Designing with Community: Does Engagement Matter?

Summer used to be construction season when everyone tolerated highway lane closures, early morning jackhammers, and fenced-off sidewalks. These days, construction is a year-round business, and projects are popping up in every neighborhood and municipality in the Cincinnati region. Communities impacted by development are engaged to various levels in the design process.

Why Engage?

For architects, community engagement is part of their professional service. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) even includes civic responsibility in its Code of Ethics stating that “Members should be involved in civic activities as citizens and professionals, and should strive to improve public appreciation and understanding of architecture and the functions and responsibilities of architects.”

AIA’s recently published Guides for Equitable Practice take it a step further — “Architects have a responsibility for making a positive impact on society.” — specifically through equitable and inclusive community engagement.

“Architecture is too public and too important to not engage stakeholders in the process,” says Michael Dingeldein, AIA with Community Design Alliance. “The process is a learning experience for everyone — the designers, developers, and the participants.”

Elizabeth Burnside from the Storefronts Community Arts Squad collects community input for IA redesign.While many public projects require community input, private developments may not include that mandate. Understanding the development process is critical for both architects and citizens.

“When there are zoning changes, combining parcels, building a larger structure than the adjacent neighborhood, or converting a property to a different use, that’s when community involvement may be required by city government,” says David Kirk, AIA with DNK Architects.

Development is a profit-driven sector. Architects and communities need to demonstrate the return on investment (ROI) of community engagement, even on projects that don’t require it. Just as energy cost savings have boosted the inclusion of sustainable design practices, the costs from project delays due to objections from community stakeholders may motivate developers to seek more engagement.

“There is ROI in caring for the community,” says Laila Ammar, AIA a board member of Northsiders Engaged in Sustainable Transformation (NEST). “You can draw a pretty straight line from a great experience on the ground floor to attracting more customers and being able to charge more rent. Design impacts the bottom line.”

Project stakeholders — whether the neighbors or the end users of a building — know what they and their community need. Their experience can provide important knowledge for the design team. And involving stakeholders early in the design phase can make for a smoother development process.

“There is a big benefit in asking people for input,” says Dingeldein. “Asking for feedback about the order of importance of design elements — and asking for their priorities on what is included in the building — gets them engaged in the project.”

While the benefit for the design team, developer, and stakeholders may be clear, there is also a benefit to the wider community. Increasing engagement on design projects often has a ripple effect of encouraging citizens to become more civically minded.

“In Hamilton, our 17 Strong initiative offers opportunities for residents to get involved at the neighborhood level,” says Dingeldein. “We’ve found this encourages them to get engaged in the wider city, learning that ‘we’ is greater than ‘me.’”

Rules of Engagement

The timing of community engagement is critical in a construction project. Presenting a finished design to a community council or neighborhood association for approval, instead of learning from stakeholders early in the design process, can be costly if their opposition delays construction and requires revisions. Planning with public participation in mind provides a timeline that allows for engagement.

Miami University Design Build at 1512 Elm redesign“The pre-design phase needs to be a lot deeper,” says John Blake, AIA, director of the Miami University Center for Community Engagement in Over-the-Rhine. “How do we get engagement earlier, instead of presenting the community with an idea that’s already tens of thousands of dollars into development?”

For some projects, tax credits dictate the project timeline, with deadlines for specific development milestones. In other cases, a state or municipality may be able to require additional time for engagement.

The allocation in the project timeline for engagement also influences the type of input architects and design professionals can get from stakeholders. Some of the more familiar community engagement methods include design workshops (often called charettes), advisory committees, media coverage for a project to seek feedback, and opportunities for input through surveys and meetings.

Charettes bring the design team together with stakeholders to discuss the project through a method that is typically deeper than others. Ideally, charettes occur early in the design process. While the developer is the ultimate decision maker, getting feedback from stakeholders can help shape the project.

“You have to make sure all those that have something to contribute have a voice,” says Kirk.

Identifying stakeholders is specific to each project. A school may include the immediate neighbors, parents, students, teachers, and administrators, as well as community members who may use the facility outside of school hours. An office project may focus on employees and clients of the company.

Surveys — online or through in-person polling — may allow for more individuals to participate in the engagement process. They can be used narrowly to provide input on a specific project, or broadly to shape a vision.

“We do an annual survey to get feedback on the desires and wants of the neighborhood,” says Ammar. “We refer to the survey results at the start of every project and we expect the project designers to go through a community engagement process with us.”

Efforts are being made at the neighborhood and municipal level to bring more consistency to the community engagement process. The Peaslee Neighborhood Center published an Equitable Development Rubric including a development scorecard that evaluates a project’s impact on Jobs and Labor, Community Input, Housing Affordability, and Community Footprint.

Earlier this year, City of Cincinnati Councilmember Greg Landsman proposed an ordinance to adopt a Balanced Development Scorecard. Both efforts sought to link everything from public benefits such as tax incentives or abatements to criteria that demonstrates community benefit.

“The Peaslee Equitable Development Rubric is highly articulated, not anti-development but to encourage critical thought,” says Blake. “We often hear that people feel they don’t belong here. As spaces are privatized and reprogrammed, the way residents engaged is no longer allowed. It’s hard for people to feel they have ownership when decisions are made elsewhere.”

