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Here’s what the Community Design Collaborative has learned through 25 years of service

Community members participate in a Child’s Play design charette. February 8, 2016 Category: FeaturedLongResults
The switch from cataloging projects with index cards to PDF files is just one way the Community Design Collaborative has evolved over the last 25 years.

Founded in 1991 as a program of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Collaborative was operated by a part-time staff for 10 years before hiring Beth Miller as its first executive director in 2001.

During the earliest years of Miller’s involvement, she said, the Collaborative focused on deploying a network of design professionals who volunteered their time and skills to serve Philadelphia neighborhoods. It still does that, but the biggest change over time has been the expansion and development of the precise types of action it takes.

Now, in the year of its 25th anniversary, the Collaborative operates to serve, initiate and share.

Service, of course, has been an ongoing effort. The Collaborative continues to fulfill about 20 citywide community design grants and match about 150 volunteers with 20 to 25 organizations every year.

Initiation was the next step. In 2005, the Collaborative started a program called Infill Philadelphia in order to create closer partnerships with city agencies, funders and intermediaries like the Local Initiative Support Corporation and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation. The program’s goal is to identify and tackle emerging issues, such as the city’s 40,000 vacant lots.

“Right now we’re looking at play space and where design comes into play for pre-K to third grade,” Miller said. “But we’ve also done design challenges around affordable housing, the reuse of industrial sites, food access and commercial corridors so that we can aggregate those services and also have a broader conversation about how we can reuse underutilized assets in the city.”

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More recently, in an effort to impart both wisdom and resources, the Collaborative put together a design guide that assembled lessons learned from 20 of its past public schoolyard design projects — the sharing. 

“Each design grant or each project is going to be tailored to the individual needs of the stakeholders where they are,” Miller said. “But there are lessons that can be learned from looking at them in the aggregate, when they can help people get a jump start.”

A temporary public park set up by the Collaborative in a Center City metered parking space.

A temporary public park set up by the Collaborative in a Center City parking space. (Courtesy photo)

In addition to the organization itself, Miller has observed changes in the professional origins of the Collaborative’s volunteers. More and more creative professionals of all trades choose to work on a freelance or self-employed basis these days, as opposed to more traditional forms of employment with design or architecture companies.

“We’re kind of seeing the first or second generation of our volunteers in different types of positions now, so they’re not necessarily in traditional firm practice,” she said. “And I think for emerging professionals, if they’re not affiliated with a firm, [volunteering] is a great way to tap into that.”

That doesn’t mean design firms are out of the picture, though. In the earlier years of the Collaborative, individuals volunteers were usually placed on teams to conquer projects. But now, Miller has seen an increase in staffs from design firms signing up to volunteer because of their collective interest in the organization. “We found that many firms that may have aspects of public interest design in their paying work are also interested in fostering that through their staff, so it’s a way for them to give back,” she said.

During the Collaborative’s early years, volunteer recruitment consisted of phone calls and handwritten directories. Nowadays, the organization has more volunteers than they can actually place within assignments.

Michael Spain is a frequent volunteer designer with the Collaborative who most recently worked on a cultural development containing space for housing, retail and a museum. “Their support and commitment to the volunteers is unmatched,” he said of the organization. “That’s one of the reasons I stay involved.”

Miller urges that her volunteers represent only a part of a project’s success, though: “The community groups have the vision, the idea, and the tenacity to push these ideas through, our volunteers assist by putting these ideas on paper and thinking about strategies, and then the broader community advocates for them and makes them happen.

“The real process, the engagement of people and what we call ‘community design stakeholders’ talking about what the possibilities are and establishing priorities – that’s really the secret sauce of what makes these projects so special.”

This 25th year is already one for the books. In addition to the Collaborative declaring it the “year of the volunteer,” Philadelphia will play host to the AIA’s national convention in May.

“We’ll have a chance to show off a bit,” Miller said with a laugh. “We’ve come a long way, baby.”

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