded us to the real and substantive fears that many people in the community were experiencing. Even worse was the conclusion drawn by an elite—that the masses just didn’t understand what designers and planners knew was good for them.

On the other hand, many engaged in “community design” often delegated the process of design to the community, thereby abdicating their own knowledge and hiding their own talents, choosing instead only to implement and draw what the “people” wanted. Design became merely an extrapolation of what the participants already knew and had experienced; the architects and planners working with them were used only to amplify their voices. Architects, planners and people—that diverse lot that comprises a democratic body—were not really engaged in a dialogue, in a mutual education process where both were teacher and student, each learning from the other. True decision-making, and true empowerment, arises from choosing among informed alternatives. Without the dialogue and the debate, neither the architect/planner/designer nor the community/citizen/ advocate can make an informed decision. They also cannot know all of the alternatives absent an honest mind-expanding, multi-leveled dialectic and debate. In essence, without honest engagement and mutual respect between the planner/architect/designer and the community, neither is empowered or capable of making an informed decision. The outcome is doomed to being mediocre at best and will, in all probability, result in an aesthetically and functionally irrelevant and embarrassing undertaking.

Underlying the concept of community-based planning and design is a recognition of the diversity and pluralism that makes up our communities. Cities and communities are complex, made up of people with different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Within and between these groups are people with differing aspirations and visions of the future. Add to that mix those that have and exercise power and those that are and have been excluded from the decision-making processes and you have a picture of our society as it has existed for the past four or more decades. Planning and design approaches, therefore, should recognize this diversity and build upon it. Diversity itself can become a building block of a new approach to planning and design.

Practicing architecture, planning and development in a diverse, pluralistic and democratic environment requires a broader set of skills than practicing in a homogenous and more autocratic environment. The architect/planner must move beyond design and structure to understand a range of issues such as finance, government policies, decision-making processes, community economic development and the environment, including environmental justice issues. The designer/planner must, in addition to the traditional set of skills required, be an organizer, tactician, educator, student and communicator. It is not only sufficient to be able to plan a community and/or to design a building but to be able to engage people in the process of that design or plan, understanding how the group can move from proposal to plan adoption through a democratic and often tumultuous process. Community meetings are often contentious, comprised of people who move in and out of the picture, operate at different levels of information and disinformation and have differing needs and values. In the end, however, such meetings provide the spark for a creative planning and design process. Working in such an environment is far more challenging than working for an autocratic decision-maker. Once you have gained the confidence of the group, they become the key to unleashing the creative processes that enable the planner and designer to work outside the box, implement new ideas and provide the support to overcome entrenched bureaucracies and business as usual. As the environmentally and socially conscious developer Jonathan Rose likes to point out, forests with a diverse set of plant life and many different species of trees have the richest and most beautiful foliage. More importantly, they are healthier and more dynamic places.

The more successful community design centers and community-based design and development practitioners have, over the years, developed the techniques to effectively engage communities. They have developed techniques to de-mystify the technical aspects of their work, to engage people in two-way education processes and to present their ideas in ways that people understand. Practitioners have learned the tools of innovative finance, found ways to traverse the myriad set of government programs and, in fact, helped shape many of those programs. They have developed networks and alliances that function vertically—linking community, city, regional and national levels—to better understand policies and programs and inform their work. They have also created horizontal networks—linking the diverse set of local actors together to create coalitions, educational and information networks—to foster their activities on the ground. They have developed participatory planning and design approaches, often merging visioning techniques and scenario writing, as well as further honed some old techniques, such as the charette, into effective ways of engaging the public in the planning and design process. Most importantly, by working honestly with the people, they have been able to take the legacy left them by folks such as Paul and Linda Davidoff and transform “advocacy and pluralism in planning” into an effective tool to revitalize and rebuild our cities.

Out of the community design process emerged many of the nation’s exemplary community-based economic development and housing revitalization efforts. These efforts have restored countless communities throughout the country and led to the revival of many of our most important cities. Through these efforts, community-based architecture and planning practitioners have preserved and rehabilitated hundreds of thousands of housing units, preserved the historic character of many of our cities and most importantly, enabled many places to retain their genius loci, or genetic footprint—the form that gave the distinctiveness and unique character to that particular community or city. Community design has helped fuel the neighborhood preservation movement and spawn the environmental justice and industrial retention movements, as well as spur greater attention to sustainable planning practices and green building approaches.

Ron Shiffman is director emeritus of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Economic Development.

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