Built environment projects are often not set up to support deep learning

This blog post is Part II of a four-part series on the built environment. Read Part I and Part III, and Part IV.

Community members kicking off the first Raising Places design workshop in Valley of the Chiefs (Aashbacheeitche), with a storytelling activity

On project after project, something always felt a little skewed about where the emphasis of the work was placed. Many of the planning projects I was working on were in communities that have experienced extreme disinvestment and deeply rooted issues of racism and segregation developed over decades and generations. The outcomes we were proposing were then going to impact the community for yet another set of decades and generations. No pressure, right?

In projects like these, however, the planning work typically only lasts 12–18 months, and in some cases as short as 6 months. On top of that, the amount of funding allocated for community engagement during that period adds up to maybe about a month. The majority of the project time is spent on physical site analysis, designing site plans and streetscapes, and producing drawings, renderings, and reports. It’s not to say that technical design work is not needed; it very much is. However, rather than dedicating only 10% of the time to community engagement and 90% to design, how might we take a more balanced approach with the belief that meaningful learning and community empowerment will inevitably lead to a greater design?

Opportunity: Make deep learning an intentional part of the process

We have to be realistic about the outcomes we are expecting in community development work. Reversing decades of disinvestment is not a 12-month project and while urban design/planning projects are often meant to be catalysts for this reversal, even just planning for that momentum requires significant time and effort towards community and relationship building. Imagine you are a resident and have witnessed decades of neglect, extreme distrust, and now you have “experts” coming into to your neighborhood holding a meeting here, a meeting there, asking you to express the years of frustration and trauma your community has faced with a survey and voting dots.

Deeper learning, in contrast, means going beyond getting a certain number of people to show up to a public meeting. It means sitting down with a beginners mind and actually listening to the lived experiences of individuals who have suffered injustices and have been aching for their voices to be heard, not to solve all their grievances, but just to listen, learn, and build empathy.

Deeper learning acknowledges that large public forums aren’t always the most effective or only avenue for input, since it is often those that happened to show up that day or those who are comfortable being vocal in a large group that end up getting the most attention. Other opportunities for learning might take place in the form of intimate, one-on-one conversations, small focus groups, observations of behaviors in real-time, or even immersion activities where consultants are building empathy by experiencing the lived realities of communities first-hand.

Employing a range of research methods to accommodate multiple styles of participation and uncover stories that may not surface otherwise

Deeper learning means meeting people where they are, whether it be at their homes, in schools, or even the laundromat while they’re doing their laundry. It means meeting them respectfully, on their terms, and without any preconceived notions because you are a guest in their community, not the other way around. As someone in our office recently put it “you wouldn’t go into someone else’s home and start redecorating!”

Learning happening where people are (in their homes, laundromats, grocery stores, etc.)

And lastly, deeper learning also means talking to all sides with an open mind and being ready to have all your assumptions thrown out the window. And yes, that means acknowledging the perpetual naysayers and understanding their behaviors and motivations in order to assuage their fears too.

This blog post is Part II of a four-part series on the built environment. Read Part I and Part III, and Part IV.




Greater Good Studio is a design firm dedicated to the social sector. We partner with organizations and communities to design human-centered solutions and build capacity for social innovation.

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Kareeshma Ali

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