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Amid juggling the intricacies of design and code reviews, construction documentation, zoning requirements, and other bureaucracies, designers can lose sight of the simple premise that buildings are for people. Here, three professionals share challenges and tips on garnering meaningful community input in the design process.

Listen, Listen, Listen
Finding a balance between a standard career in architecture and the public sector can often feel at odds, says California College of the Arts diversity studies professor Shalini Agrawal. After practicing as an architect for 20 years, she felt “the traditional field was not addressing issues that were important to me, which was bringing community voices into the process.”

To help bridge this gap, last year, Agrawal worked with Garrett Jacobs of the Open Architecture Collaborative to spearhead the launch of Pathways to Equity, a seven-month-long workshop program to prime designers with skills to practice responsive social impact design. Fundamentally, this starts with opening lines of communication and establishing trust with community stakeholders. Agrawal recommends “lead[ing] with deep listening, and not with solutions. Stakeholders bring different—and valuable—perspectives based on their own lived experiences that we, as outsiders, do not have.” Designers should understand that communities are often “the content experts with the issues that directly impact them, and should always have a seat at the table,” she continues. “Those who are closest to the issues are closest to the solutions. This facilitates sustainability and ownership towards better project outcomes.”

Hosted in partnership with Open Architectural Collaborative and the Association for Community Design, Pathways wrapped its pilot program earlier this year in Oakland, Calif., and will soon launch an online training program for those not based in the Bay Area.

Be Realistic and Deliberate
Acting on an impulse to get more involved is the first step, but even the best-laid plans can fall short, especially if it happens during your off-work hours. “It’s about being realistic about what you can give so you can prevent burnout,” says Siboney Díaz-Sánchez, AIA, an associate at San Antonio, Texas–based Overland Partners, founding member and co-chair of AIA San Antonio’s Latinos in Architecture Committee, and a zoning commissioner for the city’s District 1. “Being deliberate about communicating your priorities, your intention, and really showing up matters.”

Finding a cause that speaks to your passions and concerns is one thing, but if the prospect of a new time commitment isn’t realistic for your work schedule, Díaz-Sánchez says you can pitch in other ways. Don’t get arrested by inaction or overwhelmed if you find yourself short on bandwidth: Listen in on conversations and pay it forward. If an excellent opportunity to work on a community-focused project comes up at a not-so-great time, recommend others that could be a good fit.

Institute Firm-Wide Standards
While going the extra mile for community engagement can create a complex matrix of desires and necessities, especially in private-sector projects, it is up to firms to establish standards. To take actionable steps, Díaz-Sánchez says, firms should “formalize time for listening to communities within the project scope and contract. Challenge clients who do not see the value of community outreach—because architecture affects everyone.” Planning for translators, selecting physically accessible locations, and providing advance notice for community meetings will help ensure your outreach efforts are not only realistic, but welcoming. Above all, listen and follow up with progress and updates to keep community members engaged and informed.

As the director of civic impact at New York–based design firm WXY, Traci Sanders plays an active strategic and advisory role throughout the concept and design process to ensure that social and community engagement plays an instrumental part throughout. "WXY has used a variety of tools," she says. "But every potential project begins with developing an engagement strategy that ensures we gather information that informs the end product."

Depending on the project scope and type, Sanders says, these strategies can include large-scale public forums, with presentations and breakout sessions for more focused discussions; going out into the community to survey people on the streets; meeting folks at community centers or church events; and using augmented and visual reality visualizations of planned designs to transparently share project updates.

Working with a local community to set a clear road map of goals and objectives is not only in the best interest of a firm's designers and end users, but the client, as well. “We’re interested in creating and helping to create communities that are environmentally and economically sustainable; we want to create spaces that promote equity,” Sanders says. “We’re constantly keeping that in our minds as we’re creating the vision and narrative that you have to come back, double down, and commit.”

This article has been updated since its original publication.