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ESSAY: Things could always be otherwise: The value of community-centred design. Daisy Froud.

16.11.2020
ESSAY: Things could always be otherwise: The value of community-centred  design. Daisy Froud.

There is a way of thinking about the world, one we seem often encouraged to take, that suggests that things can really only be the way that they are. That there is an inevitability about the way in which spaces and buildings around us are produced and sustained; about who gets to live in them;  to do whatever in them; and to change them.

Of course some areas are desirable and cost more to live in, and some are seen as grotty and cheap. Of course not everyone can have a decent-sized home. Of course when times are tough, we cannot necessarily have the community spaces we would like. But actually, of course, this is not the case. ‘Things’ as political scientist Chantal Mouffe stresses ‘could always be otherwise’. When we look out of our windows, or down our streets, everything we see is the result of decisions that have been taken about how the world should be organised. The origins of some may be lost, taken so long ago, and re-enacted so many times, that they now seem somehow natural; Mouffe calls these ‘sedimented practices’. Some may be taken unconsciously. But none ‘just happen’ or are somehow objectively pre-destined. Good, community-centred design practice can help us become more aware of those decisions, and the world views that underpin them, and then, if necessary, to challenge them. ‘Every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities,’ Mouffe goes on to say. When we, as citizens and practitioners, work consciously and carefully to re-imagine together, we start to not only see those other possibilities, but to be able to test them, and to take them, together. And ultimately to start to order things differently.

This all sounds great. Terms like ‘co-production’ and ‘community-centred design’ are in vogue. But what do they mean in practice? Working to design or change the built environment collectively requires more than good intentions and warm feelings, particularly when resources are tight and participants may have different ideas or needs. There are situations where a community comes with a unified vision – a consensus – and the role of architects is simply to help give form to that. Or where a project is hands-on and spontaneous, evolving through non-confrontational collaboration. But this is rare. And maybe not that interesting, or even healthy? Arguably the joy of how humans share space, and make meaning, once given the real opportunity to do so, is that of working out how to do it together, of encountering and engaging with difference. Changing the world, and being changed ourselves in the process?

I find it helpful, as both participant and facilitator, to think of community-centred design as a form of politics; a process of creatively determining ‘who gets what, when, how’ – to use a classic definition from another theorist, Harold Laswell. Decisions about the form of the world are structured through power relations. That is a given. Inevitably, those who hold more established and traditional forms of power – land, money, or formalised roles – end up with more influence over how the world is designed and organised. In turn, that organised, designed form helps sustain the status quo. Community-centred design offers an opportunity to draw attention to power relations; to be conscious of – in the way in which we deliver projects – who is holding power, of who benefits and in what way, from different decisions; and having made those decisions, and power relations, more visible, to invest critical creative thinking about the best and most equitable way to address them.

In community-centred design, the design of the process is therefore just as important as the design of the finished building, space or object. When I support community groups in the selection of architects for projects, I always encourage them not just to look at their design vision and practice portfolio, but also to interrogate how the architects propose working with them. And not just to tick off buzzwords, like ‘collaboration’ or ‘workshop’, but to demand specific examples of tools and techniques. Similarly, when facilitating a project, one of the first things I do is map out the decision-making process, simply and transparently. What needs to be decided when, how and by whom? Where are the key decisions, the catalytic moments? And where are the ones, that, if we don’t pay attention, might get taken by accident, or by design ‘magic’, but that actually residents might want to be consciously part of? That way, from the start participants are made aware of the potential agency they hold and, perhaps, can challenge power-holders for more.

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    Then you can have fun designing the creative, enjoyable ways in which those decisions will be taken.

    Because community-centred design is not just about decisions: that meta-level of negotiation and process. (And indeed, decision-making is not just a conceptual exercise; sometimes we take decisions live, by picking up material and consciously constructing things together.) It is also, vitally, about – with the assistance of an architect – imagining things into a form, and then introducing those forms into the world: a skate park, a public square, a building for community activity.

    This can require a different approach from architects to the one they may have been schooled in; architectural education often relies on an imagined client and a hypothetical site, pushing the architects to put their own subjectivity, and their own reading of a site or a problem at the heart of the process. Community-centred design not only requires professionals to de-centre ourselves, but also offers the opportunity to positively de-discipline: to consider how the processes by which we go about architecture and contribute to placemaking could be done differently: more inclusively, more collaboratively, more fruitfully – inflected by other knowledges and experiences.

    Researcher Ann Van Herzele, in her article Local knowledge in action entertainingly narrates the tale of architects co-designing a new park in Antwerp with local residents. Repeatedly, the interpretative frames of the bewildered architects collide with those of community members. “The architects started from the point of view of the place as a ‘void’… while the participants started from the concept of a place that was full of memories and expectations for the future”, Van Herzele reflects. Similarly, the design team are forced to rethink the “order of things” – the norms of the design process “They start thinking in great detail of things which are not on order yet, for example about fences and little gates. They zoom in on bits and pieces while you must think on big lines,” reports an architect with frustration. 

     

    The architectural practices I enjoy working alongside relish those challenges to process: that ‘disorder’. Collaborative practice muf, for example, on one housing project, responded to similar tendencies by carefully drawing all the small details of people’s home life that mattered to them at the start. These fragments, combined, then helped to shape the big moves, rather than being put on the back burner until they were ready for them at the appropriate RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Stage.

     

    Anarchist Gustav Landauer famously said: “The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.” A cheesier way of saying that might be: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” 

     

    Community-centred design, with the spotlight it throws on decision-making and the challenges it poses to power dynamics, is one location where new relationships and behaviours are forged. The present pandemic has highlighted how much society needs to do things differently. It is now impossible to ignore how inequitable and inadequate so many environments are, from poor quality housing, to access to good community and open space. In lockdown, we are denied many of our normal relationships. Yet simultaneously, impressive networks of mutual support and community interaction have formed or strengthened. As – fingers crossed – we move on and out into the world expansively again, I hope there will be many more projects centred on community values, needs and knowledge. And that the ‘otherwise’ will continue to reveal itself. 

     

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