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Vol. 03
What is Community Design?


After taking August off, we’re back in your inbox. This time we're talking about what the heck is it that we do as a community design practice...

Community design is a specific niche within architecture; the term is often interchanged with 'public interest design' or 'impact design'. What distinguishes community design from traditional architectural practice is the emphasis on participatory design and social justice issues, though there is an argument to be made that these considerations, like sustainability or 'green building,' are simply part of good design. 

In any case, it's important to note that modern community design grew out of the civil rights movement. Though community design centers (CDCs) had already begun to form by the late 1960s, the origins are commonly traced to a keynote speech given by civil rights activist Whitney M. Young where he famously chastised a room full of architects at the 1968 AIA Convention in Portland, OR for their lack of action on civil rights:

“...[Y]ou are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I’m sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”
In the decade following this speech, CDCs sprung up all over the country, most of them either nonprofits or affiliated with universities.  Since then, the movement has persisted in various forms, with many of the original nonprofit and university CDCs still in operation, as well as new forms influenced by the rise of social entrepreneurship.

Community designers focus on a wide range of issues: housing and homelessness, disaster relief and resilience planning, economic development, advocacy and education, to name a few. As a for profit community design practice, FORM Coalition's approach is rooted in a community design and social justice ethic, and our services reflect our experience in the community design field. In addition to traditional architectural services (surveying and drawing existing buildings, designing new ones or renovations), we offer other services typically offered by a community design center, like planning and strategy work, consulting, installations, etc.  We like to emphasize participatory planning and design--building a vision with stakeholder involvement-- and economic justice, supporting small, local entrepreneurs--which is why we love working with small businesses and small, local developers!

More reading: Here's a link to the full text (PDF download) of Whitney M. Young's speech. Note that it's 1968 and he's calling out exclusionary and racist housing policies--this was not something that just happened while nobody was watching, people knew exactly what was happening! Also notable is that, on the middle of Page 3, he's either addressing a room entirely full of men, or thinks that he is. Fortunately, the demographic makeup of a roomful of architects has changed in 50 years. 


Other things we’ve been up to lately:
Last week we participated in Richmond’s Park[ing] Day event (#ParkingDayRVA), partnering with several organizations and businesses in the Northside neighborhood(s) to install a pop-up park on Brookland Park Boulevard. It was a fun day, but local activist Duron Chavis reminded us, appropriately, of how much work we have to do to build inclusive public spaces via this quote from Annette Koh in 2017 (Twitter):

What would placemaking look like when Black lives matter? Washington D.C.’s director of planning illustrated the racial limits of DIY optimism, stating, “I’ve told my staff that PARK(ing) Day is really nice. But if five black males took over a parking spot and had a barbecue and listened to music . . . would they last 10 minutes?” Who gets to “disrupt” the public space paradigm, and who gets arrested for disturbing the peace? Twenty years earlier, Oakland-based landscape architect Walter Hood pointed out the irony that “congregating on corners implies illicit activities and trouble” in inner city communities, while in other areas of the city, it is encouraged and seen as a sign of vitality and community spirit. How much have things really changed?

Upcoming, find us at Fulton Fest on October 19th, where we’ll be hanging out with our friends at Innovate Fulton and sharing some work we’ve been partnering on for the last six months.

Still have questions about what it is we do? Just click 'reply' and ask!

--Jodi, FORM Coalition




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