Seven steps for architects to improve their communities

Mi Jardin in Austin, Texas

A rendering of Mi Jardin, the pedestrian plaza designed by landscape professionals Sara Partridge and Melissa Henao-Robledo.

The chair of a community outreach committee in Austin, Texas, explains how to build relationships and bring design assistance to your city

Have you ever seen a problem in your community that could benefit from a design opportunity? Are you inspired to serve the underserved in your city and make a tangible impact through design?

These were questions that Eva Schone, AIA, a newly licensed architect in Austin, Texas, was challenged with in 2008 as she looked for a way to give back to her community through the architecture profession. Eva approached AIA Austin about forming a community action group, which in turn inspired the founding of a committee called DesignVoice. As an action-oriented committee, DesignVoice goes beyond “talkitecture” to leverage partnerships between local nonprofits, architects, and a broad range of design disciplines.

Since its inception in 2009, the volunteer members of DesignVoice have engaged hundreds of local architects and designers in programs, including educational presentations about affordable housing, an internship program for high school students to visit firms, and five design charrettes and competitions. If you want to build your own community impact organization, this step-by-step guide offers up an example project currently underway in Austin—a bus stop shelter in an underserved neighborhood—to show how it can be done.

Identify a need: Explore the issues that touch you and that you want to constructively impact.

DesignVoice is an inclusive group, open to anyone passionate about addressing community issues in impactful ways. Meet with your team and brainstorm ideas on how you will collectively address local needs; be sure to choose a project at an appropriate scale for volunteers to spearhead. One pressing need that resonated with our group was the many unsheltered bus stops we saw throughout the city. We soon learned there were over 100 shelterless bus stops in Austin with high ridership—defined by 50 or more daily boardings.

Work with community partners: Research and contact potential organizations already working on this issue.

We reached out to Austin’s transit provider, Capital Metro (CapMetro), and started building the relationship that would grow into a collaborative partnership to host a design competition. The key is to pair with an organization that has the capacity and commitment to see the project through. CapMetro was looking for opportunities to establish public-private partnerships and was in the process of selecting which bus stops were next in line for shelters. We visited several shelterless bus stops with CapMetro and decided to focus our efforts on a bus stop in a lower-income neighborhood along a burgeoning transit corridor.

Create the opportunity: Choose a project and secure commitments to implement the results.

DesignVoice has adopted the charrette process as an effective community design event that attracts multi-disciplinary design teams to support the needs of local organizations and their community at large. A charrette fosters collaborative and innovative design solutions with immediate feedback from a jury, with the intent that teams continue to develop their ideas for final submission.

Incorporating an outreach committee as part of the AIA broadens the way we engage, connect, and lead within our communities.

We worked with CapMetro to develop a program and criteria for an exemplary placemaking bus stop shelter in an East Austin neighborhood. The competition also required the design teams to utilize the SEED Network, a framework for public interest and participatory design. As part of this process, 100 bus riders were surveyed for feedback about their use of public transportation and what they want to see at their bus stops. Over 30 architects, landscape architects, engineers, and bus riders participated in the design charrette in 2014; six designs were later submitted for final review.

Document the project: Develop the necessary documentation needed to construct the design.

The competition was structured so that the winning team would subsequently enter into a formal agreement with CapMetro to design and build the bus stop shelter. The CapMetro Evaluation Team selected a winning design called Mi Jardin, which was designed by local landscape professionals Sara Partridge and Melissa Henao-Robledo.

Mi Jardin is a vibrant pedestrian plaza that reflects the diversity and cultural heritage of the area. Whimsical shade structures, inspired by flamenco dancers, will shade bus riders and funnel rain water into the hollow steel supports for the canopies. The water will be released slowly to sustain a native species garden, which will anchor a public pedestrian plaza that serves as a comfortable meeting place for the community. Both functionally and visually powerful, Mi Jardin will be a centerpiece and landmark for East Austin bus riders and residents.

Facilitate action: Implement each of the projects to the best of the organization's abilities.

The largest challenge for most projects is raising the funds to implement the design. While this design competition assigned the winning design team the responsibility of fundraising the majority of the construction costs, other models of community impact design require the nonprofit partner to commit to funding the entire project's costs as well as the full or reduced fees of the winning design professionals.

Mi Jardin’s design team is hard at work building relationships in the community, engaging the neighborhood, and creating social media platforms to spread their outreach and bolster support. Melissa and Sara have been working with a fiscal partner called ioby to leverage a crowd-resourcing platform for this citizen-led and neighbor-funded project. CapMetro also doubled their financial contribution to the project, further supporting the winning team and helping them reach their fundraising goals.

Share your story: Promote the results through social media channels, AIA newsletters, conferences, and presentations in schools and the community.

This part is essential. We have presented at local, state, and national conventions, with the goal of spreading our knowledge and learning from others. I would be remiss if I did not mention the amazing staff at AIA Austin, led by executive director Ingrid Spencer, that enable and support our community outreach endeavors, and the AIA Austin DesignVoice committee members who volunteer so passionately and make this work fun and rewarding.

Repeat, learn, evolve, grow: Follow up with partners and design teams, conducting surveys and requesting feedback, to further any future efforts.

DesignVoice has developed into a vehicle for creating and leading community-based design projects that engage traditional architecture firms and a broad range of other design disciplines in the practice of public interest design. This was a snapshot into our process, which is continuously evolving as we engage with new stakeholders and serve different needs in our community.  

Incorporating an outreach committee as part of the AIA broadens the way we engage, connect, and lead within our communities. Whether you are interested in facilitating a design project or a larger initiative at your local AIA chapter, every act of service starts with the desire to make a difference. Let our collective action ring louder through our communities, advancing the voice of the underserved and working with our neighbors to serve their needs through design.

This piece was originally written for Connection, the Young Architects Forum e-magazine.

Beau Frail is an advocate and leader of public interest design in Austin, Texas. He currently serves as the chair of the DesignVoice committee at AIA Austin and is a project designer at Michael Hsu Office of Architecture.

Image credits

Mi Jardin in Austin, Texas

Sara Partridge and Melissa Henao-Robledo

Recommended on this topic

Topic

Another minor downtick in architectural firm billings

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elt. Cura bitur amet et commodo turpis ...

Topic

Another minor downtick in architectural firm billings

Topic

Another minor downtick in architectural firm billings

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elt. Cura bitur amet et commodo turpis ...

Recommended products

From our store

Earth Water Air Fire Book

From our store

Earth Water Air Fire Book

From our store

Earth Water Air Fire Book