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POWER TO THE PEOPLE: Empowerment and Disruption in Community Engaged Design

I don't typically call myself a community engaged designer although my practice, Urban Planning for the American City, seeks to resolve the conditions of urban injustice and set a broad and inclusive table for engagement and action. However, these same objectives are most commonly associated with the tenets of community engaged design, a growing branch of architecture, landscape, urban design, and planning practice. 

I have not attached this brand to my practice for two reasons. One reason is scale: the examples of community engaged design often highlighted tend to be very local, creating place-making interventions at the block or neighborhood scale within predominately “disadvantaged” communities. My work as an urban planner involves working at the regional, city, or neighborhood cluster scale and creates policy and regulatory as well as physical interventions. The second reason is process: examples of community engaged design use community engagement tactics that prioritize the inclusion and voice of lower income and marginalized residents. My work places great emphasis on inclusive engagement processes as well, however, I believe strongly that transformative change requires that all community sectors–residents, organizations, government, and the private sector–be seated at the same engagement table to create shared visions and plans for action.

These are of course my characterizations about the practice and therefore are subject to debate. I admit that my quest to learn more about the processes, outcomes, and impacts of community engaged design is a work in progress. So in January, I welcomed the opportunity to partner with the Surdna Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts to help design and facilitate Designing Equity, a daylong convening of community engaged design practitioners, educators, funders, and community activists. Our charge was to further the conversation and gain greater clarity about what current and future exemplary community engaged practice, partnership, and funding looks like. The audience for the convening included architects, landscape architects, urban planners, and designers working in partnership with residents and organizations from low-income communities and low-income communities of color to improve the quality of the built environment and to build local power and capacity. We set forward an agenda for the convening around three core questions:

What are the equity and justice issues that historically excluded communities confront; how does design affect or change these conditions; and what does success look like?

What are the tools that designers use to build capacity and agency?

How are effective partnerships structured between designers and communities?

Central to my consulting and academic work is questioning the ways in which design can have a sustainable impact on the issues of urban justice, including segregation, blight, isolation, abandonment, and access. I believe design can have a positive impact on addressing these challenges, but I believe seeking equity is only one of several values that must be pursued if transformative and sustainable change is to be made. For example, if equity is fundamentally about the distribution of resources, amenities, rights, and power, how do we also ensure access, connections, and entitlements to prosperity, ownership, beauty, and inclusion?

To help ground the day in the realities of context and aspiration, we asked participants to share the most pressing challenges present in the communities where they work and to also describe the most important values required to address these challenges through a community engaged design process.

A strong sense of togetherness and interpersonal connection emerged from the responses. This aspiration is important to keep in mind because throughout the day’s discussion, the tension between “us” versus “them” and distrust of outsiders was prevalent. Participants questioned “who is the community,” challenged whether government could be a trusted and effective partner when much of what needs to be undone is the result of public policy, acknowledged the existence of white privilege (statistics vary by field, but over 90 percent of design professionals are Caucasian) and the need to accept difference as a “norm” rather than an “other.”

The second part of the convening set out to gain a deeper understanding of the roles and agency different community stakeholders have in affecting change through the community engaged design process. If the goal of community engaged design is to meaningfully involve communities that do not typically have a voice in the process of community change, we must question what “involvement” really means. Who is involved in defining the problem, assembling the team, identifying resources, designing the process, managing implementation, and ultimately making decisions?

The projects presented at the convening represented compelling examples of what it means to empower residents in the process of idea creation rather than reacting to the plans of designers; build structures and spaces that restore dignity and self-respect; and create collaborative, cross-sector processes for neighborhood planning. In each of these examples, designers were integral to shaping both the processes and outcomes that created a greater distribution of participation and benefit.

But we also wanted to understand the ways community, public and private sector stakeholders also participated either from behind, in front of, or alongside the designers. We designed an interactive exercise where participants had to plot the levels of involvement of different stakeholders—government, investors, designers, and community-based organizations—for several steps of a generic design process. Many groups also added residents to their stakeholder list. What we found is that participation varied widely for different project types, and that projects with more steps where all stakeholders were participating at high and moderate levels at the same time demonstrated a higher level of community inclusion, partnership, and trust. These examples appear to break the paradigm of the “us” versus “them”, or “bottom up” versus “top down” processes, and instead move toward a model of shared vision and distributed power, where every stakeholder sector participates at the highest levels of engagement and responsibility from beginning to end.

So what’s the take-away from our discussion? There are four lessons that I think of as essential ingredients for advancing the values and transformative and sustainable impacts of community engaged design.

POWER

The distribution of power and decision-making among community stakeholders must be established early in the design process. These stakeholders must identify who currently has power, who needs it, and what capacities are needed to direct or influence authority. When such power does not yet exist, the community engaged design process must deploy empowerment tactics that make stakeholders stronger and/or more confident in controlling their outcomes and rights.

RESTORATION

In the opening session on the context of race, class and gender, Assata-Nicole Richards said “we are not minorities in our own community.” This speaks to the preconceived social characteristics we often put onto the communities where we work. Community engaged design must embody the acceptance of difference, and through the practice restore dignity, respect, acknowledgement, and legitimacy to communities where these values have been violently stripped away. This restoration is not only about an internal lifting up of community pride, but equally about instilling a genuine respect by the outsiders for the insiders.

OWNERSHIP

Community engaged design must build in local ownership of the process, outcomes ,and benefits, both in material (property, wealth) and non-material (decision-making) ways. With ownership, community stakeholders become empowered and attain an agency to articulate and shape their needs in their own voice. Equally important is ensuring these same local stakeholders obtain economic equity through access to capital, property, and business outcomes.

DISRUPTION

Issues of classism, power imbalance, environmental injustice, unconscious bias, and imperialism are deeply rooted in the places that community engaged design seeks to change. Dismantling this legacy requires bold and disruptive approaches because, as writer and activist Audre Lorde reminds us, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Community engaged design must push against conventional practice, policy, and aesthetics. It must be radical and open in its conversations about race, class inequality, and privilege and bold in its interventions so that they become authentic representations of the communities it serves. It must be unafraid to speak the language of “balanced and fair redistribution” if equity is truly a goal. It must insist on inclusion and diversity (racial, generational, and gender) within the profession, on design teams, and at leadership tables.

I left the day exhausted (managing a conversation about practice among people who do what you do is no easy feat) and enlightened. I believe we successfully set an environment of openness that allowed for tough conversations about race and privilege to emerge and probed deeply into our own efficacy in truly enabling equitable change. I certainly left the day inspired by the work being done by folks in the room, but also reflective about my own agency in designing equity. I hope I, as well as those who attended the convening, will never stop challenging themselves to design with equity plus power, restoration, ownership, and disruption in mind.

Toni L. Griffin is the founder of Urban Planning for the American City, based in New York, and is also Professor in Practice of Urban Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she will teaches and develops values-based planning methodologies through the Just City Design Lab. 

For more from the convening, check out our short video Designing Equity: Thoughts on Community Engaged Design.

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