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Embedded participatory design: 5 principles for designing with and in communities

Embedded Participatory Design

Tag Tunnel, an interactive street art gallery and gathering place, at the Market Street Prototyping Festival.

This guest post is by Maryanna Rogers, Ph.D., an independent designer, social scientist, and lecturer in Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (

What does it mean for a museum or cultural organization to be truly community-centered? How might we serve the community groups that are least likely to walk through the doors of our institutions?

Across the U.S., many museums and cultural organizations are looking outside their walls to fulfill their commitments to the community as they take their expertise in designing spaces to the public realm.

They are co-designing public space.

Market Street Listening Post

Sound of Emotion, an interactive music installation at the Market Street Prototyping Festival.

In just this past year, several organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area have embarked on projects that aim to re-invent public space.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts partnered with the City of San Francisco to co-host the Market Street Prototyping Festival, which brought together community members and local design teams to re-imagine Market Street with 50 prototypes installed along the city’s historic thoroughfare. The experiments implemented during this festival are informing the Better Market Street project, which aims to completely re-build the street by 2018.

Also last year, The Tech Museum of Innovation teamed up with Gehl Studio and the Knight Foundation to research and prototype how to make City Hall Plaza in San Jose a more inviting public space.

Fully committing to work in the public realm, the Exploratorium created the Studio for Public Spaces, previously the Outdoor Studio, several years ago with a grant from the National Science Foundation. Building on the original project’s success, the Studio for Public Spaces has now grown to 10 team members and works with community partners in the Bay Area and nationwide to design engaging public spaces. One of their most visible projects in San Francisco is the first Living Innovation Zone on Market Street, which they built in partnership with the City of San Francisco in 2013.

Developing public space projects requires a human-centered approach. Unlike designing within the walls of a museum, where guests are actively choosing to engage with the institution, public spaces must, by definition, be inclusive. And, in many cases, developing a sensitivity to the needs of the primary users of the space mandates an embedded participatory design process.

Buchanan Mall: a case study in San Francisco

Buchanan Mall, San Francisco

The Buchanan Mall seating elements, gardens, and lighting embody the team’s design values of safety, beauty, and nature.

One recent public space design project in San Francisco exemplifies this embedded participatory design process. Over the past year, a passionate set of community partners, including Citizen Film, Green Streets, The Trust for Public Land, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, and the Exploratorium, came together to collaboratively re-imagine and re-build Buchanan Mall, a public park flanked on every side by affordable housing complexes, in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood.

Re-imagining a public space in a neighborhood like the Western Addition, which has been plagued with violence, racial discrimination, and poverty for decades, is no small endeavor. People here face fear and danger on a daily basis—to the extent that residents of the affordable housing complexes feel they cannot safely travel from one block to the next along Buchanan Mall due to turf wars. Fueled by the partner organizations’ passion and dedication to the community, Buchanan Mall has now been transformed into what feels like a lovely, makeshift public park.

Buchanan Street Benches

The new installations at Buchanan Mall enhance the park’s existing amenities, such as this basketball court.

The new park “furniture”—with its curved plywood, turquoise paint, and flowerbeds— gives the space a unified aesthetic, making a visible and symbolic gesture towards unifying the people that live there. There are also mounted photographs of the neighbors designing the new park, and several seating areas include interactive media, allowing visitors to listen to stories about the neighborhood. Speak to most anyone involved in the Buchanan Mall project or residents of the adjacent affordable housing complexes, and their pride in the project is evident. The dominant story of the space is no longer one of trauma: it is now one of community members coming together to design and build their own neighborhood.

It feels like a place that has been emotionally transformed.

5 principles for embedded participatory design

Learning from the team behind the Buchanan Mall project, I identified five design principles they implemented to make this project a success.

1) “Put in the shoe leather”: embedded relationship building

The Buchanan Mall team did not simply drop into the community for design research. Citizen Film and Green Streets have been building relationships in the neighborhood for five years, using storytelling as a way to convene residents. A grant from ArtPlace afforded them the chance to expand their work and reach out to other possible partners, catalyzing the project.

During the past six months, they also held weekly meetings about the Buchanan Mall project with community members— but not without resistance. According to Sophie Constantinou of Citizen Film, “trust was hard won.”

