Participatory Design Must Evolve

Design as Democracy / Island Press

Participatory design is “hands-on democracy in action,” argue the editors of the impressive new book Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity. Participatory design (also known as cooperative or co-design) is a process in which a designer actively involves all stakeholders in a design process. Unfortunately, many of the best-known techniques to enable this approach, which have been used for the past few decades, have become stale. This has led to complacency among designers, and less-than-ideal outcomes for communities that need their help. To revitalize the approach and achieve better results, the authors call for making participatory design “truly democratic.” Furthermore, it must become “contextual, open, experiential, substantive, and holistic.”

One can tell the many editors, who are all landscape architects and professors, wrestled with themselves and perhaps each other to come up with a new synthesis of this design approach. The hard work of David de la Pena; Diane Jones Allen, ASLA; Randolph T. Hester, Jr, FASLA; Jeffrey Hou, ASLA; Laura J. Lawson, ASLA; and Marcia J. McNally paid off: the book is a well-organized compendium of proven techniques designers can apply in their projects. Their collective voice is determined and impassioned, which really helps make their case.

The editors note up front that none of these techniques will work if designers don’t have the right mindset when they begin to engage a set of stakeholders. And the right mindset can only come from close examination of oneself — one’s own history, preferences, position in society, and hidden biases. One section is worth quoting at length:

“Once we are clear on who we are are, we can see our position in society relative to the cultural and economic context of the community in which we plan to work. This in turn equips us with empathy rather than sympathy. This distinction is important because designers can find themselves in communities with acute needs that have been repeatedly ignored. Although providing technical assistance to a community in need is a critical role of participatory design, responding with sorrow or pity hampers one’s effectiveness. Sympathy, even when its grounded in understanding, can subtly convey to residents that only the designer’s expertise counts. Another pitfall lies in creating a patronizing process that diminishes the community’s self-worth.” For the editors, only fully self-aware designers can succeed at this work. Furthermore, designers who come in as arrogant experts risk doing real damage.

The book flows through the design process — starting with tools to help a designer achieve self-awareness, and then moving through how to interact with and learn from communities, reach an accommodation between “expert” and local knowledge, “catalyze new visions and certainty about the best course of action,” co-generate designs and co-construct, evaluate and improve, and, finally, how to “exercise power to make community improvements” actually happen. Each section has a few well-chosen techniques selected by invited contributors, which are detailed, illustrated with a case story, and then further qualified with a reflection on how to best apply.

One technique that helps a designer assemble the right team at the beginning is called “What’s in it for us?” Julie Stevens, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at Iowa State University, explained how she applied this tool to develop and manage a team for a landscape project at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW). Stevens said the assessment helped her think more comprehensively about who should be on the project.

Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) garden / Kim Gaspari Photography

“I nearly dismissed an application from a potential intern, because his essay did not express any compassion for the prison population. In terms of what he offered to the project, I recorded that he had experience with construction tools and equipment. In terms of what the project could do for him, I recorded that this young, white man might benefit from a summer working with women from much less privileged and much more racially diverse backgrounds, which could open up new worlds as he engaged people both informally and through design. His inclusion on the team was validated when I saw him give an incarcerated woman a high-five after completing a difficult retaining wall.”

In the section “Going to the People’s Coming,” which covers how to start engaging with and learning from a community, Chelina Odbert and Joe Mulligan, with Kounkuey Design Initiative, discuss an ingenious technique they call Community Camera: Piga Picha, a “photo activity that helps residents introduce their community to an outside project team, and in the process, to see familiar places through a new lens.” Using the approach in Kibera, large slum of Nairobi, Kenya, they gave 30 diverse community participants a disposable camera. When the residents then got the photos back, “it was clear they were seeing very familiar sites from a new perspective — as spaces worthy of design consideration.”

Members of the Piga Picha group / Kounkuey Design Initiative

The next chapter is on “Experting,” which focuses on how to “transfer the title of expert to members of the community” in order to further empower them and build their capacity to achieve goals. In one technique described by Kofi Boone, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at North Carolina State University, cell phones are passed out to community members so they can be used to create video diaries. This way “community members can document their place-based stories independently, on their own time, in their own voices.” For a new park in the neighborhood of Chavis Park, a historically African American community, videos, which ranged from 30 seconds to 7 minutes, were geo-tagged to an interactive map.

Cell phone diaries / North Carolina State University College of Design’s Downtown Studio

Smart, proven techniques cover how to encourage communities to prioritize efforts through fair and transparent voting processes using dots and tokens and create a shared vision through citizen-generated collages. Then, Design as Democracy delves into innovative ways to get to meat of these projects — and really co-generate designs and co-construct.

On a simple level, co-generating first involves breaking down the design process into easy-to-understand elements and options that community members can then manipulate and use to create design options. But as they create the design together, the community enters a process that “requires negotiation and sometimes creative compromise.” Through this process, the outside designer can then “actively nurture” multiple designers in the community, giving them agency and authority. Community design teams can also use green rubber stamps to quickly illustrate priorities, feast on a “design buffet” and “collect food (design ingredients)” that can result in a novel design, or place representative models on a mat as part of “animated visioning.”

Co-constructing, or building together, then lets everyone experience the “joy and energy of building,” which in turn “imbues a sense of accomplishment, pride, and ownership like nothing else can.” To avoid burnout from long visioning and co-design processes, the contributors in this section instead call for quick prototyping and making things spontaneously. The goal is to make sure the process doesn’t become a drag. “Making alleviates frustration, anger, and apathy from process without products.”

More powerfully, co-constructing with a community can be restorative in itself. In a project at the Rab Psychiatric Public Hospital, the Design/Build Service Learning Studio at the University of Washington redesigned 50 percent of the landscape as healing gardens and then co-constructed them with patients and staff. Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, explains that despite the challenges, “the patients commented they found the act of building therapeutic. Many said they gained a sense of purpose, renewed self-confidence and self-esteem, and an appreciation for the garden work as a respite from the mandated intensive and exhausting therapies.”

Members of the design team socialize with a patient / Daniel Winterbottom

The editors conclude that “design is a political act.” And “participatory design is one of the most effective means in a democracy to create cities and landscapes that distribute resources and shape places to be sustainable, representative of diverse publics, well informed by local wisdom, and just.” But they seem to disagree on the extent to which participatory design should be used to actively fight injustice.

While landscape architects and planners should of course work with communities to map environmental injustices, should they engage in conflict to achieve their ends? For Randolph Hester, FASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture at University of California at Berkeley, “no truly transformative design occurs without confronting status quo powers.”

But going back to the beginning for a moment: What this book leaves out is basic guidance on to how to find and partner with existing community leaders who are seeking positive change, who have been fighting injustice. How can a planner or designer know they’ve found the right client in a community? What are the tools for evaluating whether to engage or not? And what does a designer owe a client if the client’s goals end up being different from the community’s?

Plus, grey areas around financing seem to be avoided. For example, many participatory design projects in developing countries are financed by government aid agencies, companies, and non-profits with their own agendas. How can an ethical, self-aware designer establish and finance projects in a transparent way that builds trust with a community?

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