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Chicago-based architect and designer

For Chicago-based architect and designer Craig Stevenson, it’s always been vital to work with not for the community.

Stevenson is director of the Chicago’s chapter of the Open Architecture Collaborative (OAC)—a national nonprofit that does bono work designing buildings and place making projects for local communities. The realities of working in the midst of the and the recent wave of the George Floyd have made outreach and community engagement even more essential tools for facing an “existential.”

“It’s an interesting challenge to design when was grief is prevalent,” he says.

Stevenson is part of a team working on Under the Grid a kind of reverse High Line for the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago that aims to turn vacant lots underneath rail lines—specifically a stretch of the Pink Line of the city’s elevated train system—into a park community green space and gathering place. The ongoing project seeks to spark interest and re-emergence in art and the business corridor—a place for farmers markets basketball and dance events created in concert with community groups local businesses and residents. To do so the group has been holding and meetings with community groups as part of OAC’s goal to democratize design flatten hierarchies, and dispel myths about just who understands how to shape public space and how it can best serve a community.

“We’re not here to impose solutions on people,” he says. “It’s about figuring out how the community wants to solve the immediate need for public space, and the best solutions to bring people together.”

A New Challenge

In coming years architects will be challenged like never before to help disadvantaged communities rebuild. Neighborhoods across the nation have been irrevocably changed and both of which have altered perceptions of public space.

Listening, responding, and shaping future designs around neighborhood needs will become even more vital. And while some might see the time and effort involved in garnering feedback and engaging in community-led design as a luxury that would be according to architects and designers who place equity community feedback and the center of their practice. When resources are scarce the value of truly reflecting the community in design hearing about their and getting their buy-in is immeasurable.

“Architecture often sets itself up to be an expendable service a luxury,” says Liz Ogbu a designer urbanist and innovator who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. “We should do work that’s vital to people’s day-to-day ability to live their life. During the last recession I worked for a small nonprofit and while there was a culling of the industry—I never because the work we were doing was essential. Community-based work is about creating tools that let people thrive and live their best stories. That’s what success looks like to me.”

It’s a priority that the profession as a whole is being increasingly challenged to meet. “Democratizing the decision-making and design of the built environment is critical to both the future relevance of our profession and a truly equitable society,” says William Bates, FAIA, president of AIA.

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