ParticiPlace: Community-Based Participatory Research through an International Design Competition

Interwoven Communities
Interwoven Communities by Gabriel Kaprielian, Liz Kee, Marisha Farnsworth, and Jonghoon Im from Berkeley California: ParticiPlace2012 1st Prize winner and co-winner of the Social and Cultural Integrity Prize Enlarge [+]
ParticiPlace2012, an international design competition for the Living Culture Center for the Pinoleville Pomo Nation was organized as part of my PhD. research in Architecture. The competition provided a test bed to explore the gap between global designers and local communities — the users in place.

Environmental psychology provided the framework for understanding place, specifically Canter’s definition of place as the overlap between physical attributes, activities, and conceptions. When interviewing practicing architects, it became clear that in the for-profit design world, architects use a variety of techniques to become familiar with the specific physical attributes of place while activities of place are usually provided in the design brief. However, conceptions of place are harder to communicate across wide cultural and geographical gaps, hence are often neglected. At the same time, in the non-profit world of architecture, while more attention is given to learning conceptions, the information provided is not always enough for the architect’s place-information palette. As technology and particularly the variety of social network tools develop and become widely used around the world, I decided to study whether these tools can be harnessed to bridge the gap between local communities and global designers providing solutions in developing regions.

Based on case-studies in the field of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D), technology without human motivation is not enough to create development. Empowering local communities requires both a top-down approach and a bottom-up solution. The opportunity provided to Native American Nations in the US to use federal funds to both design and build their own housing solutions is a top-down approach that calls for bottom-up solutions to allow the community simple ways to influence the design — essentially the core of this project. Together with Professor Agogino from the department of Mechanical Engineering and Ryan Shelby, a Mechanical Engineering PhD. student, we established CARES — Community Assessment of Renewable Energy and Sustainability — with the goal to support Native American and other communities in making informed decision about sustainable design solutions.

ParticiPlace2012 3rd Prize co-winner
Kadi Franson, Nathan Pundt, and Leah Nichols from Oakland California: ParticiPlace2012 3rd Prize co-winner of and co-winner of the Social and Cultural Integrity Prize Enlarge [+]

CARES works closely with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation (PPN), a Native American Nation located near Ukiah, two hours’ drive north of Berkeley, to co-design sustainable housing and community design solutions that are culturally appropriate. Our trans-disciplinary design process encompasses faculty and students from architecture and engineering, and community members working together throughout the cycle of design, construction, and post-occupancy evaluation.

In the search for technologies that could facilitate our design process, we decided to organize an international design challenge for a Living Culture Center that the PPN is interested in building. Our proposal for the design challenge won second prize in the Berkeley Big Ideas competition from the Blum Center for Developing Economies, providing a kick-start to the project. We brought in a distinguished jury from leading design firms and received additional generous support from the College of Environmental Design and the College of Engineering, followed by a contribution from the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and from the PPN. These resources allowed us to run a design competition attracting professionals and students from around the world.

Echo of Presence by Elements Architects
Echo of Presence by Elements Architects from Oak Park, Illinois: ParticiPlace2012 2nd Prize winner, Sustainable Engineering Innovation Honorable Mention and Social and Cultural Integrity Honorable Mention Enlarge [+]

Out of 38 registered teams, 17 submitted their design ideas including teams from India, Japan, Spain, Georgia, UK, Dominican Republic, Canada, and the U.S. Three categories of prizes were awarded: the general prize; a Sustainable Engineering Innovation Prize, and a Social and Cultural Integrity Prize — each of these acknowledging different design qualities of the submissions. The blind jury, comprised of contemporary Native-American and sustainable design practitioners, as well as community leaders, evaluated the submissions to select the winners. The first prize was awarded to a team of graduate students from the CED that included Gabriel Kaprielian, Marisha Farnsworth, Liz Kee and Jonghoon Im. The second was awarded to Elements Architects, a firm located in the Greater Chicago area; and the third prize was shared by Kengo Sato from Japan and Kadi Franson, Nathan Pundt and Leah Nichols representing a team from Oakland.

