From Community Engagement to Community Investment

by Deb Guenther, FASLA

The Ecology of Partners / image: © Mithun

The Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership was established to “foster transformational leadership capacity and support innovation to advance the field of landscape architecture.” It is an opportunity to dedicate the equivalent of three months’ time over the course of one year to nurture emerging ideas. I am honored to be one of the six current fellows. The cohort is discovering many overlapping interests, shared agendas, and mutually reinforced ideas in our work. Consequently, we’ve been thinking about ourselves as a collective—exploring multiple dimensions of the same cultural thread, like the different chapters of a book.

I am exploring the dimensions of community wealth building, defined here as “a systems approach to community development that produces a reconfiguration of institutions and local economies on the basis of greater democratic ownership, participation, and control.”

Specifically, this work focuses on shifting standard practice from community engagement to community investment by building long-term relationships between designers and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color)-led, community-based organizations.

To better understand shared values and differences between designers and BIPOC community leaders, I have created this short, anonymous survey. Through this survey I hope to learn about the ways these groups could increase collaboration to support community investment approaches to the design of the built environment.

You are invited to inform this work! The survey will be open until March 6, 2022. Please feel free to share with others—landscape architects and community-based organizations.

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This research started in June 2021 and will be formally shared in a webinar hosted by the Landscape Architecture Foundation in June 2022. You are also invited to follow progress along the way on YouTube where you can find short interview videos, recent findings and provide comments.

A Culture for a Shared Future: Pathways to Community Wealth Building – YouTube

As a white designer exploring community wealth building in disinvested communities of color, an important principle guiding this work is to follow the lead of BIPOC community leaders. Initial conversations with over a dozen community leaders created the foundation for this work. I will return to these leaders this spring to discuss the findings and their perspectives will guide the outcomes.

Community Leaders / image: © Mithun

Some of the foundational principles of these community leaders are:

  • Grow the relational before the transactional
  • Shift power and resources to people who are experts in their community
  • Build stronger community agency with collective impact models
  • Define needs and governance before project delivery and finance
  • Support the interdependence of the individual and the collective
The Crescent Collaborative / image: © Mithun

Some exciting examples of BIPOC-led community-based organizations building stronger community agency through collective impact work include:

The Crescent Collaborative, Seattle, WA
Three culturally significant neighborhoods adjacent to downtown Seattle experiencing displacement working together to advocate for community agency and investments—Africatown Community Land Trust, Capitol Hill EcoDistrict, and Chinatown/International District.

Richmond LAND, North Richmond, CA
A community land trust and visionary development team that “creates pathways for residents to shape real estate, land use and development […] through working with coalitions to build our collective strength.”

Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos, Santa Cruz, CA
Using restorative justice to support people transitioning back to the community through cultural education, healing, youth engagement, and community development.

Rebuild Foundation, Chicago, IL
Founded in 2009 by Theaster Gates, a social practice installation artist, Rebuild Foundation is “dedicated to transforming buildings and neighborhoods in South Side Chicago while sustaining cultural development and celebrating art.”

Thank you for your interest in this work and taking the survey. The survey should take less than 15 minutes and is thought-provoking! Your participation is appreciated and supports growing capacity for this work.

Deb Guenther, FASLA, is a partner and landscape architect at Mithun, an integrated design firm in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Whether working on sustainable landscape performance or equitable community investment plans she returns to the adage, “everything (everyone) is connected.”

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