Learning and Unlearning Community Engagement

When a project impacts the quality of life of a particular community, the designer, client, and stakeholders are each responsible for the outcome. A community is defined by the size, complexity and histories of a group of people connected by a common interest. The broad topic of “community engagement” is constantly changing in pedagogy. Carducci Associates continually investigates forms of engagement to ensure positive outcomes for public and community-focused projects. As fellow coworker Wesley Bexton states, the best approach to all our community outreach experiences is grounded in honesty, humility, and compassion.

During nearly two years of work at Carducci Associates, I have experienced several scales of design and planning community engagement processes. Whether we’re discussing a small neighborhood park or a school campus, my observations are grounded in my involvement in activism as a student.

Unlearning is a process that identifies outdated, restrictive models and replaces them with improved, more inclusive practices. Unlearning requires the perseverance to reflect on knowledge, skills, and outcomes of previous models. Our current model emphasizes the designer’s role as facilitator. The physical layout of a meeting is a good example of nurturing the unlearning process: the designer shifts from leading at the front of the room, to facilitating as one among a circle of participants, where both can feel more comfortable speaking and listening to each other.

Through my education, I have defined guidelines to foster a safe and productive space for decision-making tailored to the community involved in a specific project:

  • A positive outcome depends on preparation; in advance, the facilitator drafts an agenda.
  • At the meeting, the facilitator sets objectives for the discussion while clarifying their role as listener as opposed to leader of the conversation.
  • The facilitator should be aware of participant’s goals as much as their own. Begin the meeting with each attendee sharing a brief introduction and goal for the meeting to create a shared language of diverse perspectives.
  • Throughout the meeting, the facilitator listens to and documents all suggestions and concerns and provides honest responses where needed to assure no false promises or hopes.

The following experiences at Carducci have inspired new strategies for a more effective approach to community and stakeholder meetings.

Le Conte Elementary School, Berkeley

As experienced by Associate Principal Wesley at LeConte Elementary School, a site committee led the development of a landscape master plan and a resulting capital improvement projects for immediate development. During the final meeting of the site committee prior to board approval, a large group of parents in attendance communicated they had only just learned of the planning process, and had missed the opportunity to participate. This group had previously conducted an independent study that would have informed the master plan’s development, which in turn would have led to different development priorities.

“We needed to find a way in that meeting to unlearn, with our site committee, the process we had assumed would occur,” Wesley states, “and as a group expand the discussion to include these additional community members in a way that respected the work already accomplished by the site committee, and equally respect the points of view held by the independent group. We spoke to district decision makers who agreed to extend the community process so that the additional input could be incorporated, and were able to schedule several more meetings to address the expanded discussion in a meaningful way.

We created a community input process that allowed us to visualize critical issues for the campus through the lens of both the staff and the students in a way that was immediately apparent and accessible to the group. We correlated the data gathered by the independent group with the data we’d gathered through our own process, and demonstrated the correlation to our expanded group. The additional input didn’t ultimately change the master plan itself, but dramatically changed key priorities, which led to a very different capital improvement scope that addressed needs identified by both students and the independent group.”

Washington and Rosa Parks Elementary Schools, Berkeley

For Washington and Rosa Parks Elementary Schools, Wesley and I applied lessons learned from the LeConte community meetings. While flexibility and redirecting decision-making are very important skills, using media that communicates across different user groups is vital to retrieve genuine feedback. We used the community input process created for LeConte to generate feedback from both staff, and students. This process asks basic questions that can be answered simply or in narrative form and asks participants to map out their ideal campus plan, as well as identify specific “problem areas” on the site. We interpret the narrative usually to make it accessible to the site committee; and additionally graphically represent concepts and issues identified on the campus maps onto a plan that usually weights each concept – a word map – to help guide the decision-making process. This input process generates what was called by an architect on one committee, “the most democratic design process [he’d] encountered.” The exploration of playground program informs the master plans and the capital improvements prioritized for that summer. In the end, the input gathered, highlighted student needs that led our site committee to critical discussions re-envisioning campus program, and distilled a campus design favorable to all stakeholders. This project not only changed the structure and breath of play experiences for the students, but also increased the quality of interactions with students for the teachers and staff both on the school yard and in the classroom.