The partner organizations truly care about the community, and they “put in the shoe leather” to demonstrate it, despite early resistance from neighbors. Without the initial relationships in place and continued relationship building, the Buchanan Mall project would not have gained the necessary buy-in and participation of the community.

Buchanan Team

Members of the Buchanan Mall partner organizations and Design Task Force.

2) Participatory design: prioritizing the community’s vision

The partner organizations for the Buchanan Mall project created numerous platforms for community members to get involved in the design process, from ideation to building. They formed a Design Task Force, composed of neighborhood residents of all ages, who sketched ideas, built rough prototypes, and contributed to final design decisions.

The Exploratorium’s Studio for Public Spaces helped the community Design Task Force identify their design values: safety, beauty, and nature. And, as Adam Green from the Exploratorium team noted, their design process needed to be nimble so that they could prioritize and adapt to the community’s vision, which became the primary design constraint.

Debates about small details of the design, such as paint colors, were sometimes excruciatingly long, but it was this kind of dedication to community members’ opinions that helped build a sense of ownership in the project.

Unlike some urban redesign projects that can pay lip service to participatory design by hosting drop-in or one-off workshops or meetings, the Buchanan Mall team committed to working alongside residents.

Embedded participatory design requires deeply listening and implementing design decisions that come directly from listening to the community’s needs—and aesthetic.

3) Compensating community members

The Buchanan Mall team took the perspective that building trust with community members must include a respect for individuals’ time and compensation for their contributions.

The Design Task Force was composed of a diverse set of community members, including elders and youth, who were provided stipends for their participation over the summer. Citizen Film paid members of Green Streets to help with outreach, community engagement, and building, and they made a commitment to figuring out how to keep people employed throughout the project.

In addition to monetary compensation, this project also offered unique opportunities for authentic, just-in-time learning. As Sophie Constantinou from Citizen Film described it, “You’re doing professional development without anyone really knowing.”

The Exploratorium hosted envisioning and building sessions at the museum, experiences that, according to Citizen Film’s Tamara Walker, wowed participants. Being in an inspiring setting (and an esteemed community institution) and building full-scale prototypes, lent credibility and immediacy to the project that fostered support and offered real skills to community members.

4) Connecting with (informal) community ambassadors

Numerous community ambassadors and stakeholders, such as the property manager of several affordable housing complexes in Western Addition, had been dreaming of re-designing Buchanan Mall for up to a decade.

Connecting with formal ambassadors and stakeholders in a community is essential, but there are also often informal ambassadors who are key to gaining acceptance in the community and ensuring that the space is well maintained.

Walker, of Citizen Film, shared a story about discovering the “voice of the complex” through an elderly woman known for her involvement in the neighborhood. Initially, this woman was adamantly resistant to any change—other than “benches and concrete”—because she felt that gardens and other amenities would invite birds, the unhoused, and parking challenges. Eventually, the project team won her over, which had a ripple effect due to her position in the community.

5) Making a plan to stick around

The current installations at Buchanan Mall will be in place for a year. Meanwhile, the team is seeking additional funding to build the park with more sustainable materials. This yearlong prototype offers a unique opportunity to learn about what works and how the community responds as they move forward with the next implementation.

Though the weekly neighborhood meetings have now become monthly, the Buchanan Mall team is dedicated to finding ways to continue to connect with the community.

Conclusion: welcoming the inevitable rollercoaster

The team’s “shoe leather,” relentless dedication, and respect for community members came together to produce a design for Buchanan Mall that is authentic to its context and community— the mark of a truly successful public space. According to Constantinou of Citizen Film, the project was “an amazing synthesis of timing—the right people with the right will and the right magic.”

When I asked her how she would advise other teams embarking on public space initiatives, she offered the following advice:

“You could probably find the right ingredients in any neighborhood, but you have to be open to those ingredients… The will for something like what happened at Buchanan Mall—you have to listen and be open to the roller coaster that is inevitable.”

Maryanna RogersMaryanna Rogers, Ph.D., is an independent social scientist and designer. Maryanna received a doctoral degree in Educational Psychology and a master’s degree in Learning, Design, and Technology from Stanford University. After her doctoral work, she became Director of Innovation at The Tech Museum of Innovation. She now lectures at Stanford’s and works as an independent designer and design research consultant in the Bay Area and beyond. You can follow her on Twitter at @maryannarogers


All photos by Maryanna Rogers.


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