Gallery of Urban Ideas: Community Engagement

Grassroots methods of organizing have proven to be effective in creating a sense of community during this remote time and designers are finding ways to establish these ideas on a citywide scale. These proposals emphasize the resident’s role in community recovery, the need to re-establish trust in the built environment, and the important steps designers should take to effectively connect with the people they serve.

Citizen / Designer: Activating the Individual in Urban Space
Jonathan J. Marvel
Ishita Gaur
Tim Fryatt
Isabel Marvel
Using the Storefront to Foster Community Engagement
Alexandra Gonzalez
Elena Kapompasopoulou
Nidhi Gulati
Carolyn Levine

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Urban Design Forum launched City Life After Coronavirus, a digital program convening Fellows and international experts to document global responses to the current crisis and to strategize a road to recovery for New York City. In April, we released a Call for Ideas to our network soliciting a broad range of submissions that envision how urban planning and design should change in the wake of Covid-19 as we strive to build a more just city for all New Yorkers. We are featuring some of the most compelling ideas in a series of reflections and proposals about diverse topics like education, community engagement, and mobility. Explore the full Gallery of Urban Ideas here.
Celeste Frye is the Principal and CEO of Public Works Partners, a New York City-based planning and consulting firm. She co-founded Public Works Partners out of a passion to help mission-driven organizations increase their positive impact on local communities. Celeste previously worked in NYC government, where she led budget and human resources teams and launched large-scale business-based hiring and training initiative. She is a graduate of Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses and Coro Leadership NY and has degrees from Cornell University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Creating a New Standard for Community Engagement

Post-pandemic recovery offers an opportunity to reimagine what community engagement can be. Now is the time for cities, developers, and designers to implement far-reaching, culturally literate outreach strategies that connect with residents who tend to be left out of the design process. Creating and experimenting with a varied set of outreach strategies that are designed to meaningfully engage all groups impacted by a project will build trust now, create a playbook for future innovation, signify an essential first step toward interventions that build parity across neighborhoods, and ultimately shape more equitable cities. 


Understand your goals

The core goal of any community engagement initiative should be to create an exchange of information and ideas between project leaders and those directly and indirectly impacted by the project. However, this will mean something different at each phase of a project. Early on, engagement may mean gathering community input and questioning assumptions about needs, while later outreach may involve focus groups or interactive engagements that educate impacted groups about a proposal. Establishing the goal of any outreach effort early on will increase the impact of your efforts and will help you target participants in an inclusive and thoughtful way.


Learn about your stakeholders

Who is impacted by your work and what are the barriers they face that would limit their ability to participate? What are the cultural norms and expectations that may affect the reception of your outreach and project among those it impacts? How can you design outreach that encourages responses to complex questions? Understanding these points will help you establish the essential components of your outreach, such as the activities you rely on, the format, the languages you employ, and performance targets. Asking these questions will also ensure that you are  creating an equitable outreach plan that meets the needs of the community and the city at large.


Explore alternative tools

Community engagement can be so much more than a public meeting and comment period, and it has to be in this unprecedented time. Interactive engagements increase opportunities for reflection and feedback and should be considered essential tools in any engagement design. When used in a mindful and accessible way, virtual tools can engage community members in new ways and have the added benefit of increasing the reach of your campaign. 


Analyze your reach

As you roll out your outreach campaign, it is essential that you collect and analyze data on the reach of your engagement. Maybe your translations are not grammatically correct or are in the wrong dialect for many of your stakeholders, or your meeting times conflict with prevalent religious practices in the neighborhood. Analyzing data collected as you move through your outreach will allow you to recognize problem areas, experiment with the tools you are using, and work out fixes that meet the needs of those impacted by your project. It will also help you stay on track for meeting your goals.


Be flexible

Your outreach should be designed to be able to accommodate stakeholders to make them comfortable and heard no matter the situation. Flexibility is essential to an equitable outreach plan at every step of the way.