Neighborhood-level organizations are also working to develop proactive strategies to engage with development. In Atlanta, Neighborhood Planning Units bring together several communities to make recommendations on zoning, land use, and other planning-related matters. Cincinnati’s Community Councils may weigh in on requests for everything from liquor permits to variance requests by developers, as well as participate in comprehensive plans, asset inventories, and design guidelines.

Community Councils may also pursue Community Benefit Agreements directly with developers. In specific neighborhoods or business districts, Community Development Corporations (CDCs) implement plans to encourage reinvestment, revitalization, and strategic development.

Entities like the Miami University Center for Community Engagement in Over-the-Rhine are pursuing alternative strategies to facilitate conversations around big picture issues that impact development.

“We plan meaningful installations and events that shine light on a topic, typically an inequity in the community,” says Blake. “Our founder emphasized agitprop. We continue that tradition with podcasts, performances, and installations that bring together residents, community members, developers, and elected officials for conversations.”

At the municipal level, governments can encourage community engagement by requiring projects to seek variances or public funding. In some jurisdictions projects are fast tracked through the development and permitting process if they include robust community engagements.

Conflict creates opportunity

Buildings are intended to last for decades, sometimes even a century or more. It’s understandable that discussion around a new development may be challenging with stakeholders expressing conflicting priorities.

“Urbanity requires working through difference,” says Blake. “And design can be about contrast. The components can be at odds, or express difference, and still work.”

Architects and design professionals not only listen to the stakeholders but encourage them to listen to each other.

“The community engagement process brings together a lot of optimists, but when you hit roadblocks, it shows the kind of optimist you are — do you stop or keep going?” says Dingeldein. “You have to find out where the divisions are, acknowledge the dissonance in the room, then exchange ideas or lead conversations about the differing positions. You have to work to get people moving in the same direction.”

In some cases, community engagement might necessitate working with each stakeholder group separately, at least initially, to understand where there may be points of friction.

“Whether you’re an insider or an outsider influences how you go about the community engagement process,” says Kirk. “Architects have to be aware of the conditions in which the development will take place. You have to be careful when you go into a community you don’t know.”

Architects and design professionals leading community engagement efforts must also explain the process to participants. This includes defining insider terms, but also being clear with stakeholders about the project status and what elements can still be changed, as well as the type of input being sought.

“Be astute enough to comprehend the group you’re talking to,” says Kirk. “Use the words you want to use but also define those terms. From a standpoint of community engagement, architects have to evolve, be quick on your feet, have the wherewithal to change in response to the community.”

“We agree early in the process how are we going to make decisions together,” says Ammar. “We don’t design by negotiation of pieces and parts. Everything must fit the overall project concept.”

It’s also critical to set expectations for participants. Projects have designated budgets, and the final design needs to fit within those financial parameters. Feedback on the use of the space is typically more beneficial to the design process than concentrating on design details.

“We try to focus on the community needs, like who will use it and how the project should function,” says Ammar. “For design issues, we have a small design review committee that represents the community. They can provide constructive criticism and talk about the project to their peers.”

The Future of Engagement

Charettes are not a one-size-fits-all solution to community engagement. The language of the design process may be exclusionary, and a workshop might be inadequate to address the deeper issues impacting development.

“How do we really get at the things that are dividing our community?” asks Blake. “Those issues are the predecessors of design. There are successful programs addressing environmental sustainability. It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to include social sustainability that considers displacement, accessibility, and who benefits from a project.”

Having a seat at the table. Getting a voice in the room. These sayings hint at a larger truth: participation is power. The question then becomes, how to not only increase participation, but make it more meaningful in shaping our built environment.

Citizen engagement is a critical first step: You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know it exists. Getting involved with community councils, Main Street programs, and other similar organizations is a start. Subscribing to notifications from your municipality through services like the Engage Cincy Action Team (ECAT) or even social media platforms where announcements about commission and review board meetings are made.

“Some communities have a residents council or redevelopment group that understands the impact of development, so they get involved early to shape or stop a project,” says Kirk. “Others are not as engaged and are unprepared when development projects arise.”

Once you’re connected to communication channels, show up. Attend council and committee meetings. Participate in the process.

“When you are engaged and sit in on a meeting to hear what’s required by developer, you learn that it really is the process of making a deal: the city gives something, the developer gives something,” says Dingeldein. “When you participate, even if you lose, it feels good to know that you may have helped shift the conversation, and that may have impact over a longer time horizon.”

In addition to getting informed and participating, people concerned about development need to become experts in good design.

“We have such a rich architectural fabric and people are passionate about it, but also unsure how that shapes future development,” says Ammar. “We love historic architecture because its honest. New construction shouldn’t look historic. Faux historicism shows a lack of understanding of what we can create today.”

Not only should individual citizens be familiar with design and engagement principles, but they should also demand their elected and civic officials do the same.

As communities across the tristate become desirable places to live and work, municipalities have more leverage to require better design and more stakeholder engagement. Working together, citizens, architects, developers, and elected officials can co-create a safe, healthy, and equitable built environment.

Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.