We live in divided times. Extreme forces of pandemic and political polarization are challenging not only essential interactions between individuals and institutions, but the very relationship with the ecosystems through which our lives are sustained. These conflicts cannot continue without dire consequences for future generations. Through our capacity to organize and construct solutions to complex problems, and our skills with engaging a wide range of stakeholders, designers and planners can have an important role to play in helping to heal these divisions. It is these skills that can lead to a place of unity, where the people who will be most impacted by planning and design decisions are honestly and authentically engaged in determining the outcomes. That place is called Community CoDesign.
Most cultures have an expression that illustrates our collective yearning for unity. For centuries, native Hawaiians have used the term Kuliana, which refers to the reciprocal relationship between the person who is responsible and the thing which they are responsible for. The tribes of West Africa use another term, ubuntu, which means “I am because we are.” In America, there’s a similar word that expresses these fundamental principles of harmony and equity. That word is democracy. It is an elusive term, and after almost two and a half centuries of trial and error, the thing itself remains an imperfect work in progress.
In the design arts, one significant example of community codesign emerged during the Great Depression through the WPA’s Federal Art Project, when teams of planners, designers, artists, and artisans came together to craft a whole-community art form, expressed through the design of public spaces, architecture, sculpture, murals, set design, theatrical performance, music, and dance. Multidisciplinary collaborations became a tool for rallying pride, creating employment, illuminating common necessities, arousing an awareness of the suffering of people, and drawing attention to the need for the conservation of natural resources.
This community-centered enterprise had a profound impact on design. New post offices, schools, government buildings and public art inspired communities to see themselves through a more hopeful lens. The theme even carried over into the corporate sector, through projects like New York City’s Rockefeller Center, where a series of public places included collaboratively designed artworks that are still celebrated for their enduring popularity.
So, how could we reconstitute something like this collaborative and empathic approach to placemaking to address the growing complexities of climate change, public health, endemic poverty, social inequities and other challenges of the 21st century? The good news is that this Community CoDesign approach to planning and design is already taking form. What are some of the underlying principles that can help it succeed?
For our firm, the idea of codesign goes back to 1982, when we were scurrying to get ready for the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair. Concordia’s first project was transforming the old Jax Brewery, located on historic Jackson Square in the French Quarter, into a festival marketplace, in less than two years. This was a commercial development involving two competing historic preservation entities, thirteen government agencies, a notoriously committed neighborhood organization (the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates), and a young, ambitious developer, who wanted to make his mark on the city. Needless to say, all of them had different visions, agendas, and goals. I felt like the conductor of a very unruly orchestra. At the time, we didn’t have a phrase to describe exactly what we were doing—corralling all of those voices into a coherent whole, while still keeping the project alive and moving forward—but it’s clear now that we were learning to let go, learning to share and shape a collective vision, planting the seeds for our version of Community CoDesign.
These lessons came in handy some 20 years later, when, in 2005, the city of New Orleans was inundated by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, with so much still uncertain, the city struggled to find consensus. After two failed top-down plans—one by the mayor, the other by the city council—were rejected by the community, the Rockefeller Foundation and others funded the Greater New Orleans Foundation to implement an emergency bottom-up planning process. Time was of the essence; billions of dollars in desperately needed federal aid was dependent on the successful adoption of a comprehensive recovery plan. Our firm was charged with organizing and leading the effort. Over a five-month period, with support from a collaborative team of local and national planning and design firms, more than 9,000 residents were engaged in codesigning the Unified New Orleans Plan. With the help of interactive television (this was pre-Zoom), we were able to reach out to exiled residents in Houston, Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Atlanta and achieve our critical goals of 60% African American participation and eventual citywide neighborhood approval.
Other projects have included extensive codesign with community residents, including elementary, middle and high school students, in the creation of community centered schools; deep collaborations with an algebraic topologist and a physicist, along with musicians and visual artists, resulting in the embedding of co-created artworks into the fabric of our building designs. More recently we collaborated on an intensive regional plan called LA SAFE, where more than three thousand residents of coastal Louisiana participated in reckoning with the impacts of climate change and the potentially catastrophic challenges it will pose.
Over the past 38 years, our team has developed a methodology based on many of our most meaningful lessons. That methodology, called the roundtable, is grounded by both a set of values and a set of principles. We’ve found that six keywords—Equity, Respect, Transparency, Growth, Openness, Gratitude—guide the core values embodied in successful Community CoDesign. These values not only shape our behavior as planners and designers, but they also tie us to the citizens that we are here to serve. They are also reminders of our commitment to these goals.
