s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 50 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 50   (Fall 2009)

Healing through the Collaborative Design Process

by Dan Hatch

An exclusive revolution

There is a potential revolution on the horizon of the design profession. In fact, many people believe that it has already arrived. Look no further than the March, 2008 US Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Facts and Figures Summary to see that there are currently:

Yet, with such an abundance of innovative design solutions it may come as a surprise that 98% of our population simply cannot afford the services of design professionals. There are, of course, passionate individuals and organizations committed to underserved communities around the country. However, these champions are often underpaid and overextended, and they are confronted with a massive number of communities in desperate need of healthy, sustainable design solutions.

These are the communities with the greatest need for and least ability to afford the solutions that the green design community offers.

A recent report, Economic (In)Security: The Experience of the African American and Latino Middle Classes, developed by Demos and Brandeis University, examines the economic stability of households of color in this country, and finds that 3 out of 4 African American and 4 out of 5 Latino middle class families are on unstable financial ground. These are the communities and families with the greatest need for and least ability to afford the solutions that the green design community offers. A truly inclusive revolution remains to be seen.

Words and action

Thanks to our online culture of abundant, easily accessible information, it is possible to engage in an argument about social, economic, or political root causes of environmental and social injustices and speculate about grand, sweeping solutions. In so doing, it easy to overlook the central requirement of an appropriate sustainable solution on any scale: an active and engaged local community. Without this, the word "sustainability" runs the risk of completely losing its meaning, intent, and true potential.

Local citizens must understand and take ownership of the solution...

At its core, holistic sustainability grows from a specific location, microclimate, culture, local resources, and specific needs. For example, a design solution that is effective in a rural area of a cold climate zone will not be appropriate for an urban area in a hot climate zone. The most effective way to achieve a design solution that works well is by allowing the solution to grow from the local community. Local citizens must understand and take ownership of the solution because it will require maintenance, future adaptation, and great care to ensure it continues to serve the local people and positively impact the local environment.

Considering that many of the communities with the greatest need are located in urban settings and do not retain a strong connection to the earth or local climate patterns, the design process must include education, collaboration, leadership and skill training, and a connection to the land. An expanded process of this kind has the potential to transcend mere design solutions and begin to heal whole communities and restore long forgotten ecosystems.

The Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living

The Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living is a low-energy-lifestyle learning and training center that began as a conversation between concerned citizens on the south side of Chicago. Founders Fred and Dr Jifunza Carter led discussions with other concerned community members about the environmental and social injustices that were directly impacting African American communities and brainstormed grassroots solutions that would be possible to implement with limited resources. These discussions eventually led to workshops and presentations about climate change and effective local solutions that could lead to an increased quality of life and a decreased environmental footprint.

Early in their work the Carters recognized that many of the members of their communities had little or no contact with an intact natural ecosystem. Community members could not fully understand the importance of environmental stewardship or the dependence on oil that comes with urban living. Thus, the Carters' vision began to include a rural sustainable homestead that would be easy to access from the city and would provide ample places to practice sustainability techniques such as organic gardening and earth building.

Their long-term vision was solidified when they were entrusted with 40 acres of land in a historically impoverished farming community outside of Chicago and within a thriving black oak savanna ecosystem. With limited practical experience and even fewer resources, the Carters began the long process of developing their self-sufficient homestead. In all, the Carters hope that in learning about sustainability and their local environment, visitors will develop a deeper connection with the land.

Local community leaders and local design leaders

The development of the Black Oaks Center demonstrates that while community leaders can articulate their needs and goals, their work would be strengthened by a connection to design professionals. By April of 2007, the Carters' efforts had earned them a highly respected reputation within their own community, but many of their homesteading efforts were delayed by unexpected logistical problems and building dilemmas such as waste management and water storage.

...while community leaders can articulate their needs and goals, their work would be strengthened by a connection to design professionals.

A timely introduction to a member of the non-profit architecture organization Architects/ Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) at the 2007 Chicago Green Festival formed the beginning of a relationship that is now seeing the Black Oaks Center through to the next level of completion. In brief, ADPSR works for peace, environmental protection, ecological building, social justice, and the development of healthy communities. Since their formation as a national organization in the late 1970s, they have been working to ensure that the benefits of sustainable design are accessible to all communities. On the local level in Chicago, ADPSR has been working to provide low income communities with the resources they need to begin acting within their homes and neighborhoods.

The collaborative design process

Collaboration between community leaders and non-profit design leaders allows for designs that are more inclusive and therefore more sustainable because local citizens are invested in their continued success. The relationship between ADPSR and the Black Oaks Center quickly blossomed into a planning process for a series of collaborative design events.

Pulling from their respective networks, ADPSR and the Black Oaks Center hosted a mixed audience of design professionals, building professionals, students, and community members. ADPSR facilitated the events with the help of the Illinois Chapter of NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) and guided the participatory design process specifically addressing what was possible on the Black Oaks Center's land. The events benefited the Black Oaks Center in the following ways:

Currently, 2 of the 5 total scheduled collaborative design events have taken place. So far, they have been a resounding success and have even led to several local schools asking for their own collaborative design process when this one is complete. Their success demonstrates that the collaborative design process requires a committed local community in order to be effective. Had ADPSR attempted to invite members of a community without the leadership of individuals like the Carters, they would have worked without community input, and certainly would not have achieved so much in such a short period of time.

The momentum that has been gained through the collaborative design process has also afforded the Carters new ways to reach out and educate their community. For example, they have started to offer Sustainability Camps on their land for local schools whose students participated in the collaborative process. During the camps, students interactively learn the principles of sustainability and also contribute to real projects that are in process on the homestead.

Additionally, the Black Oaks Center is about to host its first of several earth building workshops to teach the skills of "earth bag construction." Participants will not only learn how to build with this technique, but they will also construct some of the garden walls that were designed during the collaborative design process. The process not only allowed for the communal design of specific spaces, but more importantly demystified the process and empowered students and citizens to take ownership of the various projects.

There is great potential for the Black Oaks Center to continue developing partners and projects and to see their vision to completion, all of which is possible because the local community has been actively engaged since the beginning. The model of collaboration that incorporates local community leaders and local design leaders would undoubtedly be appropriate, applicable, and beneficial to communities in need around the country - it is up to designers and the communities around them to begin their own conversation. If enough communities take it upon themselves to begin such a process, then an inclusive revolution might actually take place.

To stay up to date on the Black Oaks Center's progress, please check out http://www.blackoakscenter.org.

Dan Hatch worked at the Ecosa Institute for Sustainability and with Global Exchange. He is currently the director of Hatch Design Studio and a board member of Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility. This paper is based on remarks the author made at the "Surviving Climate Change: Producing Less and Enjoying it More" roundtable, June 2008, St. Louis.

[26 oct 09]

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | s/r 50 Contents