Is social impact design limited to a design process that engages a community in need, to reach a specific solution or can a meaningful definition also include designs which seek, in some unspecific way, to change a cultural condition for the better, for the public good? When the community to be served is looking for specific problems to be solved and anticipates specific expected outcomes are we right to address other, unmet and unrecognized, needs? What happens when the values we bring to our practice are in conflict with the values of the community to be served?
Take designing a park in San Ramon, California: San Ramon is a suburb with an office park that houses the corporate headquarters for Chevron, 24-hour Fitness, Safeway, the western headquarters for ATT and others at its heart, and no downtown—just shopping malls. The main organizing design feature of the community is roads, big, wide, sweeping roads designed to allow for the smooth and unimpeded flow of the big cars that seem to be favored. With all those big cars, and the big parks designed to attract the right kind of upper middle-class, family-oriented homebuyer, this is not a community in need in the traditional sense. In fact many people like San Ramon just as it is, but having participated in public workshops in San Ramon for an anticipated ‘town center’ I know that the longing for what I would define as an urban heart, one that is human-, rather than automobile-focused, is acute.
The town center didn’t happen, but, later, when asked to design a community park for San Ramon I felt obliged to put “some there, there”. We were given a ‘rancho’ theme for the park by the city, which our team translated as a ‘California ranch’ concept with a strongly landscape focused theme, one with integrity and human-scale detailing supporting the concept. If designing a park around people doesn’t seem like news, just wait. Though our direct client, Shapell Homes, and the head of Parks and Recreation wanted to build a great park, there is still a debate of our interests of aesthetics, comfort, pleasure, and public good against the city’s Department of Public Works concerns for maintenance and safety.
The musician Mitsuko Uchida said, “the world is not full of wonderful things and people are longing for good things.” My definition of the public good would include enhancing our society with a creative, vital and engaged populace. In designing for a community rich in ‘amenities’ , like clean parks, but lacking in a place created with this deeper sense of the public good in mind, and for a client (the city but, really, also the community) still debating the need for or lack of ‘good things.” What does the would-be social impact designer do?
My instincts as a professional designer are to add to the community’s sense of place and possibility. Maybe help this community see the possibility that giving up some portion of convenience and a perception of safety could result in greater gains of more life-affirming feelings of vitality, resilience, and, perhaps even, meaning. Some specific components might include: a rich plant palette, habitat creation, a ‘theme’ that was not about decoration, but spoke to the history of the area through integrated design details, a sub theme of creating great landscape spaces, and a rich variety of ways to experience, and to play in the park.
For the design team the heart of the park was the playground, and the scene of our greatest disappointments. The typical playground in the United States is very safe, but sterile and equipment-centric. San Ramon is no different. Our goal was to design a playground that built on a child’s innate creativity. We would have a landscape woven through the playground areas, picking up on Richard Louv’s ideas about Nature Deficit Disorder. Finally we hoped to capture a bit of magic. The children’s play area of our dreams had a seasonal stream, water play that involved running water with movable weirs, low bridges, groves, fruit trees, flowers, grassy mounds to roll down, and open ended play structures. There were moderate concerns about safety issues with the water play and the potential for kids to wedge themselves under the bridges, but maintenance concerns and fears of the unknown are the biggest killers of all things wonderful.
So much of the built environment in new ‘cities’ like San Ramon lacks a feeling of a moral core or purpose. The tendency to let ‘the marketplace’ determine the product means that the buildings and landscape are very practical. If the community can afford it the park will have baseball, basketball, soccer, cricket, tennis, playgrounds, etc. The residents, if they have a sense of wanting something less mundane, don’t know what to ask for, or how to ask. If the suburban landscape reads as if no one cared about the well being of the spirit of future inhabitants, maybe it’s because the planners were making sure no one complained about traffic, or parking – those eternal bugaboos of our auto-centric society, and of urban designers, city staff and elected officials everywhere. Paul Erhlich, said recently on NPR’s Living on the Earth, “We’re gonna rebuild the country over the next 70 years in the reverse of what we did in the last 70 years, and instead of designing it around automobiles, we’re gonna design it around people.” Until then we give them parks. San Ramon’s parks are nothing if not clean and efficient, but perhaps we will, in the future, cast a wider net on our vision of human-centric design, envisioning parks in all our towns that are designed to help create community, that are places that the kids will remember fondly, and that increase their understanding of the world?
Our park in San Ramon is not yet built and our ideas are still just words and drawings, but I’m writing about the experience, perhaps, because I’m affirming my belief that we designers and developers serve the public good by raising the bar of the intelligence that we manifest in our built environment. We need to be leaders by manifesting creativity and integrity in our processes and in our results because it will inspire and open minds and hearts. Thomas Jefferson believed in democracy because he believed that the truth will win out in the end and so, the optimist in me says, working for the public good in any and all arenas will lead to open minds and a thus create a better society, one with more integrity in its decision-making process and less fear of differences. We have the potential to move society forward with what we create, so, I ask the question: Do we have the moral obligation to inspire, to make ‘wonderful things’? My answer is, simply, “Yes.”
Photograph of Rancho San Ramon Park by Bill Tatham.