'Participatory design is sustainable design': On landscape architecture and community engagement - Generocity Philly

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Aug. 13, 2018 11:20 am

‘Participatory design is sustainable design’: On landscape architecture and community engagement

Here’s the story of how Manayunk-based SALT Design Studio engages neighborhood stakeholders with more empathy for greater effect.

SALT Design Studio facilitating a community meeting for neighbors of Fairview Park in Manayunk.

(Courtesy photo)

This is a guest post by Bradford Bucknum, Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia's manager of communications, and appears here through a partnership with SBN.
Salt is essential, but often overlooked. Our bodies depend on it to function properly. While often taken for granted, salt’s role is too often regarded as a nice addition but extra nonetheless.

Sara Pevaroff Schuh, founding principal of Manayunk-based SALT Design Studio, chose this name for her business to underscore the role of landscape as infrastructure in our exterior environment.

“People misconstrue the discipline of landscape architecture as decoration or ornament, not as fundamental to a project’s overall design, intent or success,” she said.

Unfortunately, landscape architecture is oftentimes seen as providing auxiliary features instead of integral infrastructural elements. This is a serious misconception: Take its role for granted and the integrity of entire project is threatened.

When the landscape architect is brought in at the beginning of a project, they can contribute to the big picture. This way, the built and natural environment have a fighting chance at maintaining a harmonious relationship.

Similarly, it is important for the long-term success of a project that sincere efforts are made to listen to the want, needs and concerns of the community.

Here’s the story of how one landscape architect engages community stakeholders with more empathy for greater effect.

Community must remain an equal partner in the process of community engagement.

Better collaborations transpire when all parties are brought to the table at the beginning and are invited to enter the conversation on equal footing from the outset, and when community engagement is viewed as indispensable, not ancillary.

This takes time, energy and resources, but quality community engagement cannot be rushed, and as obvious as it may seem, it is important to stress that the community must remain an equal partner in the process of community engagement.

“Quality fights to be a full partner at the table with quick,” says Schuh.

In her work, she has used collaboration as a tool to lift people up and dissolve barriers created by unequal power dynamics surrounding community engagement. The only way to unearth the full potential of a project that serves the community where it is being built is to come to the table with flexibility and equanimity for all parties involved.

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For example: Schuh and her team facilitated a nature-play visioning session for the East Falls community at McMichael Park. The community had differing views of how to best use this five-acre woodland asset. New families with young children moving into the neighborhood saw the site as a potential place for recreational opportunities, while some long-term residents wanted to maintain the more sylvan character of the park.

The challenge was clear : Schuh had to help people jettison their personal agenda in support of the common good.

“We don’t all need to agree,” she said. “But we need to agree that we have a common bond and that there is a bigger concept at work here — the future of our community’s green spaces.”

Before you can help people see mutual interests, she said, you have to meet people where they are and then listen. These conversations need to be candid and they need to remain conversational.

If a collaborative approach to community engagement contributes substantially to the long-term success of the project, why is this not the standard practice?

In this case, Schuh’s team engaged the community in an exercise that invited them to imagine how the site could be altered. They staked out dimensions so neighbors could experience the scale of the eventual project, and they marked out where paths and other elements could be installed.

The public can only learn so much from a plan or a map presented at a community meeting, so Schuh wanted to make sure that the community could have a conversation about the site informed by a shared participatory experience instead of a presentation.

“Participatory design is sustainable design,” said Schuh. “It fosters buy-in and builds stewardship into the nature of the project.

But if a collaborative approach to community engagement contributes substantially to the long-term success of the project, why is this not the standard practice?

Perhaps community engagement is seem as an obligation: If I go through the motions as fast as possible, I can get moving on my ideas for this project. 

However, to be fair, community engagement is difficult. At a community meeting, it is burdensome to foster a truly collaborative experience with 100 or more people. It would be too time-consuming.

One solution is to plan ahead of time to dedicate more time to community engagement.

“There has to be some acceptance that it takes longer,” said Schuh.

Intentional community engagement leads to higher-quality, higher-performing and more sustainable projects.

When Schuh and her team led the community engagement session for the outdoor learning environment at Chester Arthur School, they didn’t come in with one plan and ask for feedback; instead, they came in with three plans.

Instead of asking the community which predetermined plan they preferred, Schuh and her team asked participants to focus on ideas they favored from each and this process informed the next iteration of the design.

In addition, Chester Arthur formed a focus group of students from first through eighth grade to give share how they currently use their outdoor space and how they hope to engage with the finished outdoor learning space.

This shift is not just an effort to check the box of community engagement. Instead, the process can uncover ideas that contribute to the success of the project. Any other approach risks missing out on great ideas.

Schuh believes that this kind of community engagement leads to higher-quality, higher-performing and more sustainable projects. It also unmoors the project from the limitations of short-term thinking. At the end of the day, isn’t it community members who will be entrusted with the site for hopefully many many years?

“When you foster collaboration, you are planting the seed of compassion and empathy,” said Schuh.

Applied to both community engagement and how businesses cooperate and listen to stakeholders, this way of thinking about the entire life cycle of a project ensures that those who are most affected by the harvest are present to sow the initial seeds.

If you don’t have stake in the eventual harvest, how will this affect your attitude towards cultivation?

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