August 23, 2017
by: A.L. Hu and Jack Dinning
Non-verbal grouping exercise result. Credit: Center for Architecture
Verbal grouping exercise result. Credit: Center for Architecture
Working together on the grouping exercise. Credit: Center for Architecture
Working together on the grouping exercise. Credit: Center for Architecture

“Engagement” is a term thrown around frequently by architects, but what does it really mean? Who are you engaging? For what purpose? How and when do you do this? How do you build consensus among a community, engaging all stakeholders in a collaborative way that allows them to express their feelings, goals, and values? How do you persuade others to listen? “Safe space” is a term that is rarely used by architects. What does safe space look like in different contexts? For whom is it important and why? How do architects create a safe space that is inclusive of all community members in order to productively engage?

The AIANY Civic Leadership Program (CLP) held its second of five development sessions this past Friday, 08.18.17, with the emphasis on how architects can facilitate inclusive and productive community engagement. Participants were joined by Dr. Sharon Sutton, long-time educator in participatory design processes, and Isella Ramirez, senior project manager at Hester Street Collaborative. The pair shared stories and lessons-learned from their experiences in the field, from struggles with engaging predominantly white populations as a black woman, to the value of engaging children with their honest and thoughtful suggestions.

While these projects ranged in size, scope, demographics, and budget, all seemed to share a common message: community engagement cannot be a checklist. It cannot be a clinical, predefined procedure, conceived by higher ups as a one-size-fits-all solution. It must be responsive, adaptive, and human. It must include the constituents for which it is concerned in the design of the engagement process itself. Only then can there be an environment where all members of a community feel safe and comfortable expressing themselves, and only then can there be trust amongst residents, architects, developers, contractors, and all stakeholders involved in the integrated design process.

We explored subjects of communication, identity, and safe-expression throughout the session. We started with a “show and tell” of artifacts that represent our values and continued with a participatory exercise in which we grouped the artifacts by similarities. Both activities were done once silently and once with verbal communication, highlighting the different forms that communication can take.

Then we heard presentations on multiple real-life community engagement case studies from Sutton and Ramirez, who offered sobering perspectives on the important role that architects play in fostering inclusive engagement where everyone’s views are heard and valued.

Finally, we held a workshop where we collectively set ground rules for future sessions. Inspired by Sutton’s takeaway that civic leadership is “conducting a chorus, not a solo,” these rules are guiding points for how to conduct a chorus—even amongst the participants of CLP. If discussions between architects are not inclusive and open, then their engagement with the community will not be either.


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