A significant portion of our work is the design of public spaces in urban settings. Hence, our design process for public projects often involves meeting with and getting input from the citizens of a community. After all, what would public space be without the public who will be using the space?
If our work is about transforming site into place, then community participation guides us in understanding the things the people in the community value, their concerns, and their desires for the space. The process is educational for us, as the project’s designers, and to community members, its users. We learn from each other about civic engagement and creating a landscape with cultural meaning.
We develop many skills in our practice. When we come to the table facing a group of individuals who are diverse in age, interests, and goals, our listening skills are tested. Listening is an art. It is not difficult to master if the desire is there and practiced regularly.
A former colleague once told me that the secret to effective listening is allowing other people to “fill the silence.” In other words, ask a question and then shut up, and let other people do most of the talking. Given the opportunity, people will open up to reveal what is most important to them.
The reality of public projects is that budgets, politics, and other factors also influence what is finally built. In the end, the success of the design will be measured and judged by others as the landscape is used and evolves over time. Although the original design intent may be forgotten by the community and other participants soon after opening day, people will remember that their voices were heard, and this place will remain special to them because of it.