The Community as Co-Creator

Why Community Engagement is Crucial to an Inclusive Design Process

January 10, 2022

Principal, NBBJ

The built environment has a profound role in shaping our community—reflecting values, enabling social connections and supporting well-being. Research also shows a connection between the design of a community and its effect on social engagement, physical and mental health. In Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, the author examines the effect of the Chicago heat wave of the late 1990s on two different communities: one with high levels of social engagement and the other with poor social structure. Death rates in the more connected community were much lower because residents were less isolated physically and socially than in the less engaged community.

To create cities that reflect the needs and values of their inhabitants and enable them to thrive, it is necessary to design both with and for the community. Planning, design, development and regulations all impact how people experience their urban environment, but ultimately the community members themselves are the experts in their unique place. Therefore, they should serve as co-creators in the design process, helping to navigate the social and cultural intricacies and shape the near- and longer-term vision for where they live, work and play.

When designing new urban environments, look for a process that incorporates the framework established below to ensure inclusive and community-focused outcomes.

Establish Motivations

Meaningful engagement requires an empathetic mindset and an authentic desire to be inclusive. But it also requires honest conversations that establish motivations, embrace challenges and acknowledge limitations. At the onset of the design process, start by asking a series of questions. For example: What is our community context? Why do we want to engage the community? Who are we designing for? Who will be impacted by the project? How engaged, excited or anxious is the community about this project? What resources do we have to work with? And how will we measure success?

Craft an Engagement Strategy

The engagement strategy clearly outlines the following: the diverse community groups and individuals to include; the purpose of each engagement session; the preferred method, format and location for each session; milestones within the planning process where engagement will be most meaningful; and a feedback loop to build consensus through the design process.

Students at local schools were invited to share their thoughts and ideas for the Nickel Plate Trail using the prompt, “I want 4.5 miles of…”

Be Creative. Be Flexible

For the Nickel Plate Trail, a rails-to-trails adaptive reuse of a 4.5 mile stretch of an abandoned railway corridor in Fishers, Indiana, a robust six-month community engagement and planning program was instrumental in shaping the direction of the project. Rather than limiting community meetings to a typical town hall or community meeting forum, the design team set up booths at farmer’s markets, arranged happy hours at local bars, organized movies in the park and even visited local schools to engage students. These efforts resulted in a trusting relationship in which community members felt comfortable sharing their feedback, insights and ideas—and made the process enjoyable for everyone.

In addition, the pandemic has widened the toolkit of methods and approaches to seamlessly expand engagement into the digital realm and increase flexibility. Tools such as Zoom and other video platforms, online surveys, live interactive polls like Mentimeter and digital whiteboard tools like Mural are democratizing the process of providing and capturing community input. And like so many areas of post-pandemic life, hybrid models of both in-person and digital engagement have become second nature, enabling design teams to connect with more members of the community. This is true of the planning study underway for Livingston Avenue, a major roadway corridor that straddles the cities of Bexley and Columbus, Ohio. Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, the project has been able to successfully engage both the community and stakeholders by employing a range of digital and hybrid engagement tools.

Facilitate Dialogue

In a community engagement framework, the community should act as the experts while the designer plays the role of facilitator. This means listening, engaging and empathizing, and—most importantly—letting the community guide the process. Depending on the context and complexity involved, it may be beneficial to consider bringing on a trained community outreach expert as the facilitator.

The goal of the facilitator is to host community conversations in a respectful and inclusive manner. Set ground rules for the engagement, map out the expected outcomes, be curious (ask questions), manage crowd dynamics to ensure all voices are heard, acknowledge emotions, keep it simple and draw out ideas. Validate the community’s contribution by translating their insights into design and planning considerations, and continue to solicit their input throughout the design process.

For example, for a new healthcare clinic designed to serve BIPOC youth in Seattle, the design team quickly recognized that a conventional design process would not lead to the outcomes the community needed most. Instead, they embedded themselves with doctors, patients, families and neighbors. The result is a clinic that addresses the systemic inequities that lead to negative health outcomes for underrepresented people by allowing the community to define what health, design and success means for them.

Translate Community Input into Design Outcomes

Translating and giving form to the insights and ideas from the community dictates how they will manifest in physical space. This can be done by creating as many avenues as possible for community input and feedback, from low-tech tools like LEGO blocks, building models and open house charrettes to communicating design options using immersive VR experiences. On the Nickel Plate Trail project, the 1,000+ ideas and pieces of community input directly informed the design of the trail. The design charrettes also inspired the team to draw upon the cultural value of the railway to the region, more explicitly integrating the history of the site into design and programming elements that use materials from the original railway.

The community engagement process for the West Bridge Street Framework Plan in Dublin, OH included a LEGO charrette.

Ultimately, the community engagement process is designed to align with clients and stakeholders on a shared vision and design direction and then to protect and promote the best interest of the community. Ideally, the community input gathered, paired with embedded consensus-building throughout the project, will result in a built environment that the community will support and love because they had a hand in shaping it.

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