How Can We Design with Communities While Apart?

Video can be a reciprocal tool for designers and community members to document observations and share posts for discussions. This media was explored by Nicky Bloom, a Mithun landscape designer, in her University of Washington College of the Built Environment thesis called “Tideflat Tales.” / Nicky Bloom

By Deb Guenther, FASLA

In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, do we wait for social distancing to end or start experimenting and adapting our community outreach models?

Public agencies, design teams, and communities face uncharted territories, not without risk. Our ability to advance projects relies on the insights and magic that emerge from interactive, person-to-person community gatherings.

Can we successfully forge camaraderie and casual interaction online? What are the real and perceived barriers to equitable access to online interaction and how can they be addressed?

Does the pandemic actually present an opportunity to widen audiences and level the playing field?

As we adjust our short- and long-term approaches, here are a few considerations:

Put equity front and center

Do we really know what we think we know? Assumptions about the digital divide – who has Internet access and who doesn’t – can be misunderstood, as reported by the Center for Internet Society. Remember this mantra about the importance of a community input: “nothing about us, without us, is for us.”

It is critical to hear directly from the community what the barriers are. This takes more time. Some of the barriers include English as a second language; childcare and eldercare at a time when health issues are even more pressing; and a lack of or limited Internet access and associated support.

There are many relatively inexpensive solutions such as free webcams, hot spots, or phone data top ups. Filling the gaps identified by community members can help support advisory councils and allow community informed work to continue.

The health crisis could push the landscape architecture profession to make initial outreach about barriers to access commonplace.

Build a welcoming atmosphere

Create personal connections, stimulate creativity, and support trust. In order to achieve these goals, consider the context of our revised daily lives: localized experiences; more free time for some, less for others; individualized experiences as well as more multi-generational interaction; interpersonal tensions and mental health challenges; more time outside for some and more time inside for others.

How can we adapt our familiar community engagement goals – diverse communication style choices, interaction between residents, reporting back to the group – to the new normal?

Some ideas include self-care and personal experience check-ins; self-guided walking tours; scavenger hunts; general gamification of activities; sharing on-site design team and community member smart phone videos; and prompting storytelling through video, written or illustrated media.

There are exciting possibilities for video analysis, which builds on the power of emotion in a way traditional analysis does not.

An exploration of site analysis through accessible media of video and audio suggests these tools can create more emotive connections and understanding of sites. “Tideflat Tales” / Nicky Bloom
Temporary art by local students installed along shared public trails raise spirits and awareness and builds pride around community participation. / Mithun

Remain flexible and appreciative

Plan the first meeting and adapt with the next. It’s hard to anticipate right now what will matter. Each community is having collective and unique experiences that will influence their priorities going forward. Keep the outlines broad and any necessary expectations clear. Reflect on those expectations to ensure they are truly the basic ones.

Share back what was heard and confirm the value of participation. Constantly tailor the process to the audience interests and needs to influence how the interaction occurs and how it is curated.

Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic can be the advent of a much more inclusive process.

Design intentional, substantive participation experiences

Establish stipends for community ambassadors and residents who co-create with the design team and bring the expertise of their lived experience to the project. Ask what types of leadership and mentorship opportunities could be built into the process to provide career opportunities during uncertain times.

This is where diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations meets design – where designed process outcomes are much broader and long lasting than the physical design itself.

An intentional process in this pandemic-conscious world could also result in valuable policy input and revisions as agencies scramble to keep their work meaningful and valuable to constituents. Building in opportunities to inform policy helps people connect with the democratic process, which is increasingly critical when chaos is also an opening for autocracy.

There is opportunity for this health crisis to accelerate democratic, community-driven design.

Be alert. Create space for true narrative

A silver lining of disruption is that previously unheard narratives can emerge and provide a more holistic picture of our world. In public settings, social norms tamp down sharing of difficult stories. But difficult stories are the foundation of racial reconciliation and transparency. It leads us to acknowledge we operate in a gray world, not black and white.

Challenging stories are the foundation of building trust. As research demonstrates, compelling stories stick with people. We can create safe space by consistently providing a venue to share those stories, celebrating the sharing of stories and their impact, and curating them to create a constructive environment.

Repeating the invitation to share stories in multiple meetings communicates this is a deep desire, not a superficial request, and will prompt different results in different times and settings among people.

The pandemic could result in greater listening – the ability to hear another person’s story, one that may be in conflict with your own beliefs or assumptions.

With thoughtful outreach, but acknowledgement that we will make mistakes, we can bring our design creativity to a community-informed design process. Much can emerge from this crisis that will improve business as usual.

Let’s keep sharing the many ways to accelerate relationship building apart and together. We look forward to hearing the collective wisdom.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Deb Guenther, FASLA, is a design partner at Mithun, an interdisciplinary firm focused on design for positive change and located in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles. She is working with community members, utility districts, and transit agencies to shape city infrastructure together.

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