How Can We Design with Communities While Apart?

Date Posted: 11.18.2020

By Deb Guenther

The current pandemic has heightened attention to how we maintain democratic practices around public gathering and communication related to project development. While conventional in-person approaches are challenged, there are opportunities to reach even further to cultivate resilient community relationships and engagement.

As we figure out how to work together while apart, we have been considering how to successfully forge camaraderie and casual interaction online. What are the real and perceived barriers to equitable access to online interaction and how can they be addressed? Can we imagine new ways to widen audiences and level the playing field?

Here are a few considerations that excite us.


Do we really know what we think we know? Assumptions about the digital divide—who has internet access and who doesn’t—can be misunderstood, as reported by the Center for Internet Society.

It is critical to hear directly from each community what the barriers are. This takes more time. Some of the barriers include English as a second language; childcare and eldercare at a time when health issues are even more pressing; and a lack of or limited internet access and associated support.

There are many relatively inexpensive solutions such as free webcams, hot spots or phone data top ups. Filling the gaps identified by community members can help support advisory councils and allow community-informed work to continue. Remember this mantra about the importance of inclusion: “nothing about us, without us, is for us.”

The health crisis could push the design profession to make initial outreach about barriers to access commonplace.


Create personal connections, stimulate creativity and support trust. In order to achieve these goals, consider the context of our revised daily lives: localized experiences; more free time for some, less for others; individualized experiences as well as more multi-generational interaction; interpersonal tensions and mental health challenges; more time outside for some and more time inside for others.

How can we adapt our familiar community engagement goals—diverse communication style choices, interaction between residents, reporting back to the group—to new conditions?

Some ideas include self-care and personal experience check-ins; self-guided walking tours; scavenger hunts; general gamification of activities; sharing on-site design team and community member smart phone videos; and prompting storytelling through video, written or illustrated media.

There are exciting possibilities for video analysis, which builds on the power of emotion in a way traditional analysis does not.


Plan the first meeting and adapt with the next. It’s difficult to anticipate what will matter at each point in time. Each community is having collective and unique experiences that will influence their priorities going forward. Keep the outlines broad and any necessary expectations clear. Reflect on those expectations to ensure they are truly the basic ones.

Share back what was heard and confirm the value of participation. Constantly tailor the process to the audience interests and needs to influence how the interaction occurs and how it is curated.

Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic can be the advent of a much more responsive process.


Establish stipends for community ambassadors and residents who co-create with the design team and bring the expertise of their lived experience to the project. Ask what types of leadership and mentorship opportunities could be built into the process to provide career opportunities during uncertain times.

This is where diversity, equity and inclusion considerations meet design—where designed process outcomes are much broader and long lasting than the physical design itself.

An intentional process in this pandemic-conscious world could also result in valuable policy input and revisions as agencies scramble to keep their work meaningful and valuable to constituents. Building in opportunities to inform policy helps people connect with the democratic process, particularly during times of rapid change and social movements.

There is opportunity for this health crisis to accelerate democratic, community-driven design.


A silver lining of disruption is that previously unheard narratives can emerge and provide a more holistic picture of our world. In public settings, social norms tamp down sharing of difficult stories. But difficult stories are the foundation of racial reconciliation and transparency. They lead us to acknowledge we operate in a gray world, not black and white.

Challenging stories are the foundation of building trust. As research demonstrates, compelling stories stick with people. We can create safe space by consistently providing a venue to share those stories—celebrating the sharing of stories and their impact, and curating them to create a constructive environment.

Repeating the invitation to share stories in multiple meetings communicates this is a deep desire, not a superficial request, and will prompt different results in different times and settings among people.

Perhaps current physical distancing could result in greater listening—the desire to hear another person’s story, one that may be in conflict with your own beliefs or assumptions.

With thoughtful outreach, and acknowledgement that we will make mistakes, we can bring our design creativity to a community-informed design process. Much can emerge from this experience that will enrich our relationships and work together.

This post is adapted from an article that originally appeared in THE DIRT, a publication of the American Society of Landscape Architects.