ARCHIVES: This is legacy content from before Sustainable Cities Collective was relaunched as Smart Cities Dive in early 2017. Some information, such as publication dates or images, may not have migrated over. For the latest in smart city news, check out the new Smart Cities Dive site or sign up for our daily newsletter.

Innovating Community Involvement in Urban Design

Written by Gina Ford, Alexis Canter, and Brie Hensold


Once seen as a peripheral, even perfunctory, part of urban planning, community involvement has become a critical driver in the shaping of our cities. Today, nearly every public project conducted in the United States incorporates some form of public outreach. In an increasingly global and digital era, traditional forms of outreach (i.e. the public meeting) often fall short of reaching the increasingly diverse and information-saturated citizens of today's American cities. Or, efforts fail to incite the interest required to achieve the long-term buy-in for planning and design strategies that is needed to create transformational, sustainable change in cities.

Many community leaders are seeking new forms of engagement, hoping to leverage the public process into a more sustained interest in outcomes. In the most ideal scenario, public process participants become the champions of the urban change through the long road of planning, the struggles of implementation, and the daunting challenge of ongoing governance. Understanding the necessity of an integrated outreach strategy, planners and designers across the country are bringing to communities a whole new breadth of interesting planning tools, exciting processes, and visionary strategies.

A recently curated volume on the subject, entitled Currents: Engaging (available for flip through here and download here), illustrates five recent innovations in public outreach as it relates to the design and construction of city places and spaces. These innovations are defined as process-as-event, on-the-ground, real time, early wins, and accessible materials. Each concept posits an alternative to the traditional public meeting format and is reinforced by a series of notable case studies in which outreach was a critical component of the design.

Process-As-Event: Orchestrating the public meeting as a community celebration

With the long list of work commitments, social engagements, and family priorities that consume Imageeveryone's schedules, it is increasingly hard to compete for attendance at a traditional public meeting. In addition, multiple planning studies often happen concurrently within a community, competing and compounding the problem of attracting attendees.

These trends mean that today, to garner attendance and repeat interest, public meetings must be more than information sessions. They must be fun, entertaining community events that create a venue for celebration and reinvigorate the planning process. A prime example of this approach is Interface Studio's Wicker Park Bucktown Master Plan public outreach strategy. Utilizing a vacant storefront within the planning study, Interface staged a series of fun and engaging interactions—from video installations and photobooths to planning games and rotating exhibitions. 

On-The-Ground: Using fine, local details to bring meaning and specificity to a process

To increase potential attendance, many public forums are planned in centralized, accessible locations like City Hall. Though convenient and effective for political discourse, these forums are much less Panhandle Bandshell, Rebarsuitable to visionary conversations or creative brainstorming sessions. Furthermore, many community members regard these forums with a degree of suspicion—as a place of predetermined decisions and status quo politics.

On-the-ground tactics move the conversation from static conference rooms and city halls to the places of vitality and gathering that already exist within the community. By going to where the people are, the process engages people on their own turf, helping to dispel traditional hierarchies and enabling a more open dialogue. The Urban Landscape Lab at Columbia University championed this strategy with the Safari7 project. Safari7 appropriated the Manhattan 7 subway line in New York City as a vehicle for subway riders' ecological education, using and interpreting the train's path as an ecological transect.

Real Time: Utilizing online and gaming strategies to reach a broader demographic

Despite valiant efforts to attract community members to public meetings, community leaders and professional staff express frustration over the turnout, often not even close to a statistically relevant showing. And what attendance occurs is marred by other challenges. Those that attend often come with the hopes of venting opinions on other unrelated issues or pet causes. Studies show the demographic
MyBridgeport, Sasaki Associates that attends public meetings—usually older—rarely represents the community cross-section.

To combat these inequities, many communities are turning to online outreach forums that utilize websites, blogs, and social media to broaden the net and engage a wider audience. These forums tap into existing online social networks and operate in real time—allowing users, including the younger, elusive demographic, to engage on their own terms and in their own timeframe. The most prolific example of this is Mindmixer—a company and blog-based web platform that thousands of cities are now utilizing within their planning. A lesser known example is The Engagement Game Lab's "Participatory Chinatown" project. Here, a three-dimensional gaming interface allows community members to experience the city in another person's shoes—building understanding and empathy for issues of culture, language, and socio-economy.

Early Wins: Implementing design elements within the outreach process

Another challenge of the planning process is time. Community members, in an age of increasing immediacy of information and news, are impatient for the tangible results of long-term planning. The Orange County Great Park, Ken Smith Landscape Architecttraditional plan as the outcome of a planning process seems rigid and un-tested in a domestic culture that has witnessed a significant economic recession. Community leaders and constituents are leery of committing significant investment tomorrow in the ideas of today.

Rather than awaiting the completion of a planning or design effort, early wins suggests the immediate implementation of ideas or mid-process prototyping of experiences. By testing ideas during the design process, designers can adjust long-term plans in response to the observations of short-term, low-cost experiments. Examples have become pervasive—from the introduction of a custom-designed and branded bicycle on Governor's Island to a hot-air balloon at Orange County Park. Both of these examples allow for a visceral experience of a changing place, breaking the construction fence barrier and providing a vehicle for the forecasting future change.    

Accessible Materials: Using commonly understood visual and cultural language

Public meetings also have the challenge of language. Armed with a specialized language of design and planning terms, the design professional often spends significant time explaining complex Des Moines Water Works, Sasaki Associatestechnical issues and deciphering planning trade-offs. This specialized language is even more challenging to non-native English speakers who make up a significant portion of the American population.

To address the challenge of language, some public engagement processes have begun re-framing traditional planning documents into new forms of more accessible materials. Rather than the usual boards or presentations that rely on planning and design jargon, designers are appropriating more commonly understood forms of visual and verbal language—like comic books, guidebooks, and newspapers—to illuminate complicated planning stories. Project Projects' exhibition "Ours: Democracy in the Age of Branding" exemplifies this notion of accessibility, provoking questions about the democratic process by commandeering a newspaper format and applying the traditional bipartisan colors and brands.

Conclusion: Layering strategies

These five innovations have been described, for the purposes of this post, as individual or independent layers. In reality, the most innovative public outreach happening today relies on layering these strategies along with traditional public meetings. As an example of this layered process, the Currents: Engaging volume concludes with an overview of Sasaki's submittal for the Fort Mason Center Design Competition, called Storming the Fort. That proposed process included multiple forms of technology, creative graphic materials, and synergies with existing community events all within a grounded, real-time design process.

It will be interesting to look back upon these strategies in a few years—or perhaps even in a few decades—to evaluate their success. It seems clear today that the sustainability of our cities is linked to community knowledge and engagement. So much of the sustainable movement has focused on articulating the trade-offs implicit in and impacts of the decisions we make today. It also seems apparent that the community is more eager to discuss concepts of sustainability today—much more so than even a decade ago. As planners and designers seek greater, more sustainable planning outcomes in a changing world, these new ways of fostering that dialogue are critical. 

Image credits:

Process-As-Event: Wicker Park, Interface Studio

On-The-Ground: Panhandle Bandshell, Rebar

Real Time: MyBridgeport, Sasaki

Early Wins: Orange County Great Park, Ken Smith Landscape Architect

Accessible Materials: Des Moines Water Works Park, Sasaki