Begin from a Place of Love: 5 Essential Ingredients for Public Interest Design

Beginning from a place of love and respect for our fellow human beings, their communities, and cultures is at the core of public interest design. This field, a form of architecture that has emerged over the past several decades, has the power to catalyze positive change for the common good. In my work to document this collaborative design process, I’ve found that designers don't necessarily express the values of their profession in terms of love (unless asked!) but they do talk about caring, justice, and love for this kind of work. 

As I traveled to document this work—through America, Peru, and Rwanda—no matter the country, people, or language, I learned there are a few “essential ingredients” to public interest design and offer them up to young or curious designers, actually to anyone seeking to offer compassionate solutions in community settings.

1. A Passionate Advocate
Many successful design projects would not have gotten off the ground without a passionate advocate within the community, who recognized the needs and possibilities. Standout community members are the sturdy-yet-flexible bridges between the designers and the community. These individuals don't have an easy job and have to be utterly committed to the long-term goals while navigating conflict and roadblocks within the community. 

2. Time
It takes time to build trust. It can't be rushed, and the community is rightfully in the driver's seat. Even a change maker inside the community needs time to work with others in the community. Likewise, designers need patience to co-create a proposal that the community supports. Democracy is messy and slow by design, but the result is a stronger outcome that is invested with the heart and will of the community. 

3. An Ability to Listen
Listening is a fundamental tenet of public interest design, and its importance can't be understated. Community members sometimes start from a position of fear or mistrust. How can a hotshot architect know what's best for our community? Public interest designers aren't in the field to dictate or build pretty structures, they're in the field to serve community needs and co-create solutions that elevate the community. Serving begins with listening and understanding, which in turn builds trust. 

4. Community Participation
One approach is nearly universal—breaking bread together gets conversations off on the right foot! In Kansas City, we shared delicious BBQ. At New Orleans’ Grow Dat Youth Farm, architecture students and builders enjoyed a massive crawfish boil alongside the urban youth after their hot afternoon of harvesting. Parents in earthquake-ravaged Ica brought food to builders of their new school and invited workers into their homes. Prof. Ben Spencer was so committed to parents and students of the impoverished Pitagoras School in Lima, Peru, that he moved into the community. Though he spent months away from his own family, his commitment to day-to-day engagement with families as they planned and built a garden park fostered a greater sense of ownership and pride in the entire community. It also led to the discovery of a local, ancient design solution in clay Incan pots for irrigating the park plants. Likewise, MASS Design Group requires their architects to spend time living in places like Rwanda to fundamentally understand culturally appropriate design solutions. Honoring cultural traditions is often integral to “opening the door” to healing through design. Finding a design solution for a community, that is of that community, begins with understanding the values and traditions important in that community. 

5. Respect and Love
Respect underlies all approaches to building trust. Words and actions must be paired with honest intention. Designers who start from a place of respect may have many hoops to jump through to earn trust, but I believe a community will be attuned to whether those words and actions radiate from a place of respect, even love. 

Many public interest design projects are in places you could consider deeply wounded. Earthquakes, hurricanes, war, and systemic neglect take a terrible toll on a community. Public interest design can facilitate healing only by really growing roots and understanding the depth and nature of that wound. This long process is, to me, imbued with love. The community and the designers come together to create an environment that reduces pain and suffering, that nourishes, that fosters a flourishing community. Where once Hurricane Katrina refugees canoed across a flooded golf course, troubled kids now grow food and learn how to speak freely in a safe space. Where once a school's boarded up windows represented a neighborhood whose dreams, too, were shuttered, there will soon be a bustling community center and new housing. A hospital waiting room that once had death floating in the air will one day honor the mantra “buildings can heal.” Love is in all these places, if we look for it.

For a visual introduction to public interest design, check out SEEDocs.

Chuck Olsen is co-founder of The UpTake: Citizen Fueled News and VidTiger. A videographer and storyteller, you can find all things Chuck by searching "chuckumentary."