Community Design Salon Recap

On October 7th, CMG hosted Community Design, the second salon in its three-part Equity in Landscape Architecture series, with the goal of learning how to go beyond traditional community engagement processes by working with communities to build trust, capacity, and to define and design projects together.

Four panelists, Keta Price, David de la Peña, Diane Jones Allen and Dr. Antwi Akom, each briefly presented their work to bring communities and designers together to create more just places. The panelists asked each other questions about their work and debated the merits of traditional participation processes, the role and control of the designer, and the importance of representation on design teams.  

KETA PRICE | Director of Urban and Regional Planning for the East Oakland Collective 

Keta introduced her work with the East Oakland Collective, rethinking community planning and design in East Oakland with the goals of addressing racial and economic injustices and inequalities, as well as striving to eventually eliminate the exclusive tables where these design conversations occur. She seeks to break down barriers to planning and decision making, working with residents on projects like the Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline Access Study and the Oakland People’s Plan.

DAVID DE LA PEÑA | Professor of Landscape Architecture at UC Davis and co-editor of the book “Design as Democracy” 

David discussed his evolving views as an architect and Filipino-American, highlighting parallels in colonial history and traditional community engagement as a process that inserts itself into a community and asserts a dominant role in determining outcomes. He reviewed projects in Sacramento and Tahoe, where he has worked closely with community members to surface issues that are often misunderstood or overlooked by key decision makers.

DIANE JONES ALLEN | Program Director of Landscape at UT Arlington and Principal at DesignJones LLC 

Diane demonstrated how landscape architects can help give voice to vulnerable communities. She has worked with residents in disadvantaged communities in Louisiana and Texas to develop their own strategic plan and process to vet outside developers and designers who were receiving funding for projects within the community.  She emphasized the critical importance of visiting the site together, using language and graphic styles that are understood by the general public and ensuring the community members are holding the plans.

DR. ANTWI AKOM | Founding Director of UCSF/SFSU Social Innovation and Urban Opportunity Lab, Co-founder of Streetwyze 

Antwi shared the importance of grassroots change and decision-making to combat the historic disregard of vulnerable populations, who have too often remained voiceless in city planning. He presented his app, Streetwyze, and how it can help elevate the needs and experiences of a community, which in turn helps designers gather more accurate data and create spaces based on lived experience. 

The Panelists’ conversation emphasized key issues:

FIRST, to produce more equitable landscape projects, designers must put more importance on the role of the community by developing a process of working together, and finding ways of communicating and decision making as equal partners. Starting in academic institutions, discussions of community participation and best practices must be centered as a desired critical step in the process, rather than an afterthought or burden.  

SECOND, current participation practices are often designed to get a rubber stamp of approval from the community for a project that is largely pre-determined. To enable communities to make decisions and to work as equal partners requires more time and resources. Designers should advocate for additional fee for participation to work in more meaningful ways with the community. A few ways to do this are: 

  1. Eliminate exclusive decision making. 
  2. Develop the process of engagement with the communities. 
  3. Meet residents where they are–attend neighborhood association and other community meetings, rather than holding separate meetings for the project.  
  4. Use language and communication techniques that are familiar to the general public.  
  5. Visit the site together.  
  6. Gather data that represents the story on the ground. 
  7. Facilitate community members in making their own determinations regarding the project.  

THIRDLY, as designers we often like to manage the design and engagement process for a project, maintaining control and power throughout. If we are to really create an equitable and meaningful project that is rooted in the needs of a community, we must be willing to release control and create more space for residents and stakeholders to insert themselves and take back control of the process and the land that is inherently theirs.  

FINALLY, designers are not neutral parties in the process–their role as representatives of a client funding a project creates a power imbalance. Designers also have personal bias from their life experience, education and previous work that affects their approach to a project. To build trust and work with a community to develop solutions to combat historic injustices often requires tough conversations, so as Keta says, we must “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”  

Thank you very much to Keta, David, Diane, and Antwi for joining CMG for the salon and sharing your experience!