Leveraging Community Voices for an Inclusive Future

by Alicia Adams, ASLA, and Lori Singleton, ASLA

Community engagement in Detroit
image: Alicia Adams and Lori Singleton

Shared Dialogue and Community-Driven Authorship in the Joe Louis Greenway Framework Plan

“We Hope for Better Things”

Detroit’s history has been a tumultuous one, to say the least. As a burgeoning auto industry attracted workers at the turn of the twentieth century and sustained them and their families into the 1950s, Detroit became the birthplace of the American middle class. In many ways, the city came to exemplify the American dream and, at the same time, the intrinsic characteristics which made it so elusive to communities of color.

Over the following decades, Detroit, like so many Rust Belt cities, was subject to the extreme consequences of economic decline and collapse. With industrial shutdowns came loss of jobs and residents. This, compounded with the effects of corrupt political, policing, and planning systems, served to only exacerbate the issues of preexisting racial inequalities. The impacts are still very evident in the city today.

Although Detroit’s story has become one of the most iconic, the city is not alone in the scars it bears. Inflicted by centuries of discriminatory policies and pervasive racial injustices in our systems that persist today, these wounds run deep in our American cities. Now, more than ever, we see evidence of this across the nation, brought into sharper focus by the Black Lives Matter movement—with collective voices that are speaking out against violence and systemic injustice against people of color. As Detroit works to rebuild itself, it must do so with a dedicated focus on equity and racial justice, and a commitment to creating more inclusive social and physical infrastructure.

The planning and design of the Joe Louis Greenway strives to promote shared dialogue and community-driven authorship, with the hope that this process, and others like it, may begin to heal urban trauma and guide a more inclusive future. The 32-mile non-motorized trail connects communities within the cities of Detroit, Dearborn, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. It ambitiously repurposes vacant, abandoned, and contaminated railroad corridors, as well as oversized rights-of-way.

With this project, we use our capabilities as landscape architects to collaborate directly with the community through the design process: to amplify voices other than our own and build shared authorship, to listen and respond more thoughtfully, and to provide the tools that the community needs to have ownership of their greenway.

More Than Just a Greenway

As is the truth of many projects that landscape architects undertake, the process for shaping the Joe Louis Greenway Framework Plan was—and continues to be—about so much more than the physical design of space. Projects such as the Joe Louis Greenway have the opportunity to heal and affect cities in deep and profound ways. By identifying and addressing pervasive issues, this project aims to build trust through shared authorship, to celebrate the history, culture, and identity of those neighborhoods through which the greenway passes, to provide a safe and healthy recreation experience, to promote shared economic development, to connect neighborhoods and people, and to restore and enhance our environment.

A New Model for Community Engagement

On a blizzarding day in February 2018, City of Detroit staff and two finalist project teams crowded into a small recreation center in northern Detroit to set a new precedent for engagement—the attendees were going to select the design team for the Joe Louis Greenway Framework Plan. Residents and visitors had a chance to engage with the design teams, to ask them questions about their approach, and to hear them present. They then cast their vote for their preferred team, ultimately selecting the SmithGroup Team to lead the project. This team included:

  • SmithGroup: Project Lead, Planning and Design
  • Sidewalk Detroit: Stakeholder and Community Engagement Planning and Facilitation
  • Studio Incognita: Identity, Branding, and Outreach
  • Toole Design: Greenway and Traffic Design
  • HR&A: Housing and Economic Development

This set the stage for community engagement to come; this process would be one which was community-driven.

The City of Detroit immediately appointed a Citizen Advisory Council (CAC), including resident representation from each district the Joe Louis Greenway would traverse, as well as representatives from the cities of Highland Park, Hamtramck, and Dearborn. This volunteer group would become intimately familiar with the project and its potential impacts—a process which was kick-started by a City-led trip to visit the Atlanta BeltLine. After observing the successes and pitfalls of a project of this magnitude, the group’s attendees were empowered as advocates—and critics—for the Joe Louis Greenway process.

image: Alicia Adams and Lori Singleton

Engaging in All Contexts

Throughout the process, the City of Detroit and SmithGroup Team sought input from a diverse variety of stakeholders and representatives. This included Small Working Groups, an Equitable Economic Development Working Group, Public Gatherings, Block Clubs, Religious Groups, and Artists & Designers.