Public Works Partners is a planning and consulting firm whose work strengthens the organizations that strengthen communities. Our clients include government agencies, nonprofits, foundations and funders, community and real estate developers, and urban planning organizations. We help clients launch and administer complex new programs; improve operations and increase impact; and promote organizational excellence.
Born in Puerto Rico, Jonathan Marvel is an architect and urban designer with over 30 years of experience providing architectural planning, community, economic and sustainable development of public spaces, educational institutions, single and multi-family housing, libraries, museums and large-scale mixed-use developments. He is Founding Principal of Marvel Architects with offices in New York and San Juan. Jonathan, who graduated with distinction from Dartmouth College and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, teaches at Pratt Institute’s Graduate School of Planning and Placemaking, and has taught as an adjunct at Harvard, Parsons, Rice University, Washington University, and Syracuse. In 2018, Jonathan spoke on behalf of solar energizing 100% of Puerto Rico by 2030 at TEDx Dartmouth, The Architectural League, AIA Puerto Rico, UMass Club, Colegio de Arquitectos de Puerto Rico, Universidad Politécnica de Puerto Rico, and the Universitario Tecnológico de Bayamón Presidential Keynote. Jonathan is the recipient of national and international design awards including a 2019 Presidential Citation by the National American Institute of Architects, is co-chair of the NYAIA Planning and Urban Design Committee and sits on the boards of The Buckminster Fuller Institute and The Isamu Noguchi Museum. Jonathan has contributed essays on museums, public community spaces, and micro housing, and is also the founder of Truck Product Architecture, Rock 12 Security Architecture, and Citizen Designer, a participatory planning listening and advocacy effort.
Ishita is an Associate Urban Designer and Planner at Marvel, working on developing vision plans, master plans, and concept designs for a diverse scale of projects. Ishita aims to incorporate community and stakeholder engagement process in her projects to build consensus among the different groups, hoping to lead to a transparent and inclusive outcome. Ishita is on the Board of Directors for Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Gardens, the co-chair of the Junior Board for the non-profit Asia Initiatives, the recipient of the Urban Design Forum’s Forefront Fellowship for the year 2018, and a member of the Emerging Leaders Program with the Beverley Willis Architectural Foundation in 2019.
Tim is a Director at Marvel Architects with 20 years experience leading complex projects across a wide range of scales and sectors. Tim is known as a prolific designer and a creative catalyst. He is dedicated to developing meaningful places that leverage latent value, behave naturally, and inspire delight. Notable work includes the Henderson Hopkins Community School in East Baltimore, the NYSE/Financial District Streetscapes and Security project, a Masterplan for Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden on Staten Island, and a winning design for the Presidents Park South at the White House. Presently Tim is overseeing over 1 million square feet of development across 3 boroughs of New York City. This work includes spearheading the completion of construction on the landmark 1909 Battery Maritime Building hotel and events venue, the 21 story Montague Pierrepont apartment building in Brooklyn Heights, a new 11 story office building at 29 Jay Street in the DUMBO historic district, and pair of 20 story residential buildings on Park Ave in Harlem. Tim is a registered architect, with work widely awarded, published, and exhibited, including in the New York Times and Museum Of Modern Art. Tim is also an active member of his community in Maplewood, NJ, serving on the Township Planning Board, the Springfield Avenue Partnership Design Review Committee, and as the Cubmaster leader for Pack 19 Cub Scouts.
Isabel Jane is a born and raised New Yorker interested in all things design, with a focus on illustration and how image enhances idea. After Studying Art History and French at Vassar College, Marvel lived in San Francisco for three years honing her management and operational skills across industries such as engineering, hospitality and community focused spaces in social services. While working as the office manager for a civil engineering firm, she led the effort to open an integrated gallery for arts and community. Currently, she enjoys working on the business development team for Marvel Architects, often adding hand-drawings to bring a personal touch to projects featuring predominantly computer-generated drawings.

Citizen / Designer: Activating the Individual in Urban Space

What is the role of the individual in the design of urban space? Has the ever-expanding nexus of profit-driven development, foreign investment, rezoning and gentrification rendered the individual effectively helpless- a bystander in a much larger game of real estate speculation and inequality? Or, are contemporary urban realities simply milestones in a broader historical continuum of urban development? And, is it possible that creative new modes of participation fueled by coronavirus, via teleconferencing, social media, and crowd sourcing, provide the individual with radical new opportunities for creation, intervention, occupation and resistance in the urban context.

What will become of “City Life After Coronavirus?” Citizens will decide. We imagine a city wide public participatory effort, called “Citizen/Designer.” A series of open conversations to explore both the possibilities and limitations faced by individuals who wish to contribute to the design of their cities post coronavirus.

