Home‘Participatory design is sustainable design’: On landscape architecture and community engagement

How can landscape architects engage the community with more empathy (and to greater effect)?

Hint: leave the ego at the door.

This article first appeared in Generocity, a local social impact news and events group with a mission of building better communities through smarter impact. The following is an expanded version of the original article. 

Salt is essential but often overlooked.

Our bodies depend on it to function properly.

And of course, ponder the following waking nightmare: french fries sans salt.

While often taken for granted, salt’s role is too often regarded as a nice addition but extra nonetheless.

Sara Pevaroff Schuh, founding principal of Manayunk-based SALT Design Studio, chose this name for her business to underscore the role of landscape as infrastructure in our exterior environment.

“People misconstrue the discipline of landscape architecture as decoration or ornament, not as fundamental to a project’s overall design, intent or success,” she said.

Unfortunately, landscape architecture is ofttimes seen as providing auxiliary features instead of integral infrastructural elements. This is a serious misconception: take its role for granted and the integrity of the entire project is threatened.

When the landscape architect is brought in at the beginning of a project, they can contribute to the big picture. This way, the built and natural environment having a fighting chance at maintaining a harmonious relationship.

Similarly, it is important for the long-term success of a project that sincere efforts are made to listen to the want, needs, and concerns of the community.

Better collaborations transpire when all parties are brought to the table at the beginning and are invited to enter the conversation on equal footing from the outset, and when community engagement is viewed as indispensable, not ancillary.

This takes time, energy, and resources but quality community engagement cannot be rushed and as obvious as it may seem, it is important to stress that the community must remain an equal partner in the process of community engagement.

“Quality fights to be a full partner at the table with quick,” says Schuh.

In her work, she has used collaboration as a tool to lift people up and dissolve barriers created by unequal power dynamics surrounding community engagement. The only way to unearth the full potential of a project that serves the community where it is being built is to come to the table with flexibility and equanimity for all parties involved.

Infusing empathy into how we engage with stakeholders is beneficial for all parties, and the application of this mindset is not limited to landscape architects and designers. Consider how a CEO can apply active listening strategies in her approach to gathering employee feedback, or acknowledge how a product innovator would benefit from listening to the workers who manufacture the product and promoting them. It is not difficult to connect this larger idea of empathetic collaboration with both the impact and business case of a business’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

The next best idea is probably waiting behind a self-constructed barrier built by the effete cynicism of thinking that your ideas are the best—and only—ideas and that stakeholder engagement in a nicety that bogs down an otherwise efficient process.

Schuh recounts an experience she had with a project at Hope Partnership for Education in North Philadelphia. As an independent education center, Hope Partnership serves both young students and adults. Because of this, the landscape design at the facility needed to function for both.

“We had people remember a specific memory from their time in middle school,” said Schuh. “People actually spent a moment to close their eyes and think and then we shared as a group. What was significant about this exercise was that it asked adult participants to think of themselves as a student again. This type of engagement can have a dramatic impact on the design outcome; sharing an emotional experience can change how people perceive the role of the landscape.

Schuh cites this exercise as representative of what true collaborative efforts can — and must — be.

“I wouldn’t have been able to generate the design idea without that input,” she said.

Schuh and her team also facilitated a nature-play visioning session for the East Falls community at McMichael Park. The community had differing views of how to utilize this 5-acre woodland asset. New families with young children moving into the neighborhood saw the site as a potential place for recreational opportunities, while some long-term residents wanted to maintain the more sylvan character of the park.

The challenge was clear — Schuh had to help people jettison their personal agenda in support of the common good.

“We don’t all need to agree,” she said. “But we need to agree that we have a common bond and that there is a bigger concept at work here — the future of our community’s green spaces.”

Before you can help people see mutual interests, she said, you have to meet people where they are and then listen. These conversations need to be candid and they need to remain conversational.

Schuh’s team engaged the community in an exercise that invited them to imagine how the site could be altered. They staked out dimensions so neighbors could experience the scale of the eventual project, and they marked out where paths and other elements could be installed.

The public can only learn so much from a plan or a map presented at a community meeting, so Schuh wanted to make sure that the community could have a conversation about the site informed by a shared participatory experience instead of a presentation.
“Participatory design is sustainable design,” said Schuh. “It fosters buy-in and builds stewardship into the nature of the project.

But if a collaborative approach to community engagement contributes substantially to the long-term success of the project, why is this not the standard practice?

Perhaps community engagement is seen as an obligation:

If I go through the motions as fast as possible I can get moving on my ideas for this project.

However, to be fair, community engagement is difficult. At a community meeting, it is burdensome to foster a truly collaborative experience with 100 or more people. It would be too time-consuming.

One solution is to plan ahead of time to dedicate more time to community engagement.

“There has to be some acceptance that it takes longer,” said Schuh.

When Schuh and her team led the community engagement session for the outdoor learning environment at Chester Arthur School, they didn’t come in with one plan and ask for feedback; instead, they came in with three plans.

Instead of asking the community which predetermined plan they preferred, Schuh and her team asked participants to focus on ideas they favored from each and this process informed the next iteration of the design.

In addition, Chester Arthur formed a focus group of students from first-eighth grade to give share how they currently use their outdoor space and how they hope to engage with the finished outdoor learning space.

This shift is not just an effort to check the box of community engagement, but instead, the process can uncover ideas that contribute to the success of the project. Any other approach risks missing out on great ideas.

Schuh believes that this kind of community engagement leads to higher quality, higher performing, and more sustainable projects. It also unmoors the project from the limitations of short-term thinking. At the end of the day isn’t the community who will be entrusted with the site for hopefully many many years?

“When you foster collaboration you are planting the seed of compassion and empathy,” said Schuh.

Applied to both community engagement and how businesses cooperate and listen to stakeholders, this way of thinking about the entire life cycle of a project ensures that those who are most affected by the harvest are present to sow the initial seeds.

If you don’t have a stake in the eventual harvest, how will this affect your attitude towards cultivation?


SALT DESIGN STUDIO is a landscape architecture practice committed to transformation, revitalization, and reclamation of urban and community spaces. We bring an ethnographic approach to design, engaging the physical, visual and historical culture of a site.

SALT is an active member of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia’s Green Stormwater Infrastructure Partners initiative. The mission of GSI Partners is to advance the local GSI industry, innovation, and the local economy as it relates to GSI. We are the only business network working to ensure that the greenest approaches to stormwater management are facilitated and incentivized as much as possible and that the public and private investments being catalyzed by the plan are spent with local firms