Gallery of Urban Ideas: Community Engagement
Jonathan J. Marvel
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.
↓ Responses ↓
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.