The Architecture of Community: How Participatory Design Builds Connection

A growing number of architects and planners are turning to participatory design and placemaking–an approach that puts the citizen and engagement at the heart of the design process. In doing so, they’re creating architecture that connects people and strengthens community, perhaps more important than ever during a global pandemic.

What is Participatory Design?


Participatory design is the idea of directly engaging users in a design process. An article on regenerating public spaces defines it as: “ the model of direct involvement of different social groups in the design from functional tools to environments, social institutions and businesses.”

Design choices can have big impacts on community wellness—a well-designed building or public space can foster a sense of belonging by creating third places between work and home that invite social connection and interaction.  In particular, participatory design invites community engagement and responsibility. By centering the community at the heart of the design process, participatory design, can foster community ownership and pride.


La Borda

La Borda Cooperative Housing is a building designed by the community, for the community. A co-operative housing project in Barcelona, Spain, La Borda featured a lengthy community engagement process as part of the project’s development. Each resident served as a working group member, contributing to elements of the building’s design, function and management. Active participation from building residents was crucial to La Borda’s co-design process, aimed at maximizing human connection.

The process aligns with La Borda’s values: “active participation, collective ownership, affordability, and sustainability.” Just as each member of La Borda’s collective serves a purpose and a role, so too do the architectural elements. At its heart, a central courtyard unifies the building, creating a flexible meeting area that invites residents to gather, connect and socialize. Shared spaces like the laundry room and kitchen-cum-dining room allow residents to mingle and connect during the rhythms of daily life. Above them, the polycarbonate roof draws energy from the sun during winter and increases ventilation during summer.

La Borda
Photo credit: Lluc Miralles

The Spanish cross-laminated timber is striking, infusing the building with a natural and organic ambience.

Cristina Gamboa, a cooperative member, explains that they “tried to have a more global understanding of the implications of this material decision,” with mass timber offering a climate-friendly alternative to more energy intensive materials.

Learn about La Borda’s unique design and CLT construction.
Finding Common Ground

Lubber Run

Lubber Run Community Center is an expanse of lush green space that draws you toward the net-zero center at its core. The building emerges organically out of the park and features a living roof adorned with trees and park benches. Initially, local residents were set on plans for a three-to-four-story building, tucked into the background of the surrounding park.

To find common ground, the design team undertook a lengthy participatory design process that lasted an entire year. Jay Fisette, former Arlington County Board Chair, says that “there was lots of community involvement and excitement surrounding the new design and plan. Attention was paid to functionality, energy efficiency, sustainability – and great design. This is truly a community project.”

Lubber Run Community Center
Photo courtesy VMDO Architects
View project

The Grass is Always Greener

Designing a replacement to the original 1950s-era community center presented a challenge for VMDO Architects —community members felt strongly that park space be maximized and building space minimized. Yet, through community engagement, the VMDO team was able to demonstrate how architecture can integrate and blend building and landscape, “ultimately creating public space that is greater and greener for residents.”

Lubber Run’s design focused on promoting equitable access to the center and the park and engaging cross-generational communities and hard-to-reach groups. A series of workshops, meetings, online feedback sessions and on-site engagement activities contributed to the project vision.


Nina Comiskey
Architect, VMDO
Lubber Run Community Center
We were able to guide [the people of Arlington] to a better way of getting what they wanted.

The center invites people of all ages and backgrounds to use its multipurpose rooms, whether that be the fitness center, gymnasium, kitchen or the popular preschool program. The building itself is constructed of wood, creating a soft ambience.

Joe Celentano, principal, VMDO Architects, says that “there was never any doubt that we wanted wood for the structure of the building. The building literally grows up out of the ground, and the surrounding forest became a metaphor for our design.”

This must be the place.
Using placemaking to build community.

Placemaking is the art of transforming public spaces into community places. A place is a gathering point—whether that be a bench that invites you to sit and chat, a beautiful garden to meander through, or a fountain to gaze at. A community place is a conversation starter, an eye catcher, a bustling hub or a place to rest weary feet.

The Basics of Place

The principles of placemaking provide tools to transform our public spaces into places. What are some placemaking basics?

  1. The community is the expert—people who frequent public spaces know intimately and intuitively how the area functions; what could be improved; and who uses the space and for what purpose.
  2. Design of the space should facilitate programming, active use, multipurpose functionality and economic opportunity—design is important but shouldn’t supersede functionality.
  3. If you want to know what makes a community place, take some time to observe. For creative city dwellers, a curb can be an excellent meeting place, greeting space—or even a clam cooking hotspot.

Placemaking can revitalize underused urban areas, inviting social connections between diverse citizens and demographics.

The Barn

Located in Sacramento’s once struggling Bridge District, the Barn Pavilion has breathed new life into this previously neglected area next to the Sacramento River. The Barn features a curvilinear design that emerges out of the pavement, welcoming passersby into its shaded nooks. The public plaza below the Barn hosts gatherings, while inside you can shop, wine and dine, or wander, making your way out to the extensive open-air breezeway. The Barn’s multifunctionality and warm organic atmosphere turns this public space into a community place that is both beautiful and functional. Its fluid, sculptural form makes for ambidextrous architecture, adaptive to a multitude of uses.

The Barn underside lit up with gathering of people
The Barn
Photo credit: Chad Davies
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'Secret Ingredient'

Another successful community project, the Secret Ingredient 2019 Biennial project at the former Anthony Overton Elementary School, is where participatory design, placemaking, and public space collide. The project asked residents of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood to share their connections between food, friendship and neighborhood identity.


Herkes İçin Mimarlık, the Turkish translation for Architecture for All, interviewed Bronzeville residents and archived their stories. Their starting point? Overton Elementary School, a Perkins and Will-designed community landmark and shuttered public school brought alive through art activations.

Gathering residents together at this focal point, Herkes İçin Mimarlık unlocked the secrets of place over conversations about how food can nourish a neighborhood and create shared memory. The project culminated in a mixed-media installation of picnic tables and placemaking shelters on the Overton lawn for residents to gather and connect with each other.

Secret Ingredient 2019 Biennial Project
Photo credit: Sandra Steinbrecher

Grassroots Placemaking With Wood

The Secret Ingredient project is an example of grassroots placemaking that uses readily available, naturally renewable materials—dimensional lumber that can be bought at a local home improvement store—and offers ample opportunity for community participation given the ease of basic wood construction. Similar creative approaches may lend well to placemaking in the time of COVID, given it’s an outdoor activity and results in a sheltered gathering place that can accommodate social distancing.

Secret Ingredient 2019 Biennial Project
Photo credit: Paola Aguirre

Rebuilding Community Resilience During a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged city officials and planners to reconsider the structure of our gathering places. Some cities have taken advantage of the urban center’s very own goldmine—the city street. Cities around the world have extended patio season indefinitely allowing restaurants to sprawl across the pavement and into car lanes, providing a safe outdoor area for socialization during the pandemic.

Participatory design processes and placemaking strategies are integral to happy and healthy communities. When citizens and architects come together, the results can be powerful: culminating in projects like La Borda and the Lubber Run Center designed to foster community and connection.

At its heart, a community is a collective of people intersecting in a thousand different ways throughout the course of a day, whether that be grocery shopping, biking to work, going to school or reading a book in the park. The design of the built environment can have an immense impact on our social connections and daily lives, providing a foundation for stronger communities co-created by the communities themselves.

Placemaking Strategies in the Time of COVID-19

Happy City urban planning and design consultancy has created a guide to rapid placemaking in the shadow of the pandemic. Grounded in communal values and motivated by equitable access, the guide offers safe and rapid placemaking activities and programs for cities and city planners.

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