The series will bring together engaged citizens with practitioners, policy makers, community leaders and activists across the fields of planning, real estate, art and design in discussions that reflect on the new realities foisted upon the city by the coronavirus pandemic. In a context of inclusivity and exploration, the conversations will begin to imagine new dynamics in which individuals play an active role in the reshaping of New York City in the wake of coronavirus

We gathered the community in a series of workshops centralized in energy, resilience and future plans to restructure the neighborhood.

With so many pressing civic needs playing out in the streets and the news today, now is the right time for a call to action to engage citizens. Marvel Architects brings many lessons from our past work in engagement after a community crisis.

For example, after the category 5 Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, we formed Resilient Power Puerto Rico to respond to the immediate and long term sustainable energy needs of the people. the project sought to bring resilience to cities and communities by quickly offering photovoltaic (PV) energy systems and battery storage.  These solar microgrids were created through donations of materials and work and developed by a group of collaborators in New York and Puerto Rico.

We targeted common spaces such as community centers to create distributed energy storage systems that serve a wide range of people.

We generated and leveraged a network of committed collaborators to strengthen communities’ capacities to assess and address their critical needs. We went to where the people were, we listened carefully through many community events, then helped build local access to knowledge, tools, and resources for sustainable and equitable community development. We discovered that by fostering the continuity of critical built and social infrastructure systems, we could leverage the power of community to forge concrete positive changes.

This ongoing outreach effort has to date yielded 35+ new solar power community hubs in the underserved communities throughout Puerto Rico, created a robust on-line platform called the “tool-kit”, and is active in creating legislative changes to promote the use of affordable renewable energy.

Social interaction and democratic participation are especially critical in a time where so many of us are self isolating in quarantine. Moving forward into the recovery period, many people will continue to work largely remotely, some never to return to the city. So we need new methods of interaction, that are equitable and accessible to all – those physically present and those digitally present.

New technologies can facilitate this interaction and even better advance citizen engagement as they become more accessible, seamless, and human. Such tools include computer vision, conversational voice, auditory analytics, haptic sensors, advanced augmented reality, and virtual reality, which will expand the audience, offer personalized targeted updates, and better convey environmental context cues of complex and nuanced human behaviors like gestures and gazes.

The steps of the process are time honored. First a select group of practitioners, policy makers, and community leaders are to develop a series broad but provocative topics related to the new urban planning issues necessitated by coronavirus. How do we best share competing interests of the street? What makes public space democratic? How are changing populations affecting neighborhood identity? What can commercial businesses do to ensure viability and safety?

Second, there will be a broad outreach program, which leverages many possible platforms (digital, print, postings, etc.), targets individuals and groups, and solicits their assistance to expand further. Third, hold a series of civic engagement opportunities by topic which may take the form of panel discussions, town hall forums, charettes, field walks, and more.

All along the process will make personal connections, foster community, build coalitions, develop strategies, and strengthen knowledge. Finally, synthesize findings and results into a series of goals and objectives, implement action.

Working in concert, the time honored civic processes and new high tech digital platforms will transform the way we engage each other. The result can be transformative – a city shaped by and for its citizens, with equity and inclusion.

