Session 4: Community Engagement

Date: January 12, 2018
Location: Robert Silman Associates 1053 31st St NW
Led by: Ming-Yi Wong and Adam Greene
Venue Sponsor: Robert Silman Associates; Bonstra Haresign Architects

Ming-Yi Wong and Adam Greene organized the fourth session of the year focused on community engagement. The session kicked off with a presentation by Janet Bloomberg on the tenets of volunteerism, the reasons we volunteer, and what some of local programs look like. We then transitioned to a panel presentation and discussion on the redevelopment of the Georgetown Canal, reinforced with a foot-tour of the canal, which runs directly adjacent to the venue. Our third speaker, Allie O’Neill from the Neighborhood Design Center, provided a presentation and led an interactive discussion on the grassroots aspects of a community-oriented design organization.

Presentation #1 – Community Engagement at the Personal Level: Washington Architectural Foundation
Janet Bloomberg began her presentation focused on the reasons we decide to volunteer. For most people this tends to be the Personal Reward, or the value of working on something you care about. Others are motivated by Community Responsibility. We are often connected to communities through our projects or even where our practices are located. Janet highlighted organizations she volunteered for as a student and walked us through some of the programs she started here in Washington DC and her work with the Washington Architecture Foundation. This provided an excellent segue into challenging our scholars to take a hard look at the programs the WAF supports and provide constructive feedback as well as to come up with examples of volunteer programs we may be missing.


Presentation #2 – Community Engagement at the Professional Level: Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Park and Georgetown Heritage
Our group was introduced to a panel of professionals working to revitalize, activate, and interpret the National Park Service assets in Georgetown, turning them into inviting, inclusive, and inspiring. Their efforts are focused on the C&O Canal National Historic Park. The panel included Sophia Kelly from the National Park Service and Scott Walzack and Maggie Downing with Georgetown Heritage. After a short introduction, the panel gave us an overview of the history of the Canal and its related components. They walked us through the importance of why the project came to fruition, how their organization was started, what it took to get the project to its current state in which portions of the canal already under restoration, and what future efforts may entail to bring their full schematic design to fruition. It was interesting to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the various community organizations in place and what new entities had to be created to efficiently blend the complex nature and variety of demands that comes from a project touching so many different people/ businesses and how they’ve been raising money to fund the entire process. It’s clear that as the project progresses, the historical and natural impacts must be considered simultaneously and it is important to keep in mind what that means on a local, national, and even international level. We then took a foot-tour of the canal from 31st Street to the trailhead of the Capital Crescent trail to understand the physical challenges faced and see the progress that has been made while learning a few interesting historical facts along the way.

Presentation #3 – Community Engagement at the Grassroots Level: Neighborhood Design Center
The group rounded out the day with an interactive discussion lead by our third speaker, Allie O’Neill from the Neighborhood Design Center, on the grassroots aspects of community-oriented design. She discussed how organizations like hers engage with the public to make a project successful and responsive to community needs. Allie posed important questions to the group such as “Why don’t we interface with so much of the population [as Architects]?” and “What is social design?” We reviewed some important historical milestones of community development in urban environments and discussed how good design is not just about aesthetics but, more importantly, also about creating buildings and spaces that can be functional, maintainable, and reflect community principles. After reviewing the tenets of her design process, we completed community needs surveys, playing the role of the community in question. The exercise shed light on how to engage a group of community members in order to solicit their ideas and input.