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  • Jodi Dubyoski

What is Community Design?

This month we're talking about what the heck is it that we do as a community design practice...

Community design is a specific niche within architecture; the term is often interchanged with 'public interest design' or 'impact design'. What distinguishes community design from traditional architectural practice is the emphasis on participatory design and social justice issues, though there is an argument to be made that these considerations, like sustainability or 'green building,' are simply part of good design. In any case, it's important to note that modern community design grew out of the civil rights movement. Though community design centers (CDCs) had already begun to form by the late 1960s, the origins are commonly traced to a keynote speech given by civil rights activist Whitney M. Young where he famously chastised a room full of architects at the 1968 AIA Convention in Portland, OR for their lack of action on civil rights:

“...[Y]ou are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I’m sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”

In the decade following this speech, CDCs sprung up all over the country, most of them either nonprofits or affiliated with universities. Since then, the movement has persisted in various forms, with many of the original nonprofit and university CDCs still in operation, as well as new forms influenced by the rise of social entrepreneurship.


Community designers focus on a wide range of issues: housing and homelessness, disaster relief and resilience planning, economic development, advocacy and education, to name a few. As a for profit community design practice, FORM Coalition's approach is rooted in a community design and social justice ethic, and our services reflect our experience in the community design field. In addition to traditional architectural services (surveying and drawing existing buildings, designing new ones or renovations), we offer other services typically offered by a community design center, like planning and strategy work, consulting, installations, etc. We like to emphasize participatory planning and design--building a vision with stakeholder involvement-- and economic justice, supporting small, local entrepreneurs--which is why we love working with small businesses and small, local developers! More reading: Here's a link to the full text (PDF download) of Whitney M. Young's speech. Note that it's 1968 and he's calling out exclusionary and racist housing policies--this was not something that just happened while nobody was watching, people knew exactly what was happening! Also notable is that, on the middle of Page 3, he's either addressing a room entirely full of men, or thinks that he is. Fortunately, the demographic makeup of a roomful of architects has changed in 50 years. Still have questions about what it is we do? Comment below or get in touch!

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