A variety of both conventional and creative new tools were utilized throughout the process, each developed to be accessible, fun, informative, and to contribute to the design and planning process as a whole. (See Engagement Toolkit below.) Perhaps most important, however, was the ability for the SmithGroup Team and City staff to adapt the process to respond to the experience, needs, desires, and concerns of the community. The findings and outcomes from each engagement session, as well as responses to a post-session survey of participants, directly informed each subsequent series of events and activities.

Keys to Inclusive Engagement

Identify Barriers to Access: Ensure that sessions and information are accessible to as many people as possible.

Recognize Your Advocates: Bring them into the process, listen to them, and ask them for advice.

Be Nimble: By being adaptable and creative, and not too attached to any one idea, you can be ready to revisit your direction and change course to respond to the needs of the community and the project.

Make It Worth Their Time: Clients and consultants may feel like their time is valuable, but remember, there is a good chance you’re getting paid to be there. Attendees are volunteering. What are they getting in return?

Listen: Truly listen to what people are saying. Engagement isn’t always about the project, especially in historically disinvested communities. This becomes a forum taking place in an area where people have felt unheard.

Be Kind: Be respectful, patient, and humble.

Be Accessible: Speak a common language, and avoid planning jargon. For example, not everyone knows what a speed table is, and terms like these often mean different things to different people, even those within the same field. Bring photos and be prepared to sketch!

Reflect: In subsequent community engagement, as well as documentation of outcomes, continue to share how community participation and feedback has informed outcomes and shaped the project process itself.

Although this type of process requires a degree of flexibility that may seem infeasible for some clients, the extent to which the team was able to tailor discourse and activities to respond to the needs and desires of participants had distinct benefits to the project. For example, feedback during the first phase of engagement indicated that residents were nervous about gentrification and displacement as a result of economic development and speculation along the greenway. The response from City staff was to face this concern head-on, bringing local developers, City officials, advocates, and a representative from the Atlanta BeltLine to form a Housing and Economic Development Panel, to which the public could directly voice their thoughts and ask difficult questions. It is rarely within the scope of a project to address the full breadth of public concern or sentiment, but through proactive and productive response, the team effectively diffused collective anxiety and began to build trust around this process by bringing the public into a conversation which would traditionally take place behind closed doors.

Throughout the Joe Louis Greenway Framework Planning process, the ongoing reflection of public sentiment and participation back to residents was an important part of the project narrative. As the project moved through traditional analysis, design, iteration, refinement, and documentation, the input of residents and stakeholders was woven into the work in progress and was continuously reflected back to the community. Communication not only focused on those design elements which had been informed by participants, but also those which adhered to regulated design standards, best practices, physical limitations, or policy. By establishing these “given parameters,” the team was able to manage expectations and communicate how community input was applied to the planning and design of the greenway without distorting the process.

Developing an authentic and beneficial engagement process is not necessarily easy, nor does it manifest the same way in all communities. And there is no one project which can ‘fix’ those injustices which are so pervasive in our society today. But by recognizing that community voices are an essential part of the planning and design process for all projects, no matter the context or scale, we may be better prepared to create a better future together.

Engagement Toolkit

The following activities were developed by the SmithGroup Team, as well as the City of Detroit. Of special note were Sidewalk Detroit, led by Ryan Myers-Johnson, driving the community engagement process and activity and discussion facilitation, and Studio Incognita, led by Jenn Maine, driving community outreach and engagement activity materials, branding, and identity.

Value Prioritization (“The Card-Sorting Activity”)

Type: Collaborative discussion

Description: The room is organized into small groups of 6-10 (by geography if relevant). Each group is provided with a set of illustrated cards with themes relating to the environment, economic development, arts and culture, mobility, safety, health, programming, and other areas of interest or concern. As a team, the group discusses the cards and arranges them into levels of importance. A spokesperson is selected from each group, who shares a summary of their discussion and collective results while a facilitator records the output on a large board.

Preparation & Materials: A deck of theme cards for each group, created by consultant

Facilitation Requirements: High (4-10 facilitators), translator(s) as appropriate

  • MC: describes activity to entire group & leads report-out at end
  • Group Facilitators: one facilitator per group to help guide each group through the activity
  • Recorder: records in writing and sketches the outcomes of each group
  • Photographer: photographs discussions and final card sorting results prior to card collection.

