Tia Hanson

How community engagement helps shape and revitalize neighborhoods

By Tia Hanson, Design Professional, Allied ASID

On May 5-7, the Ascent Architecture & Interiors team traveled from Bend to the breezy coastline of Gleneden Beach to attend the Oregon Design Conference of 2016, organized by the American Institute of Architects-Oregon Chapter. A wide array of impressive presentations on theory, current work, recent accomplishments, new technologies, and far-reaching future endeavors provided us a plethora of inspiring ideas to refine our practice and fuel our work.

Dan Pitera, of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, gave one presentation I attended. Pitera has found through experience that the design profession can play a very powerful role in the development of human relationships and engagement, especially at the neighborhood level. He theorized that the regeneration of a neighborhood—an issue particularly pertinent to a recovering city such as Detroit but relevant to all urban landscapes—is most effectively won at the hands of its residents. By engaging with others in the design process, residents develop a strong commitment to the betterment of their neighborhood, an increasingly open-minded approach to others, and a more resilient hope for change. This is demonstrated by energetic, even spontaneous collective action. Said Pitera, architecture and design are ultimately about empowerment in these scenarios.

This idea brought up some thoughts and questions for me. If the bettering of our neighborhoods and cities can be achieved by way of empowering communities through the design process, then the way we think about design could have profound and lasting effects on our world’s challenges. How is such an idea translated into an accessible process? Perhaps most importantly, how could this process be expanded to reach a greater diversity of people, ideas, and geographies?

Throughout the course of his talk, Pitera posited some responses to these questions and inspired us to reflect further on these questions as they relate to our own practice.

One important facet of the approach taken by the Detroit Collaborative Design Center was to think of their participation in neighborhood settings as helping to reveal hidden histories. They engaged neighborhoods humbly, and were prepared and willing to hear the answers to the questions they posed, rather than traipsing into town with a zealous agenda.

Pitera’s team learned that various strategies are needed to engage a diversity of neighborhood settings and its inhabitants. There is no formula. He suggested we think of ourselves—both our communities and the individuals within them – as tapestries of many varied yet unified participants. Any efforts to enhance a neighborhood must respect the unique diversity of circumstances, character, even hopes and goals, of that community.

In Pitera’s work, qualities of humility, gratitude, enthusiasm, hope, optimism, joy, and perseverance all proved invaluable to maintaining a healthy vibrancy of participation. Going into the project, he noticed a common expectation among those involved: the search and desire for perfection. Instead, he suggested they seek gratitude. The goal: create great stories out of the imperfect.

With all of these attitudes and ideas underway, Pitera says a critical step in the process of revitalizing communities comes to light: collaborative and collective action. Gaining tangible experience proved essential to stoking the momentum of the process, cementing the feeling of ownership among all involved and facilitating increased learning and understanding of issues at play.

Pitera closed his comments with a brief overview of projects in which the Detroit Collaborative Design Center used this approach to successfully engage the local population and enhance a neighborhood. While there is much to learn about how design professionals and communities may collaborate, these collected experiences are an exciting precedent. Pitera encouraged those present to consider how we might, as design professionals, increasingly refine our view of the architecture and design profession as a tool for community empowerment.

When I take a moment to recognize the potential impact of a well-built environment—and, perhaps, especially the process it takes to build one collectively—it’s not difficult to get excited.

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