By Meaghan Markiewicz and Aidan Coleman
We attended a recent presentation and discussion on ‘Designing Boston: Building Community’ conducted by the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) about what it means to practice public interest design. In this conversation, public interest design is used to describe a participatory design practice focused on social, ecological and economic sustainability for communities through addressing societal issues. A range of perspectives were voiced during the talk, from large architectural firms providing pro-bono work to design-build studio classes.
Public interest design can take many forms but often it will address large scale societal problems such as homelessness, affordable housing and sustainability. This type of work requires more than the typical design team and how they are engaged can have a dramatic influence on the outcome of a project. For example, Gail M. Sullivan spoke about Studio G’s Y2Y Harvard Square project for homeless youth. Following a participatory process, the firm sat down and listened to the needs of these individuals. The design challenge was to create spaces that are gender neutral and yet are also safe for those who identify as female. The resulting design includes individualized sleeping and bathroom areas designed for all end user’s needs. While this architectural design alone cannot solve homelessness, it is an example of using architecture as a platform to facilitate the support efforts of organizations that address societal issues. How much should this mindset be incorporated into the daily practice of architects and designers? Can it be used to implement a more democratic design process in typical projects? What are the implications of this process?
When architectural designs are vetted through a public process, a large number of voices influencing the design parameters can increase the difficulty of consensus building. In these instances the architect often takes on the role of mediator, weighing and balancing the concerns of the public and the local government with the needs of the project proponent. On one side, the public may be viewing the developer as an outsider that does not understand all the intricacies of a certain community. This perspective can lead to pushback, but as Sam Batchelor from DesignLab noted in the discussion, it is a necessary and healthy type of tension and challenge. It requires the architect to design a compromise that promotes a developer’s vision but in return respects the public’s concerns about their changing neighborhood. Between these competing visions lie the creative efforts and explorations that lead to solutions that can benefit all parties. But how might we implement a process of design and compromise that leads to positive outcomes?
In approaching a design process within an engaged community, there are some key factors to bear in mind. To create trust and address community needs, the design team must be present with the public, listening and employing creative problem solving at important stages of the process. Engaging in this manner allows the public to feel heard and to know that their concerns will be addressed. Architecture alone cannot address all the larger social issues surrounding a project but integrating a democratic process through public interest design gives designers insight they would not otherwise have as community outsiders.
In our experience at Form + Place we know that finding a delicate balance between community engagement and a development’s vision requires many voices at the table, but of course, this adds to the challenge of addressing multiple concerns. The BSA discussion seemed to conclude that it takes a great amount of listening, respect and creativity to garner the trust from the public that we, as architects and developers, will design a context-driven project that will benefit the community. At Form + Place we concur with this approach, as evidenced by our work on the Wayland Town Center Master Plan. The process included many public meetings to create a new Mixed-Use Overlay District complete with design guidelines and development regulations. As a result, a 375,000 SF mixed-use project was permitted to be realized in a historic New England community. For the community, however, the size, style and the overall scale of the development were a concern. It is typical in these processes to need a certain amount of education on all sides. In this case, the developer and architect needed to understand that the town wanted to maintain a traditional New England village style in terms of buildings, forms and placemaking. Similarly, the community needed to be assured that the impacts on the town – such as the traffic, infrastructure, services and schools – would not be too onerous. Despite these challenges and years of negotiating zoning regulations, the result was a Mixed-use Overlay District [MUOD] Master Plan and Design Guidelines which was sensitive to the surrounding context and incorporated numerous public amenities, including a new town green and a site dedicated to a civic building. Ultimately, the design resulted in a successful compromise between the community, city and developer.
In the end, an architectural project belongs not only to the owner and building occupants, but also the community. While community design may require more effort, time and resources, it has the potential to impact not only those involved in a single project but also larger social structures as well. It can create new transit infrastructure, produce a gathering space or create a public service for entire neighborhoods. These larger systems influence community members’ feelings of belonging and safety in their own neighborhoods. The reality of the design practice is that there are "invisible lines that architecture can't solve for" as Patricia Nobre, Senior Design Strategist at Gensler stated during the panel discussion. It seems evident from our experience here at Form + Place and considering the ideas discussed in this conversation, that public interest design can highlight those lines and fill the gap where the built environment cannot. As we continue the conversation forward, we ask ourselves how to ensure that developers and design professionals make this an integral part of their process. Taking on the responsibility of implementing democratic design processes will provide additional challenges but will allow the design team to reveal and address often disregarded societal issues that affect the overall success of a development.