Time: 25 minutes for group activity + 5-10 minutes of report-out time per group

“Design Your Greenway”

Type: Participatory Budgeting Exercise

Description: The room is organized into groups of 5-7, each around a table with topical boards and a deck of amenity cards. Topical boards (On-Street Greenway, Off-Street Greenway) each have a total budget identified, and several categories of amenities that must be selected to fulfill both functional needs and community desires for the greenway corridor. Each amenity card includes a ‘cost’. Participants must collectively select the amenities to meet their priorities, while working within the identified budget. Through individuals exercising both advocacy and compromise, each group negotiates to reach consensus. A spokesperson is selected from each group who shares a summary of what was decided and how they came to agreement.

Preparation & Materials: A deck of amenity cards for each group, boards for each group organized by topic, created by consultant

Facilitation Requirements: High (4-10 facilitators), translator(s) as appropriate

  • Facilitators: Describes activity to group and answers questions if needed

Time: 25 minutes for group activity +5 minutes of report-out time per group

Identity Moodboards

Type: Preference voting

Description: 3-5 boards are displayed in close proximity to each other, each with a range of imagery and graphics that convey distinct feelings or ‘moods’. Participants vote on the board that best represents the style or personality they’d like to see embodied in the design and materiality of the physical greenway elements. Images don’t need to be literal in representation; this is not a materials palette or furnishings selection activity, but a more nuanced inquiry of the desired look and feel.

Preparation & Materials: A selection of moodboards created by consultant (4-5 large boards)

Facilitation Requirements: Low (1 facilitator)

  • Facilitator: Describes activity to group & answers questions if needed

Time: 10-15 minutes for visual preferencing exercises, though more time may be needed for different topics

Storytelling Station

Type: Interview station

Description: A station with a chair and video camera is set up within the engagement space, often amidst other activities, or alongside community events. Participants approach the station where a board is displayed asking a provocative question about one’s experience, history, or aspirations. A facilitator may foster dialogue through further questioning or prompts. Interviews are recorded and collected.

Preparation & Materials: Comfortable chair, video camera and tripod, board with question/prompt created by consultant

  • Facilitation Requirements: Low (1 facilitator)

Time: 5 minutes per participant

Housing & Economic Development Panel

Type: Guest panel discussion

Description: 3-4 Invited panelists sit on a low podium with a guest moderator. Attendees check in at arrival table and sit in auditorium style seating. Panelists include representatives from comparable projects across the country, local and minority developers, and community leaders. Each panelist provides a brief introductory presentation followed by moderated questions and answers, including questions from attendees. A Citizen Advisory Council representative shares insight on their participation in the process and what they’ve taken away from the panelist and community exchange.

Preparation & Materials: Low podium with seating and microphones for panelists and moderators. Auditorium style seating for participants.

Facilitation Requirements: Low (1 moderator)

Time: 1.5 – 2 hours

Walk & Talk

Type: Strolling group discussion

Description: Break into small groups of 4-8. Facilitators are given a “Facilitator Guide” with a route, suggested stops and discussion topics. As the group follows the route, they identify specific assets, opportunities and challenges that they observe.

Facilitation Requirements: Medium (4-6 facilitators), translator(s) as appropriate

Tour Guides: 2 tour guides per group to facilitate and record discussion

Time: 1-2 hours

Mobile Engagement Kit

Type: Mobile and Flexible Activity Station

Description: An adaptable collection of informative, interactive and engaging resources for a variety of group sizes and types. This “Mobile Engagement Kit” is intended to be used by City staff to meet people where they are, be it block clubs, local events, front porches, churches, interest groups or anywhere people may gather. With a mix of responsive prompts, informational brochures, roll-up boards, and additional resources, these kits encourage discourse, spread awareness and increase the reach of the project as a whole.

Preparation & Materials: Informational and interactive boards (unmounted, dry erase, waterproof), dry erase markers, informational or activity brochures, business cards, dry erase markers, additional informational resources

Facilitation Requirements: Low (1 facilitator)

Alicia Adams, ASLA, is Landscape Architect and Urban Designer at SmithGroup. Lori Singleton, ASLA, is Vice President, Design Director at SmithGroup.

2 thoughts on “Leveraging Community Voices for an Inclusive Future

  1. Kathie VanDevere July 21, 2020 / 10:36 am

    Thank you! Beautifully done and much appreciated as we grow in learning to identify and preserve our Midwest landscape and its need for preservation!

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