Human-Centered Design: Bringing humanity into the built environment

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


A designer and community member prototyping an idea as part of a community-led design process for a Neighborspace garden in Little Village, Chicago

With my experience entrenched in the built environment, I came to Greater Good Studio (GGS) curious to learn more about human-centered design (HCD). During my time here, I have really been pushed to reconsider what it means to place the user’s experience at the center of a design process, particularly in the context of built environment design and community development.

At GGS, we’re experimenting with evolving theories and testing different approaches to community development and though not perfected, we’re committed to showing up with as much intentionality as possible. The last two years have not only empowered me to question my own practices as a designer, but to see the larger systemic issues at play, many of which I realize we can’t work out alone. Since asking myself some tough questions, several insights and even more questions have risen. I’ve offered four insights and opportunities based on my renewed perspective and in the true spirit of human-centered design, I invite your feedback, openness, and ideas for exploring how we can do this important work together and do it better.


Insight: Innovation is stunted when we start with an outcome in mind

Much of the urban design and planning work I’ve been a part of has been the result of RFPs asking for consultants to provide a service, most commonly comprehensive plans, master plans, corridor plans or streetscape designs. Most of the time, the formula is the same. Go through a planning process, engage the community, produce a report and then hopefully someone will implement it. While some of the more proactive clients have the political will and drive to start putting ideas immediately into action, a more common result, however, is a 100-page report that may get referenced once in a while, but will collect dust on a shelf until the next time someone needs to do a planning study.

So why do we keep producing these reports? Simply put, because that’s what is being asked for. Most funded planning efforts don’t allow for open-ended projects where the community can determine the end product based on their realities and the feedback received through the process. This level of ambiguity requires a lot of trust and courage on the part of the client, but the end result feels much more relevant, and applicable to on-the-ground needs. Instead of being so prescriptive, how might we design projects so the outcomes reflect what is truly needed?

Opportunity: Let the process drive the outcome and the deliverable

Before my time at Greater Good Studio, the closest I came to operating with a relatively high level of ambiguity on a project was while working on the Downtown Strategic Plan for the city of Rockford. The city had gone through numerous planning processes and was experiencing extreme planning fatigue. After several conversations with stakeholders, and with the help of the Mayor, other elected officials, and city staff, we shifted from producing just another planning report to embarking on a series of experiments to see what would work. These included installing a temporary bike lane on a busy downtown street for a summer, launching a one-day event to activate sidewalks, and installing temporary parklets on parking spaces and activating vacant storefronts. When we started the outcomes were not set in stone and each of these tests resulted in further ideas and actions based on real evidence rather than theories and visions of what could be. What is critical to recognize, however, is that this would not have happened had the City not been so open and willing to go on this journey with us!

Tactical interventions in Rockford, IL (image courtesy of the City of Rockford and Farr Associates)

At GGS, we also tried a more open-ended approach on Raising Places, a nine-month labs-based process for building child-centered communities. We could’ve ended the project with just a set of recommendations for each community neatly packaged into a report. Instead, we trusted the process and with the design team and stakeholders in each community generated a set of concepts relevant to the issues that presented themselves during research. The design teams then prototyped the concepts, got feedback from users, and tested small-scale pilots. Many of these local design teams are securing additional funding and continuing to move these projects through implementation. We did produce a final report, but with the goal of documenting the overall process for ourselves and others that can benefit from our learnings. This project also required the openness, trust, and support of our funder, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. They gave us an open-ended prompt and trusted us and the communities we were working with to deliver an outcome that would be most appropriate for each community.

Design team member Jabin Ahmed mapping the root causes of racism and lack of representation in Hudson institutions.

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