Guest Column - September 2008
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Painting a Canvas

Design Corner: Incorporating Community Preferences

By Tom Poulos


From Forums to Form

The next step in the process is to formally announce the feasibility study effort to the community at large, kicking off a public input process. This public "open house" approach has as its objectives transparency of process and setting a work plan down on paper. To promote the process, a public relations professional may be engaged to alert stakeholders to public input opportunities, which should be conducted to allow brainstorming activities.

Questionnaires should be crafted to find out what the project means to members of the community, regardless of whether or not they are expected to patronize the new facility. Questions concerning the adequacy of current services and programs should be asked, as should ones to elicit suggestions for offerings to be considered for introduction—and, of chief importance, whether or not the respondent is willing to pay a share of the cost of the construction of a new facility.

The formal steering committee is usually charged with ensuring that a cross-section of community voices is heard during the public input process. Some examples of brainstorming points are whether the site under consideration is accessible, whether it complements community strategic plans and whether the facility would be a catalyst for economic development.

In planning the Centre of Elgin, for example, a 185,000-square-foot community recreation center in historic downtown Elgin, Ill., the Recreation Center Advisory Team was established to steer the effort of seeking community input from constituencies in this sizeable and diverse community. To develop a design response, the architect/engineer (A/E) team worked with this advisory panel containing city council members, park and recreation staff, prominent citizens (including a local architect), as well as representatives of business, the library, schools and cultural institutions, to present a series of public input meetings.

Such forums should culminate in a series of findings that delineate recreation needs of the community and, in turn, launch a vision for the project to build momentum. Additionally, a market analysis to determine what recreation opportunities are currently available in the community through other providers—both public and private—and who they serve in terms of the population, should be employed to avoid duplication of services.

"Cross layering" of data collected through these public forums and a statistically valid needs assessment survey can provide an early "sketch" of the vision. You must start with the community in order to understand its wants and needs. Surveys and open-forum public meetings are two methods for successfully accomplishing this important portion of the process.

Considering Design Alternatives

Through a subsequent open meeting "charrette," or a series of these exercises to consider conceptual design alternatives, people select options and give opinions on their choices. In one last round of public input the concept is tested to achieve buy-in prior to a formal presentation. After study findings have been analyzed to develop an understanding of community needs, and, in turn, the prevailing opinions of what the project scope should be, pre-design and programming drills can "draw a picture" of the project as it is envisioned.

This preliminary "picture" will appear in the form of a design/program statement, design criteria and a space area program. Aiding in assembling this portrait of the potential project will be information gleaned from a site analysis in which a site or set of sites being considered for a new recreation or community center are scrutinized against established criteria, such as the availability of utilities and those previously mentioned.

In a further step to visualize a finished product, a "bubble" diagram of facility options can illustrate space adjacencies, and define linkages of program spaces to the site, which will lead to the development of design alternatives. This device is a precursor to a singular conceptual facility design, which typically includes initial floor plans, vignette sketches of spaces envisioned for the facility, and photos of like programs, accompanied by projected costs for the project.