ParticiPlace2012 3rd Prize co-winner
Kengo Sato from Tokyo, Japan: ParticiPlace2012 3rd Prize co-winner and co-winner of
the Sustainable Engineering Innovation Prize
Enlarge [+]
ParticiPlace2012 Honorable Mention
Emily Kwok, Hien Vuong and Gwen Fuertes from San Francisco, California: ParticiPlace2012 Honorable Mention and co-winner of the Sustainable Engineering Innovation Prize Enlarge [+]

ParticiPlace2012 allowed the PPN to define their building requirements and discuss a variety of ideas that they can use as they go forward in realizing the building. The Living Culture Center will allow the PPN to practice, preserve, and revive their unique, native-Pomo culture. The proposed designs encourage active social exchange, cultural education, and living cultural practice. Once built, it will create space for PPN citizens to integrate long-standing traditions with contemporary lives.

On a research level the project demonstrates that even under conditions of cultural and geographical distance between designers and place, community members and designers can bridge this gap by using available information and communication technologies. Based on analysis of a variety of data collected throughout the process, my own research showed that international designers who had never visited the site could provide solutions that were as place-appropriate as the solutions provided by those who were situated nearby. Though globalization may have created a chasm between designers and local characteristics of place, this research calls to empower local community members through common technology to help bridge that gap and to enable designers to become intimate with the places that they help to design.

Berkeley in the World

This is a time of unprecedented globalization. While globalization is not new, the scale and intensity of global flows of capital, labor, innovation and information is perhaps unmatched in the history of the world-system.

Equally striking is the emergence of global social movements, global campaigns and global alliances that seek to address issues of poverty and inequality. Indeed, the start of the 21st century has been marked by the globalization of responsibility for the human condition – from human rights to environmental crisis to disease to extreme poverty. What is UC Berkeley’s role in this bold, millennial moment? This is precisely the question that led to the recent establishment of the Blum Center for Developing Economies on campus. How can UC Berkeley train the next generation of global citizens to tackle, in inspired but responsible ways, the world’s pressing problems? In doing so, how will they better understand their place in the world and thus remake the future of America?

But it is important to ask yet another question: what is the role of urbanists, urban planners, urban designers, architects, environmental planners and landscape architects at such a global moment? I do not ask this question simply because urban planning is my professional calling card. I believe that this question has urgency for all those concerned with globalization, its promises, and its stark inequalities. After all, the 21st century will be not only a global century, but also an urban century. Cities are, and will be, a key space of economic development and of material and symbolic citizenship. The “right to the city” will be one of the most important human rights of the 21st century. What role will urban professionals, scholars and activists play in articulating this right to the city? How, in particular, will CED train the next generation of “insurgent” architects and planners?

Let me simply share one lesson that I draw from some of the classes, seminars, studios and workshops that a few of us have been organizing and leading in CED: the act of planning and designing is fundamentally an ethical and political act. We can claim we are neutral technocrats or well-meaning artists, but neither guise fully captures the extent of our impact or paradoxically the impotence of our plans. We produce space. And we do so in a world that, despite what the gurus of globalization would have us believe, is not flat. The production of space thus implicates us in the structural logic of urbanization and urbanism; in the political fields of power and powerlessness; and in the unequal, and often unjust, landscapes of cities and regions. The ethical question is how we choose to participate in the production of space. Are we the consultant who plans the redevelopment of a slum and in doing so fiercely opposes evictions, the one who negotiates resettlement and compensation for slum-dwellers, or simply the one who follows our client’s script? Are we the planner who is commissioned to create a new city for a global elite and in doing so insists the city has to be open and inclusive for all classes, the one who revels in the high-style architecture we can design, or the one who rejects the commission?

During this past semester, I have watched students in the Nano City Super Studio admirably struggle with these issues. How will they convince their clients that a vibrant and just city is one whose value derives from more than simply valuable real estate and global connectivity? How will they make tangible and visible these alternative forms of value, those that are less commodified and lucrative than property capital? How will they plan for the villagers who live on the edges of the site, who are subsistence farmers and eager to sell their land and stop farming? Will they, as benevolent planners, preserve these villages as quaint relics of a lifestyle that the villagers themselves refuse, or will they imagine a different future for the relationship between city and countryside? Most important, the students have known that the answers to these questions are not technocratic or aesthetic but rather ethical and political. While they have been able to utilize their technocratic and aesthetic expertise, this expertise has been shaken and disrupted by the sheer social reality of the site, that encounter between the villager aspiring for a better life and the UC Berkeley student desperately desiring to do the right thing. The site haunts the studio and this is the way it must be – this always tense ethical and political relationship between expertise and social reality, university and community. We mediate this relationship as “double agents,” often complicit in the production of space but also hoping to subvert the cruel calculus of this production.