November 2, 2022
by: James Piacentini and Nicolas Savvides, Assoc. AIA, NOMA
Four individuals sit around a red conference table
Civic Leadership Program development session #5.

On Friday, October 7, the 2022 class of the AIANY Civic Leadership Program (CLP) convened for their fifth and final development session, organized by James Piacentini and Nicolas Savvides, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, which focused on community engagement.

While the design industry tends to frame itself as a tool for the betterment of society, we often encounter backlash and criticism from communities. In light of this, this session explored existing models for community-sourced design and planning methodologies, surveying a diverse range of topics including past and present approaches to community participation, community land trusts and mutual aid, solidarity economics, the role of academia and technology in participatory planning, and “inside out” models that center praxis and knowledge building within communities.

Modalities and Case Studies

The development session began with an introduction to three key modalities for community engagement: advocacy planning, participatory planning, and insurgent planning.

The discussion then turned to the case study of, a Rio de Janeiro-based community-led blog that was instrumental in bringing to light the dangers many communities faced in the buildup to the 2016 Olympic Games. The blog operated as an entry-point for self-advocacy and direct participation, as well as an anti-establishment insurgent tool for mobilization around the disastrous side-effects of the Olympics-related infrastructure investments.

This conversation led to a discussion of current frustrations with the planning and building processes, which, in turn, led to an exploration of opportunities for community power through the Solidarity Economy. The Solidarity Economy aims to “meet human needs through economic activities—like the production and exchange of goods and services—that reinforce values of justice, ecological sustainability, cooperation, and democracy.”

Engaging Communities

After exploring these modalities, a panel of four built environment joined us to discuss the importance of centering community, and how their work aims to support “inside-out” models of community building.

The four panelists discussed how their work intersects with and supports community initiatives and how to use their expertise to serve as allies to to communities that want to control their own neighborhood development. Some of the key topics the panel addressed included:

  • How does community engagement and community leadership define and change the planning and building process?
  • What are examples of social action, solidarity, and community building that work well?
  • How do we understand our work and methodology in the broader context?
  • What are challenges, limitations, and obstacles in our respective roles?
  • How do we ensure we are doing good? How do we define good?
  • How can we become better allies to organizers that intersect with but are outside our profession?

Merida, as a liaison between communities and the city, discussed how she focuses on providing communities with the agency to engage with public institutions that govern their neighborhoods, and why it is so important to reflect on the legacy of racial and class-based oppression to ensure that we can proactively undo that harm moving forward. Susaneck discussed how he uses public data to develop maps that document historical redlining and damaging infrastructure projects to tell the history of vulnerable neighborhoods, and how he shares these tools with community organizers to support their needs and goals. Anousheh shared how the East New York Community Land Trust has and continues to organize for more local ownership and agency in the land use process, and why it is so important for locals to have the power to invest in their own communities. Robinson noted how important building trust and partnership is when working with communities and shared how his design studios are built upon that principle.

All four panelists also discussed the importance of understanding how to use and vet data. While the role of technology in building and sharing information, as well as in organizing, is greater than ever before, it is essential to be critical and reflective of technological practices when working with vulnerable communities.

Community Resources and Mutual Aid

After the panel, we were joined by Kelvin Taitt, the founder of East Brooklyn Mutual Aid, who discussed opportunities for community partnerships. Taitt provided an in-depth look at the types of organizing required to raise funds and to garner both community and professional support for capital projects that are neighborhood-focused and locally relevant. He shared some of the organizing work his organization has been doing with local black business owners and farmers in building access to healthy and affordable food in neighborhoods of color, and how this partnership is leading to the development of multiple retail spaces for affordable or free high-quality food. Taitt noted that how designers and planners can use their skills to imbue and empower these spaces with diasporic African architecture and culture.

Open Forum Activity

Our last event during this development session was a group activity that asked fellows to reflect on what they learned and to imagine themselves as community members reflecting on a proposed development in their area. We chose to use a real-world example, the contentious Innovation Queens proposal currently going through ULURP. Attendees were presented with a shortened version of the Final Environmental Impact Statement required during the public review process for zoning amendment proposals in New York City. As a group, we discussed the complexity of such documents as well as how the public review process does and does not successfully accommodate the community. The exercise asked members to reflect on their affinities as community members, and to then determine what type of coalition and what needs they would want addressed as part of the public review for a new development in their area. This proved to be a meaningful exercise to explore how to embrace vulnerability as citizens and as experts when working toward a common goal.

Core Takeaways

This session aimed to unpack current criticisms of public engagement processes and to explore suggestions for better implementation moving forward. Throughout the session, we identified and clarified a handful of problem areas:

  • People often learn about local projects too late in the process
  • The development process is too complicated for community members to participate
  • The financial cost of entry to locally-owned development is too high
  • Community opinions are often not taken seriously when developers aren’t legally required to do so
  • There is an information asymmetry that leads communities to feel like they lack the tools to advocate for themselves or participate directly in the planning process

We also identified some specific ways for planners, designers, and advocates to support community-led initiatives, including:

  • Mapping stakeholders and resources to identify where power lies and how to engage it
  • Making content accessible by sharing data, maps, stories, and access to information that others might not be able to find on their own.
  • Leaning into Stephen M.R. Covey’s concept of “moving at the speed of trust”
  • Supporting community-led iteration over time by being flexible to community needs

There are many existing vehicles available to develop one’s engagement practices. As designers, we can learn most by stripping away the notion of knowing what’s best based on the tools we learned in school and in our previous practices. Our role is not to push communities into agreeing with our ideas but to advise on opportunities, create clarity, and connect the dots.


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