Romancing the Community-led Design Commons?

July 27th, 2012 by Giota Alevizou in Community-led Design Research | no comments

The ideas and practice of community-led design, participatory design or co-design have a long-standing tradition, especially in the context of urban design, planning and architecture. Over the last 50 years, community-led design has influenced the practice of design and planning professionals who sought to develop new methods for participation; it has led to the creation of community centres and organizations offering design and planning services and has led to several governmental initiatives. Community-led design aims beyond the one-dimensional process of consultation towards improving civic participation and ensuring more democratic outcomes, to creating a strong sense of community and strengthening people’s attachment to their place and to each other, to producing more sustainable solutions.

Nonetheless, although the practice of professionals and organisations involved has matured, community-led design is far from being mainstream. Part of the problem is that the benefits of the approach are not thoroughly understood, articulated or communicated. A possible solution to this problem may be the development of a social networking platform to support wider, bottom-up participation in the collection and articulation of evidence about the benefits and pitfalls of the approach; a platform from the communities, designed with the communities and for communities to showcase their projects, voice their concerns, and support each other. To explore these possibilities we conduct a number of studies within the “Valuing Community-Led Design” project, also funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) under the Connected Communities programme.

We have begun exploring what the development of such a networking platform means for representatives from communities who have already been involved in the design and regeneration of local places, under the support of The Glass-House Community Led Design, a charitable organisation in the field. As part of these studies we also aim to understand what media and communication tools or methods these communities use for gaining access to, and sharing information, communicating and deliberating as well as publishing creative insights and artifacts (e.g. stories, photos, videos).

To this end, on the 18th and 19th July we started collecting some evidence, by bringing together nine representatives from four groups that have already gained support from Glass-House: Canterbury Society, Kirdford Community Led Plan, Friends of Barnfield Estate, and Wards Corner Community Coalition. [Addition] On September 20th, we went to another community, Coldsmiths Community Centre, and we conducted a focus group and an asset mapping task with 7 members of the community. Participants completed questionnaires, discussed and deliberated on what they consider as valuable aspects of their communities and projects; we asked participants about their search and information assessment practices and what they aspire to communicate and showcase from their creative work and spaces.

We use this space to share some preliminary, and somewhat unfiltered, insights that were brought forward through participants’ responses to the group discussions.

Learning about community-led design, getting involved and involving others

 ‘I first became aware of the issue through a poster on a tree, advertising a public meeting’

For most communities, a problem in their local area, often within a space or buildings or an impeding development is what instigates the desire for collective action. Yet common among the motivations of participants is the desire for the development of a collective vision, an aspiration for improving conditions of living within their local environment, whether environmental or social, architectural or cultural. These are civically engaged citizens by enlarge, often members of a variety of volunteer and activist groups, or residents’ associations and neighbourhood coallitions; while some become more politically motivated and engaged in the process, others aspire to combine professional knowledge with an active involvement in local governance and regeneration.

Knowledge about problems is gained through a variety of methods and media, often serendipitously: “I first became aware of the issue through a poster on a tree, advertising a public meeting” one participant mentioned. Likewise, word-of-mouth or door-knocking goes side by side with other systematic methods for soliciting feedback in public meetings, local festivals and markets, or through physical, email and (occasionally) twitter surveys.


Internet searches, direct pointers to council websites and local media (principally newspapers, newsletters, magazines, radio and in some cases, hyperlocal sites) are the key means that participants use to explore the wider field to search for information or to find support. Drudging through the internet ecology can prove challenging and though searches offer a variety of scattered sources of support, direct appeals to local government sites, third sector organisations and charities like the Glass-house is for some the first point of call.
Local media and grass-roots information seeking strategies also appear to be key in the process. Through these and direct communication strategies, leaders in community-led design projects organise more meetings and workshops that involve planning and local government professionals, as well as local residents. This way they seek to gain support in the process of planning and in design, discuss challenges on funding and deliberate on visions and, often, prevent adversarial actions.

Sharing, showcasing and mobilising others

A variety of online and home made print media (leaflets, newsletters, booklets, posters) are being used, alongside face to face contact in meetings, email newsletters, mailing lists and text messages. Almost all the community projects’ representatives that talked to us have a dedicated website which is run by volunteers: they share minutes from meetings, relevant local news, planning documents and maps, photos and videos, and often seek to engage in further discussion and consultation. Only Wards Corner is using more collaborative platforms to facilitate user generate content, and aims to use experimental video and creative activism to raise awareness. Barnfield aims to start a community social site to engage as many of the 1,800 residents as possible, as mobile media have thus far prove somewhat successul. All other projects run community guest blogs and or use social media (twitter feeds and facebook pages, or YouTube) to distribute messages, news, announcements and promotional or experimental videos.

Admittedly, dedicated websites are seen as a necessity for enhancing group or project profiles and wider community outreach; many participants contend that these are developed ‘bit by bit on the way’,  and point to challenges such as time resources, digital literacy and financial demands. Though all participants consider more collaborative interfaces favourably, they also point to tensions regarding openness and privacy.

Participants shared views that that wider exposure to local and national media (or multiple outlets) can raise profile further, attract attention that can foster more support (volunteers, government, local stakeholders). The idea of influence decision-making (regarding planning) again comes more prominently from the groups that mostly deal with problems.

A sense of pride is what we felt fuels the desire to showcase material from projects. Motivations are both cultural and social: Participants from Barnfield and Wards Corner, stressed that they want to showcase their projects in order to keep people engaged and they strive to communicate the community spirit in a visual way. One participant put particular emphasis to the role of evidence:

‘I don’t want to come across as a crackhead; these things happen’

All seemed to strive on ways to communicate a shared vision or consolidated (and creative) versions of a vision that can promote their local communities through particular projects.

Romancing the Community Design Commons? media Aspirations

To accompany our discussions, we also demonstrated the first iteration of an experimental social networking site we are currently developing, and invited participants to interact with its features. Initial responses were inspiring and certainly pointed to encouraging directions, as well as anticipated challenges about interface – ease of use and simplicity, clarity and compelling multimodality.

Media Aspirations

A general sense of expressed ‘social-media-fatigue’ (along the lines of ‘yet another social networking site to compete for attention and time’) was coupled with excitement: some said that such a platform can provide accessible and readily-available technical tools or an integrative space for communities to showcase material, network with each other and gain peer support.

We then asked participants to offer keywords that would best describe this ideal media platform, by pointing to either purpose or features (see above). Many participants pointed to what we could describe as a ‘lively participatory resource’ and others emphasised the ‘collective’ and the ‘aspirational’. One participant diverted from the ‘task’ and elaborated further. Her remarks are quite representative:

  • Evidence of things happening
  • Empowerment, solidarity
  • Find examples of successful community-led design projects in order to show evidence that community led design does work
  • Share resources (for funding; for design support facilitation; useful press contacts)
  • Share stories and community experiences

Voicing and showcasing evidence, offering and seeking advice and support, and sharing stories about problems and alternative futures, are what participants are willing to contribute.

Without a doubt, the two days last week have sparked many new ideas and interests, but also have raised questions with regard to any learning, resources and sites for collective action and situated creativity. Many such questions have resonance with other questions about hyperlocal publishing such as Jerome put on a recent post in here: what may be appropriate to the size and buy cialis digital inclusion of the communities, where word of mouth and other media are also so crucial? How might a digital presence draw in volunteers from wider cultural and interest groups? How might an online presence be used to lobby/petition for funding and other support?

We will continue collecting evidence in the forthcoming months.


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