While architects and developers remain the trained professionals behind design and development, there is a new subject matter expert entering the scope. Public opinions from those that live and work in the communities being built are proving to be an integral part of building the best possible outcome.
Taking into consideration the desires of the community and addressing concerns begins with the recognition that feedback from the public isn’t an obstacle, it’s an opportunity to create projects that are better suited for the neighborhoods they inhabit and the communities they serve.
Our own experience with community architecture has reinforced those ideas—and has helped us understand and refine a range of specific strategies to help get the public involved in and excited about the process, and to make sure that community feedback is integrated into the design process in a meaningful way.
The End User
With any public project, it is a good idea for the architect, developer, and/or public/municipal entity to secure community participation up front as early in the process as possible to ensure their interests are prioritized. While these entities are serving as a steward for the community, and tax dollars are being managed by the government or civic authorities, the ultimate end user is the community, and that should reflect in the development.
A Shared Vision
Early community engagement gives you, as an architect, developer and/or investor, the opportunity to not just secure feedback, but to share and shape a vision for what the project will look like. The value of that is profound and extends well beyond any short-term streamlining benefits during the development process. Cultivating a relationship with the community that lives in the areas we work and build can have a significant long-term impact on a project that translates into real dollars.
Voice and Value
Residents, civic officials and other stakeholders know their community better than anyone. Which is why their thoughts on things like traffic patterns, noise and potential neighborhood disruptions should be given a lot of weight. For the Mitchell J. Brown Fire Station No. 3, an $8.1 million project we completed for the City of Columbus, community input was enormously beneficial. We used community feedback to inform everything from how the building should be positioned on the site, to addressing issues with vehicular traffic and the volume and location of audio alerts for firefighters. If it’s handled correctly, not only will the design and the finished project be better off, but the community will recognize that their input is valued and that you are considering their views. People want to have a voice. And when they are heard—and especially when they see that their input is being integrated into the design—they really have a sense of ownership, and will be better neighbors to the project.
With that in mind, it’s important to take concrete and proactive steps to foster that civic/community engagement. Schedule community meetings—particularly during the design stage and early stages of development—to get input and feedback. Use all the tools at your disposal, both to communicate your vision and to get a better feel for the priorities and perspectives of the community. Hand out questionnaires and surveys, involve community representatives in design charrettes or public workshops, and schedule design presentations where the public can view and comment on schematics. Present plans and solicit feedback using social media platforms. It’s also a good idea to take the initiative to set up meetings with neighborhood associations and other local organizations and commissions.
An Open Mind
It should go without saying, but keeping an open mind throughout the process of community engagement is essential. Design and development professionals should make every attempt to address community concerns and incorporate public input to the extent that it’s logistically and financially feasible. It’s important to foster a true dialogue: the goal should be constructive engagement instead of an antagonistic dynamic. Remain flexible and empathic. And don’t just listen to what they don’t want: understand what they do want!
Tools and Tactics
From an architecture/design perspective, there are several specific tools and tactics that can be used to create projects that are more community friendly and contextually sensitive. Be cognizant of the existing community style. For example, use stone in projects to maintain the integrity of an older Main St., or use similar materials or colors in your development that are used in the surrounding community. Buildings can have a more residential aesthetic, with forms and architectural details designed to better fit in with built surroundings; and scale can be calibrated in a way that considers community standards. Be sure to address accessibility and surrounding infrastructure, from vehicular traffic to walkways and pedestrian-friendly features. Be aware also, that you should be thoughtful about the potential for future evolution as community needs may evolve over time.
Public and community design is often socially conscious, and is subsequently more likely to include things like green building standards and the inclusion of public art. Wyandot Lodge, a $3 million, 5,800-square-foot facility we designed in Columbus, Ohio, is a perfect example. The new lodge and educational center for the City of Columbus’ McKnight Outdoor Education Center was designed as a Net Zero Energy structure. In addition to integrating several design details to optimize energy savings and make the facility useful as a public space (and capable of accommodating school visits and educational sessions), M+A responded to community concerns by making sure the facility wouldn’t detract from the tranquil nature of the surrounding park. The modest size of the facility, the use of natural materials like stone and wood, and a color palette built around subtle earth tones all speak to that mandate.
Ultimately, design professionals would be wise to consider not just a project’s architectural/aesthetic context, but also the civic and historical backdrop, and the current cultural and social landscape. No project can ignore realities on the ground. Every project can benefit from public participation in the design and development process, and from thoughtfully integrating community feedback, perspectives and priorities.