John Hinkel Park, Berkeley

Researching the stakeholders connected to this park - neighbors, parents and children – as well as the structures regulating the park – a historic landmark title – improved our preparation for these community meetings. As a result, we were able to create goals for the project aligned with a number of competing values held by stakeholders.

Hosting the community meeting at the site allowed us to address barriers in both design process and topography. Upon seeing the meeting in process, park neighbors, including contractors and designers, joined the project. Because a key site challenge was its steep topography, participants unaccustomed to contour maps could walk the site with us, locate places simultaneously on the plan drawings and in the park, and come to a better understanding of design decisions.

As this process continues today, it is clear that extracting information from the park’s users about their needs allows for us as designers to communicate to the client the possibilities of engagement. The relationship between the client, stakeholders and designers allows for inspiring interactions yielding designs that increase impact and reduce inefficiencies.

City Parks and Recreation Today

A foundation of trust with stakeholders goes hand-in-hand with a productive and valuable community engagement process. The knowledge and skills invested by the community in the design process inspires exciting outcomes and experiences for the end user. At a recent interview for an East Bay landscape architect on-call position, we encountered reminders of language barriers and political climate. By hiring a Spanish-speaking staff member in their Parks and Recreation Department, the city noted an increase in engagement from Spanish-speaking community members in parks and recreational issues. Building trust through listening and fostering an accessible and safe environment better ensures that public facilities serve the entire community. Our learning and unlearning of engagement practices is fluid, to meet the needs of the community and create stronger partnerships.

Karly Behncke and Wesley Bexton, your neighborhood designers

Edited by Petra Marar

Community Meeting located at John Hinkel Park, Berkeley
Student Survey for Washington and Rosa Parks Elementary Schools, Berkeley

Community Meeting

The Completion of Emerald Glen Park / “The Wave” Aquatics Center Opens Memorial Day Weekend

Carducci Associates has worked on a large variety of project types and scales throughout California. Some of our designs are completed and built within months, while others are implemented in phases over many years. We are excited to announce that we have reached the end of a long journey in the city of Dublin, California: the completion of Emerald Glen Park’s final phase and the grand opening of “The Wave” aquatics complex.

Emerald Glen Park is a 48-acre park in the heart of Dublin, dubbed “The New American Backyard.” Our firm’s team, Principals Bill Fee and Vince Lattanzio, Associate Principals Jin Kim and Jamie Beckman, Senior Associate Alvin Tang, and Associate Lee Streitz (bios here), has had the privilege of designing and overseeing the construction of several parks in the city, including the last three of Emerald Glen Park’s four phases.

Phase Two (2001-2004) introduced a grand entry with a dramatic water feature, welcome plaza, and centerpiece for public art. A new connection on the southern edge invited Dublin residents and visitors to their new park.

The park expanded during Phase Three (2003-2006), where we designed and directed the construction of group picnic areas, a children’s playground, restroom facilities, a cricket pitch, and two large soccer fields. Upon completion of this phase, two-thirds of the park transformed into public open space. The park began to come alive as the community embraced the park and made use of every corner.

When funding became available, the City once again hired Carducci Associates to design the final phase of the park’s master plan: the central plaza, amphitheater, and outdoor aquatic recreation facility. Our partner, Dahlin Group, served as the prime-architect to oversee the project and design the iconic wave-shaped community building and natatorium. Our other design partner, The Aquatic Design Group, provided expertise in the development of pools, slides and water-play throughout the site.

