October 30, 2019

When involved with complex public projects, and particularly when balancing multiple stakeholders, architects can find value in increased user-input throughout the design process. The fifth Development Session of 2019’s AIANY Civic Leadership Program (CLP), “In Practice: Architecture through Participatory Design,” explored different tools for architects to engage these strategies in their work. The session took place on Friday, October 4 at the Center for Architecture and was led by Frank Ball, Assoc. AIA, and Ane Gonzalez Lara, Assoc. AIA.

While other fields, such as planning, have traditionally featured robust training in participatory design, training in these strategies for community engagement has been less common for architects. The goal of this session was to help fill the gap through a combination of research findings and a workshop designed specifically for architects.

The session was organized into two parts. First, invited guest experts shared experiences from their work through case study presentations. Afterwards, attendees completed an exercise about how architects might develop participatory design projects of their own.

In order of appearance, invited guest experts were:

  • Deborah Gans, FAIA, founder and principal architect at Gans and Company and Professor at Pratt Institute
  • Adriana Akers, Project Manager at Gehl
  • Julia McFadden, AIA, Associate Principal at Svigals + Partners
  • Joan Keener, Deputy Director at the NYC Playgrounds Program at The Trust for Public Land

Tools discussed by our experts:

Pop-up interviews – On-location outreach with community members. These are held at nearby points of interest such as bus stops or at project sites where community members are naturally encountered. Ask simple questions: “What’s your favorite place, and why?”

Community pin-up boards – Poster boards for community members to simply pin-up their ideas or needs. These boards often accompany pop-up interviews or community meetings.

Focus groups – Typically used to ask specific questions in locales where target communities are based. Holding focus groups at a place that is convenient for a community is particularly useful for groups who may not have been well-served in the past.

Pilot Projects – Low-risk method used to present ideas to a community as a prototype and elicit feedback. One example is temporarily closing Times Square to vehicular traffic before deciding to do so permanently.

Appointed ambassadors – Local representatives who interface between designers and communities.

Tips and Tricks:

Expertise about place is local – Think of designers as partners to the local community.

Patience is critical – Be cognizant to different speaking styles during outreach and ensure that everyone has time to talk.

Sit in a circle to eliminate hierarchy – Pay attention to the logistics of meeting space. Ensure that everybody can be seen and heard. Avoid spaces with blind spots where participants can become disengaged.

Limit “design speak” – This can discourage some participants from communicating.

Enlist a local partner – Useful for trust building and guidance. Nonprofits and those with community engagement experience are powerful.

The importance of saying yes – Help foster creativity (particularly in the early stages). Consider all ideas equally to kindle creative spirit. Allow participants to discover limitations naturally.

Transparency – Be explicit about the roles that each person is going to have and who has decision-making capacity. Help participants understand budget, physical boundaries, and rules.

Engage local kids as translators – It is not uncommon for language barriers to hinder the participatory design process. Kids in the community often act as trusted conduits and help facilitate conversations.

Avoid inaccessible or uninspiring venues – Certain meeting locales tend to attract people who are already civically engaged, want to go out of their way to attend, and have flexible schedules. Make every attempt to engage with those who otherwise may not have been included and to avoid location biases.

After case study presentations, the CLP class was organized into two teams for a workshop about planning a participatory design project. Each team completed a set of deliverables that included schedule planning, charette mapping, and identifying existing neighborhood resources. The deliverables were then presented and discussed.

While the session aimed to provide participants with tools, it was also understood that honing these skills will take more training, education, and, of course, time. Hence, each participant was given a booklet with additional resources, including Dick and Rick, a comic shared with by Kate Ferguson; Building Bridges: Community and University Partnerships in East St. Louis, a book recommended by Eve Baron from Pratt Institute; the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, suggested by Joan Keener; A Ladder Of Citizen Participation, recommended by Adriana Akers; and ParticipateInDesign.org, a website shared by Delma Palma (who works at NYCHA and is also a fellow CLP member.)

It is important to acknowledge that there are many different types of participatory design, and that this research only covered certain aspects of the topic. One common truth, however, is that participatory design is a respect-based approach to design that requires a lot of extra time and sensitivity. Ultimately, the goal should always be the same: to increase community engagement in the design process.

As architects, learning to lead participatory projects, and responsibly using and incorporating the gathered information can help us tailor our work to the needs of different stakeholders. It is therefore important that we recognize the role that participatory design can have in the success of our projects, and that we incorporate these skills in our training as socially responsible practitioners.


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