happy places

Last month I wrote a blog post for Enterprise linking the inspiration I have gained from Lina Bo Bardi’s work, particularly SESC Pompeia, with the aspirations our team has for the Baptist Town Community Center.  I reference a quote of hers that I read in Rowan Moore’s Why We Build about when she first visited the site:

“’I thought: it has to continue like this, with so much happiness. I returned many times, Saturdays and Sundays, until I really got it – understood those happy things people were doing.’”

As we celebrated the opening of the Baptist Town Community Center, I was reminded of the lessons I learned from SESC. Here, we similarly (albeit within a shorter time frame and smaller budget) worked with the bones of an existing building. We set up shop within the Baptist Town neighborhood and attempted to make small and useful additions to a place that is already vibrant with life and energy.

After one month of operations, I’m not ready to write any grant reports about “measurable impacts” or “long-term outcomes”, but the number of people who are participating and enjoying the center is really promising. In June we had Zumba classes, community movie nights, and offered job application assistance. Yolande’s art classes were a huge success, sometimes drawing more than twenty-five people. To me, this is the goal of social impact architecture; to make a space like the Baptist Town Community Center a happy place.

 

the best job you’ve ever had

The upcoming class of Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellows will be one of the most diverse in terms of geography, scale and partners yet. The five exciting opportunities will be located in New York City; Poughkeepsie, NY; Porcupine, SD; Seattle, WA; and Denver, CO. Learn about the fellowship, the five work plans, and how to apply here.

The application deadline has been extended to July 26th, 2015. 

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Enterprise summarizes the Fellowship, “The Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship partners early-career architectural designers with local community development organizations, where they facilitate an inclusive approach to development to create green, sustainable, and affordable communities. As an integral staff member of the organization, the fellow will focus on advancing the organization’s practices in community engagement, sustainability and design excellence.

By becoming a fellow, you join a growing network of passionate and talented public interest designers who are continuously changing what is possible in community development.”

i’m engaged, you can be too

Sunday through Tuesday (February 22-24), I will be working with the community engagement experts at the Carl Small Town Center, the Project for Public Spaces and the Citizens Institute on Rural Design in Houston, Mississippi. The three day event will engage community members around questions regarding the design and related impacts of a new rails to trails trail head near the city’s downtown. The Chickasaw Journal summarized the event and the new amenities in the area that it will focus on in this December 2014 article. We hope you can join us! As we get ready for this event, and wrap up the Design Cents forum earlier this week, I summarized some of my thoughts about community engagement here.

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Community engagement is a term that sometimes mean a lot, sometimes means nothing at all, and always raises a lot of questions. At it’s worst, community engagement can be a lie, tokenism, or an insincere attempt to placate or meet a requirement. At it’s best, it unites people around a common cause and lays the ground work for positive, long-lasting understanding and impact. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about community engagement in the past.

Human to Human

No matter how effective your social media machine, lovely your fliers, or engaging your survey, none of it matters if you don’t have a real connection to the community you are trying to engage. You must spend time in person with the people, in the place, and sometimes living the experience that defines the community you are working with to develop how to best engage. For example, a largely illiterate population won’t be well engaged through surveys. By meeting the community, face to face, engagement goes beyond being an exercise and gains strength, an identity, and context.

Try Again

There is no recipe for successful community engagement. It’s a messy art, and those who practice it learn that no single attempt or event can be expected to be a catch all in which information is gathered, people are galvanized around a cause, or a plan fully developed. Many community engagement activities I have seen, and planned, have been poorly attended. Really poorly attended. Many times this points to a lack of understanding on the planners part regarding who the community is, how to reach them, or what issues are important to them. The worst thing to do at this point is take the responses of one or two people as speaking for the whole, or pat yourself on the back for trying and simply give up. Take a step back and try to understand why the engagement exercise failed, and then try again.

Have A Plan

Like me, most people who engage communities weren’t trained to do so. We make a lot of mistakes, but a simple one is to be prepared. It is disrespectful of the people who participate if the organizer doesn’t have a clear goal, activity, or leader. While flexibility to allow people to respond honestly is important, they must have something to respond to. If a map would support your engagement activity think through what it should look like, how big it should be and how people will interact with it. Community engagement isn’t easy, so taking a professional approach is important to meeting the efforts goals.

 

upcoming ACSA conference

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The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture’s call for this years papers invited submissions on a variety of topics, all related to the global nature of architectural practice today. The number of topics related to socially impactful work is encouraging. Even more exciting is the acceptance of a paper that Leah Faulk Kemp, Assistant Director of the Carl Small Town Center (CSTC), and I co-wrote. Our paper, titled Building Social Building, presents four lessons learned through the work of CSTC as instructive in implementing community driven design projects. We can’t share the paper until after our presentation, but here are some soundbites:

  • Public Interest design has trust issues.
  • Public interest architecture is public; this means it’s political.
  • Social impact design is about more than three bottom lines.
  • Social impact work must be impactful.

We will share more about the paper and our presentation in April!