Won’t You Be Our Neighbor?

Pull out your pencils for a pop quiz: What is the definition of community design? (And before you pull up a new browser window, don’t bother—not even Google has a clear-cut answer.) Is it:

A) Ensuring all landscaping, easements, and structures in an area look alike;
B) Designing a building or set of buildings that harmonize with the surrounding land uses;
C) Developing gathering places for citizens such as structures, parks, and trails;
D) Designing structures that appeal to the members of a particular group;
E) All of the above.

If you’re stuck, here’s a hint: none of these answers quite encapsulate the work that community designers do. But they all sound logical, right? Nailing down the definition of community design is nearly impossible because it means a dozen things to a dozen different people—and we know this because we asked around.

With the national 2015 Association for Community Design conference coming to town this weekend, we asked about 30 people—friends, neighbors, and even strangers—how they defined community design.

“From the name, it sounds like a community working together to make sure their architectural design connects,” one person said.

“It’s creating plans for bigger areas meant to accommodate groups of people, maybe including business buildings as well as housing and outdoor spaces,” someone else suggested.

“I’d guess it’s designing an area for ease of use, aesthetics, and enjoyability,” added a third.

The more people we talked to, the more we realized that although the concept is vibrant and meaningful to our community studio designers, it’s vague and unclear to a lot of people. And when we started looking for resources—a clear-cut definition, even—Merriam-Webster told us we were out of luck.

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So, we dug deeper and did a little time-traveling. In June of 1968, almost 50 years ago, a civil rights leader named Whitney Young stood before a bustling crowd of architects at the AIA National Convention.

“You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights,” he told them. He wondered about some of the public housing he had seen in different areas of the country—how the architects of 35- or 40- story buildings could draw up the plans without leaving enough recreation space for a small group of children, much less the hundreds who would grow up in the building.

Young’s point? Architects had developed a reputation for designing without much regard for the basic needs of the members of their communities, particularly minorities and low-income families.

His speech galvanized the budding community design movement, which combined activism with architecture. Community Design Centers (CDCs) began popping up around the country to rebuild inner cities devastated by the race-related riots of the 1960s. Designers sought to bridge the gap between the theoretical concepts of architecture and the practical needs of everyday people—especially those who were often ignored or unheard.

That brings us back to the definitions we received from our neighbors. Many of them assumed that the phrase came with an invisible emphasis on design—making the architecture of one area cohesive and complementary—and that’s certainly a piece of it. But beyond the façade, community design is about people: the designers who really take the time to figure out what a community needs and the citizens who inform the process.

At the ACD conference this weekend, attendees from across the country (including our own Tim Hamnett and Kevin Jones, who are presenting!) will come together to share their unique experiences and learn from each other. It’s a chance to refine what community design means in 2015.

In that spirit, we asked a few of the designers in our community studio to offer their own definitions of the phrase. We hope their thoughts will help you understand a concept that every firm explains a little differently, but one that ultimately inspires us all to be better neighbors.

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