Year of Gathering: Citizens First, Designers Second

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
Jun 25 · 6 min read
Seattle Year of Gathering Event © Trevor Dykstra
Seattle Year of Gathering Event © Trevor Dykstra
Seattle Year of Gathering Event © Trevor Dykstra

By Sally Khomikh

On Tuesday, June 23rd, we held our second virtual Year of Gathering event on the topic of “Finding Joy in Our Public Spaces.” We brought back two collaborators, Benjie de la Pena and Barbara Swift, to discuss trust and safety, graceful cohabitation, letting go of judgment, and thinking about the usability and longevity of public space initiatives. Benjie’s term, the “better normal,” kindly asks us to let go of new and old constructs and adapt to focusing on sustainable and simply “better” overall habits of engaging.

Seattle Year of Gathering Event © Trevor Dykstra
Seattle Year of Gathering Event © Trevor Dykstra
Benjie de la Pena & Barb Swift © Trevor Dykstra

Benjamin de la Pena (Benjie) — founder of Agile City, author of the newsletter Makeshift Mobility, and board member at Project for Public Spaces — and Barb Swift, FASLA, landscape architect and founding member of Swift Company were both panelists for our Seattle event: Rethinking Public Spaces. At this event, we discussed rapid densification and complex development issues facing Seattle, as well as unique opportunities for partnership between private and public spaces. In this follow-up, we revisit the critical need for public space with a new lens.

During what is an unprecedented time of both a global pandemic and a rise in widespread civil unrest in response to systemic racial injustice, how public spaces have been used in the past is no longer evident in our day-to-day lives. Barbara raised three questions that served as the foundation for the discussion.

  • Why and how do we design spaces?
  • For whom do we design spaces?
  • How can we change the lens in which we engage with each other in these spaces?
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Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion at Hermann Park © Nic Lehoux

Love = Joy

Benjie so eloquently stated that love and joy are relational. “America has a history of loving things and using people,” he said. In this time of uncertainty, we’re seeing a change in the way we think about relationships, social engagement, and space. It is evident that Americans are moving towards reversing this notion, and hopefully loving people and using things. Ironically, distractions are gone, and what took up much of our energy in the past (consumerism, commuting, fast-paced society) is now being channeled into social change.

Inclusion

“Spaces are meant to embody community; this is a muscle we need to start exercising,” Barbara noted. “We are in a period of remarkable change. We have the opportunity to shift what is critical, in addition to our design criteria.” We need to transition to relational design. We need to think about spaces in the context of their communities and everyone in those communities. How do we make these public spaces feel safe for everyone?

As designers, we are privileged to have a toolset in which to think about spaces that allow for choices and control. And, as social animals, it is important to think about public spaces as opportunities to shine a light on where we are at, inviting in everyone, and anyone that would like to engage. Benji pointed out public spaces are “doing their job when they show us where our society fails.” “It’s time to stop and pause,” Barbara says, “It’s time to incubate and test out changed behaviors” that will ultimately have a greater impact over time allowing for a “graceful cohabitation of the full society of people.”

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New Port Beach Civic Center and Park © Nic Lehoux

Taking a Leap of Faith

Barbara shared an example of Seattle’s aquarium, which years ago purchased hundreds of white, cheap plastic chairs with the assumption that they would all get stolen or destroyed by the end of the summer. To the aquarium’s surprise, only five were gone by the fall season. Sometimes, she stated, “it takes a leap of faith, trust, and stewardship to allow for participatory actions.” Barbara pointed out that libraries are a great example of this. They are places we “trust to borrow, not to buy.” We need to empower local stewards who will embrace and care for shared spaces if we let them. This can mean needing to retrain people on how to use public spaces.

Benji pointed out, “public spaces are doing their job when they show to us where society fails.” While sports equipment, for example, is often always included in the building of new public spaces, elements like folding tables and chairs — which directly ask for community gathering and engagement — are often neglected or not thought of at all. Benji suggests we need to rethink the metrics in which we determine the success of public space. Instead of just measuring use, how can we measure participation? How can we then move people’s engagement “up the ladder” to the next rung of community involvement? In response, Barbara touched upon her idea of graceful cohabitation, and that society needs to welcome the full spectrum of its cohabitants. We also need to think of the legacy of the space Benji said. “We never fund the programming for projects; we fund the things in the project.” How can cities include funding for ongoing programming to activate the space in the long-term?

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Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion at Hermann Park © Nic Lehoux

“Touchpoints like joy and love can become tools we use to change urban environments.” — Barbara Swift

Designer vs. Citizen

In looking ahead, Barbara asks that we take off the umbrella term, designer, and replace it with the title citizen. We need to build places that communities will love, want to use, and inhabit. Usability and longevity have never been more crucial. We don’t know how long we’ll be mitigating the spread of COVID-19, which means we are creating long-lasting alternatives to what was considered normal. “There is a subterranean change going on now,” says Barbara, “the real challenge is to take the time to listen and tease out a piece of it.”

Barbara believes as citizens, we have a broader toolkit to use, “touchpoints like joy and love can become tools we use to change urban environments.” We must create a social trust structure that encourages the funding of programming over things. We must embrace connections and localized engagement. We must re-establish the fundamental belief that we “care for others,” Benji says, shifting our response from an individual to a collective perspective, doing so with inclusion in mind. “We have an embedded perspective which we enabled to be a reality. This must change,” says Barbara.

Benjie’s Reading List

During the webinar, Benjie shared some resources for further learning and discussion. Here are his recommendations:


Join the Discussion

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View Webinar

We encourage you to watch the full webinar and share your perspective! Stay tuned for updates on more virtual discussions here.

Also, if you are looking for some inspiration from beautiful places to gather while in isolation, grab yourself a copy of Gathering from these independent booksellers.

Further Reading:
Year of Gathering Goes Virtual with an Updated Look at Retail Design
Rethinking Public Spaces in Seattle
Year of Gathering

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