Community CoDesign is also reinforced by six key principles. This is the how-to part of the approach: since codesign is, by definition, a holistic exercise, the principles are all interconnected and dependent on one another. You can’t do one, in other words, without doing them all.
One of the most fundamental elements of codesign is the need for honesty. Whether the process is with a small group, or residents of a whole neighborhood, town or region, it is critical that stakeholders trust the process they are being asked to participate in. Too many times, planners and architects (or their clients) can be persuaded to implement an engagement process that is more top-down than bottom-up. The result is that the effort is perceived as transactional, only to check a box as a required project deliverable. True community engagement is more cooperative and collaborative than that. It’s more like jazz, where the creative delivery system is more interactive, collective, and improvisational—rather than a conductor-directed orchestra, where the outcomes are filtered through a predetermined musical score.
Authentic Stakeholder Representation
An essential part of the process is making sure the right people are in the room. It seems like an obvious point, but it’s far too often ignored: the people who will be most impacted by the design outcome must be present; this is an absolute prerequisite. But in order for them to commit their valuable time to any engagement process, they have to trust that their voices will be heard and respected. Make no mistake about it, community members want to have agency over their destiny. So small crowds at stakeholder meetings should not be seen as a lack of interest or commitment, but more likely as an indication of distrust, often created by decades of half-hearted or downright manipulated community meetings. In places where this trust has been violated, some extensive work may be required just to bring people back to the table.
Drawing From Local Talent and Leadership
In order to maximize the benefits of citizen input, it can be useful to draw from local talent and leadership for assistance. Too many times outside consultants are hired to lead a community-centered planning or design process with limited information about the complex set of issues and opportunities at hand. And while it can in some ways be an advantage to see things with a fresh eye, outside experts don’t always know best. For this reason, hiring and training local “community fellows” to assist with the planning process can mitigate the foibles that sometimes evolve from too many ill-conceived assumptions or forgone conclusions. Planners must work with the communities they are serving and respect and be willing to tap into their collective wisdom.
An “All-One” Strategy
Community-centered design is different from more narrowly focused strategies in that its success depends on the ability to simultaneously process a wide range of ideas and points of view. This is why planners and designers interested in codesign may want to learn more about complex adaptive systems, systems thinking, even contemporary game theory, where a knowledge of feedback loops, actions, and strategies can make the work both more intriguing and enjoyable. The application of this knowledge can also determine the kinds of activities designed to solicit the broadest possible stakeholder participation, as well as the tools employed to adequately process the outcomes of those activities.
Willingness to Let Go When the Need Arises
Most planners and designers have been trained to take charge and deliver outcomes based on their own ideas and inspirations. That’s why so many come into the codesign process with the mistaken goal of getting the community’s “buy-in” on their preconceived design solutions. It’s also why the ability to let go, to go with the flow and allow a shared vision to emerge, can at times feel counterintuitive in light of years of professional training and programming. However, an honest commitment to maintaining an open mind can lead to even more creative and effective outcomes. Imagine that the best idea is not one that comes from any single source, but instead from an amalgamation of the best ideas in the room. Think of community codesign as a way to make your own work more beautiful, impactful and meaningful for the public we are all meant to serve.
Commitment to the Common Good
By far the most important attribute for any truly democratic planning or design process is a commitment to the common good, a belief that all of us are smarter than any of us, and that through an open process grounded in honesty and integrity, new solutions can be found. This is why every practitioner of Community CoDesign must first embrace a strategy where concepts and ideas are genuinely solicited and honestly applied to the final outcomes. There’s a pronounced difference between community consensus that’s been coerced (through slick powerpoint presentations and expert testimony) and support that’s been earned and shared. And while every designer will have their own methods for applying these principles—perhaps modifying, expanding, or reinventing them as needed—the end goal of our profession’s collective enterprise must be a process for community CoDesign that is authentic, enjoyable, and beneficial for all concerned. (Even the planners!)
Maintaining a commitment to community service in the face of so many financial and egotistical distractions can be the greatest challenge of them all. But after almost 50 years of struggling with these challenges, I am convinced that a legacy of service to the community is worth fighting for. And the fight will be formidable. Climate change is upon us: given current rates of sea level rise, it’s likely that millions of people will be forced inland in the decades ahead; others will be faced with increased wildfires, drought and water shortages. Our maps will be radically redrawn. All of this will present unprecedented challenges for planning. The fate of future generations will be determined by the swift, smart and compassionate actions of today’s planning and design professionals, working hand and heart with the public they are here to serve. Only a shared vision will succeed and prevail.
Featured image via the City of Denver.