Marvel Architects is a solutions-driven design practice that integrates context and nature into every project, meeting each design challenge by listening to its surroundings. With offices in New York and San Juan, Marvel is an international firm dedicated to creativity and diversity. From the New Jersey Institute of Technology to St. Ann’s Warehouse, the team has pioneered an entrepreneurial approach to architecture and place-making that has been recognized by over 125 industry design awards including the AIA’s highest honors.
Alexandra is an architectural and urban designer with a focus in public spaces. She has dedicated her career to urban design and placemaking projects at various scales that activate under-utilized spaces, and foster connections that are safe and welcoming to all. In addition to being the President and Co-Founder of Hive Public Space she serves as the Senior Urban Designer for both the Bryant Park Corporation and the 34th Street Partnership in Manhattan, NY. She believes in the power of public spaces and strives for her work to create memories and connections while evolving the impact and business of design. She received both a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Bachelor of Architecture from Rhode Island School of Design and holds a Master of Science in Architecture and Urban Design from Columbia University in New York.
Elena is a licensed architect in the EU with international experience in urban design and architecture. She is a design practitioner in New York City where she has worked on institutional architectural projects, and on large-scale urban design and redevelopment projects in the US and abroad. She has developed an extensive expertise in resilient design and sea level rise, through her rigorous involvement in the NYC Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, and in HUD Rebuild by Design - both city-projects that were prompted by Mayor Bloomberg after Hurricane Sandy devastated NYC. Prior to that, Elena was responsible for the concept development for the masterplan of Gulin, while at the Urban Design Lab (The Earth Institute, Columbia University), and she analyzed and implemented strategies on urban villages in Shenzhen, while at Urbanus Architecture & Design. She holds a Masters of Science in Architecture and Urban Design from Columbia University in New York and a 5 year professional degree in Architecture from the University of Patras, Greece.
Nidhi is a social impact executive, a trained architect and urban researcher with a specialization in civic engagement. Since 2012, she has worked on transportation advocacy, placemaking, technical assistance, and education projects spread across 12 American States and 7 countries. She strongly believes that the built environment has a substantial and sustained impact on the personal and social lives of people that inhabit them. In that vein, she has dedicated her career to advancing design and planning practices that cultivate physical, social, and financial wellbeing for all, especially children in marginalized communities. Her current roles include a Senior Director position at Project for Public Spaces - a global urban planning and design nonprofit organization based in New York City; Visiting Faculty at Pratt Institute; a guest writer for several online publications on shaping cities with a focus on early childhood; and a global advocate for combating climate change through the built environment.
Carolyn Levine is a student at Pratt Institute's Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, working to make communities more equitable and just through community-based planning, design, and policy. She brings a place-based lens to projects that centers community knowledge and expertise. Prior to studying at Pratt, Carolyn worked in the energy and transportation sector, leading a community-based program to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, supported by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from Rochester Institute of Technology.

Using the Storefront to Foster Community Engagement

How can vacant storefronts become places and tools that allow our communities to heal? How can principles of community building and economic development fill the gap and serve as a catalyst for local connections?

Over the last decade, the increasing numbers of vacant storefronts have been changing the landscape of our neighborhoods. The financial ripple effects of the pandemic will speed up this trend. These vacancies are affecting the liveliness of our neighborhoods and their economic vitality, disproportionately affecting those already at a disadvantage based on their race, culture, and economic status.

Unlocked has been conceived as an Urban Design experiment. One that will select and activate strategic storefronts, introducing programming for the community by the community. It will create opportunities for healing, learning, networking, and innovation.

The site selection is critical for the impact of the activation. The ideal space will be in an area with a high vacancy in retail renters. It needs to be in an active community with high numbers of people walking and cycling. Proximity to public transportation is ideal and adjacency to a parking space that can be converted into an outdoor extension would be a great addition for physical distancing. As we navigate this pandemic (and the weather allows) an accessible outdoor extension will allow for additional uses or a waiting area for the indoor space. Both Indoor and outdoor spaces will follow strict occupancy restrictions based on the Department of Buildings (DOB) guidelines.

Once the Unlocked storefront is selected, the focus will be to identify and address the needs of the neighborhood. Prioritizing activations that benefit communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic. We will take a human-centered approach from the beginning of the research phase. Members of the community and local partners will be engaged to develop a customized strategy suitable for the unique needs of the community. These conversations will help build trust within the community and facilitate a sense stewardship for the idea. Their collective skills, professional capital, and support will allow for a larger impact. 

Each site can serve as the front for ever-evolving community needs. Each Unlocked storefront should be able to easily transform during the day to accommodate different needs and functions. Ideas for activations can range from arts and culture events (that can be streamed online), access to information, Covid-19 testing center, other support services, and other educational and/or retail opportunities. Each activation can provide our communities with an improved sense of belonging, an opportunity for dialogue, and a greater opportunity for retail innovation and incubation.

Hive Public Space is a women-led urban design and placemaking consultancy. Their goal is to bridge DESIGN, PLACEMAKING and RESEARCH to create resilient public spaces and socially inclusive environments. Their multidisciplinary approach goes one step further into the economic and operational aspects of public spaces. Working at various scales ranging from art installations to masterplans, their goal is to give new life to under-utilized spaces by setting them up for urban, social and economic vitality. They are committed to addressing existing systemic issues present in the built environment.