community engagement

Ethical Redevelopment Principle #2 - Engaged Participation

Deindustrialization, redlining, urban renewal policies, mass incarceration, sudden population shifts: it is no simple task to redress the effects that communities have suffered from decades of disinvestment. The ecology resulting from a decline in resources, such as abandoned properties, under-education, neighborhood violence, unemployment, is not a result of any single privation, and neither can the reversal of such disinvestment be accomplished by a single person or entity.

Real, sustainable community change requires the initiative and engagement of community members.
— Helene D. Gayle, CEO, McKinsey Social Initiative

Equitable transformation of a community is dependent on the agency of the members that live and work in that community. Affordable housing, living wage employment, quality education, recreation and retail, health and social services, transportation and infrastructure—all are made more powerful when a community is not merely a recipient, but an active participant in its development. Civic engagement brings both internal stakeholders and external stakeholders to a shared platform.

Ethical Redevelopment proposes developing an engagement framework that calls into question who does the work and with and for whom. As many organizations and institutions consider “engagement strategies” that may be more about informing a public—a one-way relationship—the willing investment of participants’ time, talents, and resources in a given place redefines the architectural, cultural, social, and economic landscape. By engaging with a multiplicity of people who share in the transparent negotiation and implementation of a vision, place-based work integrates a sense of social responsibility, neighborliness, and authenticity.

Engaged Participation is the development of authentic relationships with people who already believe in the place: locals embedded by proximity, those connected by a desire to contribute or commitment to a mission. The value of the relationship is in the intimacy, not in the duration. Engage for as long as it makes sense to engage. This intimacy sparks commitment to a vision, and the neighbors, staff, and visitors become participatory producers—more than “consumers”—by tapping into different access points to find themselves in the work. The work is for many, with many, and, ultimately, by many.


Providing multiple access points is key to authentic community participation, and such points are often developed as a the result of key partnerships between stakeholders. Boston Creates, a year-long cultural planning process, partnered with artist collective Department of Play to explore the ways in which Bostonians engaged with arts and culture. This partnership connected urban planning and the lived experiences of Boston's communities to inform the cultural plan for the city by "[infusing] creativity, imagination, artistry and fun into a citywide planning process."

Take a moment to think about your community and the opportunities that exist within it. How can you, operating as a resident and a citizen, champion Engaged Participation?

Carson Poole: Reflections from 'Making the West Side'

Carson Poole, Place Lab's project specialist, attended the Making the West Side Public Forum and Reception on May 19 at the Hull-House Museum. In this SITE entry, Carson shares some reflections and takeaways from his experience at the event.

Carson Poole

Carson Poole

Richard Anderson, from the National Public Housing Museum (Chicago) and Princeton, talked about the history of University of Illinois at Chicago construction, and the well-known displacement that occurred. The chord that really struck with me, and I think many other people in the room, is the poisonous legacy that exists because of the negative impacts that top down planning and development projects, in Chicago and beyond, have had on communities. It brought to mind the construction, neglect, and demolition of public housing in America, and the CHA’s struggles with it’s Plan for Transformation [see notes at end for links to more about the Plan for Transformation].
Understandably, there’s a deep mistrust of large scale interventions in planning and development, which sometimes hinders progress and holds us back from making deep investments in communities. I think that this mistrust is an important piece of the picture, and one that calls for better community engagement + empowerment approaches from the various public and private entities involved in city-building.

All that modernist urbanism failed on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a tremendous intellectual crisis because of the extent of the social meltdown and because absolute power of design and implementation had been granted to the planners.
— excerpt from interview with Andres Duany

It’s interesting to me that this mistrust spans the political spectrum—from conservatives who tout limited government and little to no public spending, to progressives who draw upon the history of urban renewal and espouse a “tactical urbanism” by way of Jane Jacobs approach to planning. I thought back to this interview with Andres Duany, founder of the Congress for New Urbanism and an influential planner and urbanist. He championed the need for regional-scale, top down interventions in things like transportation infrastructure and renewable energy development, that will inevitably require compromise from residents, but must take a primarily resident perspective and design at the human scale in order to avoid the terrible mistakes and willful displacement that has occurred in the past. 
Basically, we can’t all be NIMBYs (Not in my Back Yard) and BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything), if we want to accomplish real, sustainable change— but we also can’t plow the Skyway through the South Side. It’s about finding that sweet spot for human scale interventions, and that happens through sincere engagement and providing people with real opportunities for participation and decision-making power.

Oil painting from the exhibition  As Cosmopolitans & Strangers , an exhibition that explores Mexican Art of the Jewish Diaspora and the complexities of diversity. Part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of Mexican Art. Image: Gunther Gerzso (1915-2000),  Yellow–Green–Blue / Amarillo–Verde–Azul,  1984, oil on Masonite, NMMA Permanent Collection 2009.45.

