When my wife, Kelly, was on maternity leave following the birth of our daughter, Harper, I thought I understood how hard it was for her to be at home with our newborn and our 2-year-old daughter, Sawyer, while I was at the office. But I didn’t get just how tough it was for her until the day she returned to work and I was left home alone with the girls.
While nothing out of the ordinary happened that day—no fevers, temper tantrums or spaghetti thrown at the wall—it was a defining moment in my life because it made me realize just how difficult it had been for Kelly. I remember sending her a text that simply said: I thought I knew, but I didn’t know.
I realized there and then it was time to reevaluate my role in our relationship as I had made many incorrect assumptions. My perspective was forever changed that day through a shared experience.
Having the opportunity to switch places with Kelly became a time of reckoning for me that was simultaneously embarrassing and good; good because it allowed me to identify a blind spot in our relationship and fix it.
This reckoning, however, came with confronting something that we all fear—acknowledgment that we are wrong or have wronged someone. An acknowledgement that I could have and should have done more, which led to a commitment to right the wrongs.
In the same way I came to terms with that vulnerability in my personal life, I have recently gone through a series of perspective-shifting moments in my career. These turning points have not only pushed me to evaluate how I work as a designer, and how I understand the communities I work within, but have also made me acknowledge how much I don’t know and still need to learn.
Defining Comfort: A Place to Be
While working on a downtown master plan project, I had the chance to sit down with one of the community leaders who was recently involved in a peaceful demonstration against police brutality in a small, rural town with an overwhelmingly white majority. The woman I had the opportunity to speak with is Black and in her late 30s to early 40s. Our conversation took place right after the demonstration.
While discussing what the master plan meant to the small city and what her vision was, she said something that really stuck with me because I think it’s an issue that many designers struggle with:
“I just want a place to be comfortable,” she said. “I’d like that to be a part of the master plan.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, as comfortable can mean different things for different people. She then gave me an example of a park in a larger city where she felt comfortable because it was “a place where she and her friends could just be themselves.” They could “be loud and have fun” without fear of being judged or policed.
She implied there weren’t spaces like that for her in the small town. She also added she’d like to see public events that made room for and encouraged her interests because she hadn’t seen those opportunities there.
While I know what it’s like for me to be comfortable, this conversation made me think much harder about the ways people can intentionally or unintentionally be made uncomfortable—from public policies to defensive design techniques that have been used to make people uncomfortable.
How should we prioritize comfort in our communities and who has the right to comfort? How often do we assume people are comfortable simply because we are? How often do we ignore the ways we make people uncomfortable because including everyone is too difficult?
Or perhaps we should be asking this: “How do we measure comfort and inclusivity in the design and planning of a public space?”
Granted, these metrics are difficult for engineers and designers because they are inherently personal, dynamic and hard to measure. Nonetheless, in order to fully address a community’s biggest challenges, we must first understand what they are and acknowledge the validity of those challenges—even if they don’t fit neatly into a scope of work or our own personal expectations.
Seeking, Listening & Learning
I had a second experience this summer that shifted my perspective on our design process.
Our team is leading a park master plan effort for a small 4-acre neighborhood park. This park is often used as a connecting walkway from the surrounding neighborhood to local shops as well as a place to walk your dog or just play.
During the planning process, we reached out to local area stakeholders, including the Kentucky School for the Blind and the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). Based on that outreach, my questions were: How do you design a park that’s open and equitable for the visually impaired community, in a design process that is inherently visual, with outcomes that are often just as visual in nature when considering views and vistas? How can we make the park more multisensory?
In search of answers, we reached out with our partners from the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy and Louisville Metro Parks to Maria Delgado at APH. Through our conversations with Maria and others we learned a lot.
Maria’s experience and advice allowed us to more fully understand how to make our documents and processes more accessible to the visually impaired, oftentimes using tools that we already had. Turns out we just needed to use those tools a little differently.
While we’re still working to improve our processes to be more accessible, without having these conversations, seeking people out and listening and learning, we wouldn’t have known this. I thought I knew how to engage in a truly inclusive way, but I had more to learn.
Calling All Designers to Design for All
At some point in our lives, I think we’ve all been guilty of making assumptions about the way people live, who they are, and even what they need, without taking the time to meet them or understand the nuanced perspectives of their lives—perspectives that have had a profound influence on them and their communities.
I consider myself to be very focused on equitable and engaging community design processes, but recognize that I can and need to do more.
As landscape architect Walter Hood recently said, “We need to commit to rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work to better understand the contexts, cultures and needs of the clients and communities our work impacts.”
As a designer with my own unconscious biases and privileges, I recognize I need to be self-critical, acknowledge my blind spots, and intentionally seek out shared, empathetic experiences that will improve design outcomes for everyone.
This process is more nuanced, more complex, and more time-intensive, and requires getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. These challenges, however, pale in comparison to the day-to-day challenges of those who have been left out of our work.
As one of my collaborators, Charles Brown, founder of Equitable Cities, recently pointed out to me: “This is what we signed up for. We have a moral and professional obligation to seek social justice, and protect the health, safety and welfare of all residents.”
We have a lot of work to do to live up to that standard, but that shouldn’t stop us.
I thought I knew, but I didn’t know. Ultimately, I’ve come to the realization that it’s OK not to know, and it’s OK to make mistakes. But it isn’t OK if we don’t acknowledge when things are wrong and then work to fix them. That acknowledgement followed by action is absolutely critical in developing open and empathetic design processes and results. So, let’s get to work!