Design with social impact fundamentals#2: Design for communities; by communities, or with communities?


Again, it’s not a multiple-choice question, and this note is not going to give you the answer. In the following lines, I will encourage you to explore the answer to this question from the point of impact on communities.

Let’s start by defining what we mean by community?

A community can be formed around place or interest or a combination of both. A Community of place or place-based community or spatial community is a group of people who are bound together because of where they reside, work, visit or otherwise spend a continuous portion of their time.

A community of interest, or interest-based community, is a gathering of people who share a common interest, passion, culture or quality. These people may know (or care) little about each other outside this shared passion. Often, they cannot be easily defined by a particular geographical area.

In architecture and planning practice, we might refer to both concepts depending on the nature and the scope of the work.

Coming back to our first point, now it’s time to pause and reflect on communities’ roles in a design or planning project; how do you see their roles? Are they subject or object of the project? Are they prospective users of your design? Are they your clients? Your partners? Your teammates? …

Here is a fact … design and planning often fail to connect themselves firmly to the larger concerns of the communities they affect. This failure is an artifact of the dominant practices of ‘expert’ cultures. Either as a profession or a discipline they often lack a deep investigation on what is needed beyond “the accepted model of professionalism reflected in the language of the expert” (1, p.130).

This is the second fundamental of impact-centered deign; going beyond the expert culture and adopting a community-centered vision. Community-centered vision is not about denying the role of expert, rather it is about bringing the ‘design expert’ knowledge into a democratic dialogue with the ‘citizen expert’ knowledge. People are experts of their own desires and needs. They bring their unique and brilliant contributions to a design process.

At the same time, design or planning has to confront several non-contextual complexities such as restrictive regulations, complex partnership relations, budget, connection to larger infrastructure or socioeconomic context, etc. Local knowledge about such multi-faceted topics can be incomplete. Further, the solution might take a local perspective that tends to solve the symptoms not underlying causes from a broader lens.

Here is where experts play a critical role; utilizing co-creating process and outcome and co-leading a balanced answer among what is desired, what is really needed, and what actually is achievable considering the available and attainable resources and capacities, bringing that overarching perspective into the table so that the outcomes of the solutions can be also evaluated taking the broader non-context lens, i.e. the society as a whole.

The elements of this community-engaged design and planning :

  • The process is a mutual learning, do not use or tend to ‘empowering’ local, stakeholders, it’s co-powerment not empowerment;
  • We aim at community leadership, not assistant-ship;
  • Community is engaged from the get-go throughout;
  • We tend to partnership with communities;
  • We focus on the roots not the causes; that means we look at the problem more holistically and not in the frame of a project agenda;
  • The aim is not addressing a need, rather is decreasing the needs by addressing the roots;
  • We don’t build up the co-created solutions on barriers but on the assets of the community that can spark creative, community-led approaches (networks, connections, institutions, local knowledge, local resource, public realms, historical and cultural buildings, etc…);
  • We create an inclusive and equitable process;
  • We tend to incorporate a multi-sector collaboration. We establish meaningful engaging relationships with other parties that are affected by or can impact the outcome or process to develop a joint understanding of what is at stake, recognizing what benefits will accrue to whom, and what will be lost. In this collaborative context, all ideas are shared, disputed, negotiated, and considered;
  • We integrate several kinds of knowledge: expert knowledge, local knowledge, and context knowledge. Expert knowledge is involved to enhance and combine the ideas derived from different perspectives and to incorporate the bigger lens, as well as the other layers attached to the scope of the work, that might be technical; historical; physical; material; economic and sociological aspects;
“Dick & Rick: A Visual Primer for Social Impact Design”, The center for Urban Pedagogy
  • Local Knowledge refers to the knowledge that people- in-place have of their own lives and their own places (1). It is particular and specific, and it relies on the experience, of place. Local knowledge is central to shape a community-centered built environment; “Although it may be an insufficient base upon which to construct all the kinds of architecture required in today’s complex world, it is the type of knowledge that will know if a construction proposal is appropriate, if it contributes to querencia, or if it challenges power structures for either liberatory or repressive ends.” (1,p.135)
  • Context knowledge refers to the experience of the phenomena. It refers to understanding the subject in relation to the place. The representatives of this knowledge in a community-centered practice might also sit at any other two expert areas mentioned above, but will also come from a diverse range of stakeholders at both local and non-local level. Non-local users of a space, non-profits that work with the community of focus, and local municipalities are representatives of context knowledge.
  • We have a strong focus on equity and inclusion in process and outcome.

The citizen participation ladder

Arnstein, Sherry R.(1969), A Ladder Of Citizen Participation

The citizen participation ladder shows in fact a continuum of community engagement.

Up to the level 6th, i.e., partnership, community at the best scenario is informed or consulted for some limited aspects of the project. From this level upward, an increasing degrees of decision-making role for community is appreciated. Topmost levels, (7) Delegated Power and (8) Citizen Control, celebrate community’s leadership in decision-making role. At this level of engagement the ‘community’ transform into the ‘community change mekers’.

To make it more tangible, when we invite community people in a community meeting to hear from them, we are acting at best till the level of placation. Once we arrange co-creation sessions with communities from the beginning we step up to the level of partnership, when community initiate collectively a local action and engage experts to realize it, they are creating a community of changemakers in which experts are also play their roles.

What does this ladder tell us about co-creation?

Obviously, this ladder concept is a simplification, but it shows that there are significant gradations of participation and not all of these levels are appreciated from a social impact focused perspective. Once wearing the changemaker boot, designer shall strive for going beyond the placation rung.

It also tell us what Co-creation is not (@Panthea Lee)

“ Co-creation is not making a perfunctory or symbolic effort by gathering a number of people from underrepresented groups into a space / process / initiative and expecting magic to happen. That’s tokenism, and usually comes from a place of privileged myopia.

Co-creation is not gathering ideas from people, then figuring out what you do with them later. That’s a consultation and at best can led to a community-informed plan but not engaged plan.

Co-creation is not “gathering inputs, realizing (inevitably) that most people don’t see eye-to-eye, so presenting a diluted synthesis or lowest common denominator solution as the answer”. That’s again tokenism, disrespectful to the time and energy of the community, and on top help sustain a toxic status quo.”

Now,.. It’s time to get back to the topic and find the best answer taking a community-centered perspective…

Suggestion to read: Dick & Rick: A Visual Primer for Social Impact Design

The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) , Equity Collective, Ping Zhu

1- Lynda H. Schneekloth , L.h., and G. Shibley, R. (2000), Implacing Architecture into the Practice of Placemaking, Journal of Architectural Education, 53 (3).

2- Sherry R. Arnstein, S. (1969). A Ladder Of Citizen Participation, Journal of the American Institute of Planners



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My name is Marveh. I am a co-creation savvy. I love sharing stories about People, Land, Roots and Design.