Oil painting from the exhibition As Cosmopolitans & Strangers, an exhibition that explores Mexican Art of the Jewish Diaspora and the complexities of diversity. Part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of Mexican Art. Image: Gunther Gerzso (1915-2000), Yellow–Green–Blue / Amarillo–Verde–Azul, 1984, oil on Masonite, NMMA Permanent Collection 2009.45.

Another speaker, Rosa Cabrera, from the UIC Latino Cultural Center, talked about her work studying cultural institutions in Chicago, and the difficulties that these institutions face embracing the multitude of perspectives, values, and identities that exist within cultural communities, rather than viewing them in monolithic terms.
All communities, cultural or otherwise, are constantly in flux, as new waves of immigration, or in some cases, depopulation, create changes in values and in shared experiences. The challenge to cultural organizations is to explore intersectional identities and intergenerational differences in culture. Cabrera felt that many cultural institutions have a need for capacity building and training aimed squarely at this issue in order for these diverse viewpoints to be expressed.


Chicago Housing Authorities Plan for Transformation

Official CHA site.

CHA report, The Plan for Transformation: An Update on Relocation [pdf]. April 2011. 

Urban Institute, CHA Families and the Plan for Transformation. A collection of research, articles, and papers the UI has produced over more than a decade of following CHA families during relocation.

 Sudhir Venkatesh and Isil Celimli, Tearing Down the Community., 2014

RSVP for the Public Convening on Ethical Redevelopment, a free and open public event at which Place Lab will explore and showcase how residents, artists, entrepreneurs, developers, and civic leaders are joining forces in a more equitable process for community revitalization.

Purpose-driven development: St. Laurence project

Former St. Laurence Elementary School in Grand Crossing. Photo: Place Lab.

What spaces exist for people to get involved in the development processes occurring around them? Who has a say in choosing what buildings will be demolished and which are allowed to remain? What happens to a community when it loses a school, and what can we collectively imagine will happen inside these unique and valuable community assets?

Inside the now abandoned St. Laurence. Photo: Place Lab.

Schools, and school buildings, are important loci of community, learning, and shared belief in the future. When school buildings and other community centers are closed, they are often simply abandoned, creating not only a visual eyesore, but a striking representation of public disinvestment and relegation of those communities. As Patrick Kerkstra observes in this Next City article on school closures: "’s not surprising that many shuttered schools are often simply left to rot for years by cash-stripped districts loathe to spend money on maintenance for empty buildings. It’s a state of affairs that can generate blight and, in time, pose genuine safety hazards." And it isn't just the building closure itself that impacts the neighborhood; the loss of a school sends myriad ripples throughout a community. The article goes on to note that "closing schools is almost always traumatic. Some consider the selection process arbitrary and open to political influence. And once the final decisions are made, students and families must scramble to find alternatives. Teachers are reassigned or laid off."

Because of their symbolic and practical importance to communities, renovating and re-activating these buildings presents unique opportunities for public conversation around the patterns of urban development, neglect, and reinvention, among local residents who are directly effected by these trends.

Place Lab team members Carson Poole and Nootan Bharani working on site clean-up at St. Laurence. Photo: Place Lab.

Place Lab is currently working on a demonstration project called Board Up, a community engagement series that involves communities in reimagining the possibilities of disused spaces. The first Board Up involves the vacant St. Laurence Elementary School in Greater Grand Crossing, Chicago. Concepts for the future of St. Laurence may include makerspace that provides education and job training in industrial design and fabrication that will augment neighbors’ skills and expand employment prospects.

The windows at St. Laurence prior to boarding. Photo: Place Lab.

This summer, young people in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood will engage with the reimagining of St. Laurence through artistic intervention, using the windows in the building as a canvas that will provide comment on the possibilities of St. Laurence. Drawing from the history of the community and the collections at the Stony Island Arts Bank, Chicago artist Ruben Aguirre will lead a group of youth and explore pattern-making as a lens through which we can view culture and identity.  

The project will create murals for the boards that now cover the windows in the building, beginning the building’s transformation from abandoned to activated space. St. Laurence is rich with opportunities to tap into the latent capacity for change and artistry that exists among the community’s networks. These opportunities are what we call pedagogical moments, and can serve as a foundation on which a project is built. They are moments of exchange— simultaneous teaching and learning— that scale the impact of our work and move us forward. The third of our 9 Principles of Ethical Redevelopment, pedagogical moments are intentionally woven throughout the St. Laurence project and other Place Lab projects to maximize the scale and scope of impact

We'll provide updates this summer on progress at St. Laurence here on the SITE blog. Check back, and look out for an announcement for the public unveiling of the murals in August.

Windows lining a hall at St. Laurence. Photo: Place Lab.

Update: An earlier version of this blog entry referred to Place Lab's work at St. Laurence as redevelopment. The blog has been revised to clarify that Place Lab is involved in a community engagement project at the site.