The result of the team’s collaboration was the “The Wave” at Emerald Glen Park, a boardwalk-inspired, public aquatics center that spans 31,000 square-feet of park space. The $43M facility accommodates 1,400 people and features three pools, six water slides and a children’s play pool. In addition to water play, the picnic areas, group cabanas, fire-pits, and outdoor ping-pong tables create a place one can visit often and experience something new each time.

A project of this scale is not completed overnight; we began preliminary designs for the final phase over four years ago. Pencil sketches turned into hand-rendered drawings, which then were revised and massaged using computer aided drafting and 3D modeling. After many years of design, followed by over a year of construction administration, The Wave had its official ribbon-cutting ceremony last week and will open to the public on Memorial Day Weekend. Grab your swimsuit and come ride The Wave in Dublin, CA, Carducci Associates’ latest built project.

View the project page here.

View from the top of one of The Wave's new water slides.

Site Visit / Event

Alameda High School Breaks Ground

Occasionally, we get the opportunity to work on a project that is interesting not only for its site conditions and context, but also for its highly personal connection to our own history. Philip Dinh, Associate, who attended Alameda High School, says, “This was a place that I spent four of my favorite years, attending classes [and] creating memories with friends. Not many people get to say they were part of a team to help redesign their high school, and I am proud to be able to say that!”

Carducci Associates is part of the team, working with project architect Quattrocchi Kwok Architects, that is restoring Alameda High School’s 1924 neoclassical campus to its former glory. Renovations to this registered Historic Landmark will deftly weave 21st century classrooms into the fabric of this remarkable building. At the April 24th ground breaking ceremony, Carducci Associates was recognized by Alameda Mayor Trish Spencer, and Alameda Unified School District Superintendent Sean McPhetridge, for our work in designing improvements consistent with both the historic site and future-forward sustainability goals of the state, city, and district.

Philip and Wesley Bexton, Associate Principal, (bios here) coordinated work with the district, architectural team, the City of Alameda, and East Bay Municipal Utility District (commonly known as East Bay MUD) to modernize the landscaped frontage, and maintain the historic character of the site, in full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and with the State of California’s new Division of the State Architect (DSA) irrigation efficiency requirements.

April 24, 2017. Carducci Associates' Philip Dinh and Wesley Bexton attend Alameda High School's Ground Breaking Ceremony.
The earthquake barrier dismantling begins.
Project architect QKA provides a rendering of the neoclassical campus renovation.

Site Visit / On the Boards / Event

Biophilic Design / Tools to Improve Health and Well-Being in Educational Environments for All Generations

Can designers foster biophilia in childhood education? Carducci Associates Principal Vince Lattanzio co-presented a workshop to answer this question at California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing’s (CASH) 38th Annual Conference on School Facilities in February in Sacramento. Mr. Lattanzio presented with Anna Harrison, Senior Design Strategist with Aedis Architects, and Julio Lucas, Director of Capital Planning and Design for the East Side High School District of Silicon Valley.

With California’s Proposition 51 funding available for school construction and modernization projects, CASH holds the state accountable to support school facility needs. CASH’s annual conference provides a platform to propose an implementation strategy and share knowledge about school facility best practices. For landscape architects, this is an opportunity to build state-of-the-art learning environments informed by current scientific research translated into design and planning strategies.

Biophilia is described in scientist and naturalist E.O. Wilson’s 1984 book of the same name as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature” (31). Fostering this bond through design is studied in environmental design consultant Terrapin Bright Green’s “Fourteen Patterns of Biophilic Design” and in Timothy Beatley’s “Handbook of Biophilic City Planning and Design.”

Carducci Associates often incorporates these principles throughout their designs for educational and childcare facilities. On the boards, Principal Vince Lattanzio, Associate Principal Jin Kim, and Associate Monty Hill (bios here) bring biophilia to San Jose’s Overfelt High School. “The landscape emulates the energy of a river flowing through the campus that allows for free-flowing movement and restful eddies.”

Landform and materiality evoke a river, eddies and an estuary at Overfelt High School in San Jose, CA.

Presentation / On the Boards