Good, Thoughtful Hosts #206: Community-Driven Design with Nora Bland

In this episode, we’re talking with urban planner Nora Bland about involving the community in a city’s design process. The practice improves the outcome by involving those who understand the region and its history best, but it also helps make local changes more digestible for the residents because they’ve been able to offer their input.

About Our Guest
Originally from Virginia, Cushing Terrell urban planner Nora Bland now hails from Denver, CO. Her specialization is in community engagement and long-range/comprehensive planning, which she has accomplished in concert with many municipalities and developers. She’s specifically passionate about creating places and spaces that are beautiful, equitable, affordable, and sustainable. Nora identifies as an urbanist, cyclist, dog lover, and diehard warm-weather camper.

Episode #206 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:00

Do you remember the show Trading Spaces? It was a reality TV program where two sets of neighbors redecorated one room in the other’s home. The teams would have no say over what happens in their own homes. And there were some memorable episodes where homeowners were upset over the results. I’m thinking of one in particular, were a couple glued hay onto the walls of a room in an effort to really go hard on a farm theme. I’m Sarah Steimer. And on today’s episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we’re talking about how to avoid design discomforts by communicating with those who will engage with the space. This community-driven design means that instead of assuming you have all the expertise necessary for a project, that it might be a good idea to work with the residents. Their input not only helps with the inclusion of local history and challenges, but it also helps to avoid potential pushback that could otherwise sour the town and slow the process.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guest

Nora Bland 01:20
My name is Nora Bland. I’m a senior planner with Cushing Terrell and I specialize in community engagement.

Sarah Steimer 01:27
Awesome. Well, Nora, this is going to be a great conversation because of everyone I’ve talked to so far, this actually aligns closest with our theme for the season, which is really kind of focusing on like the 15-minute city and how we can really let the community drive and keep the community in mind when it comes to design. So to begin with, what exactly is community-driven design?

Nora Bland 01:52
Yeah, so community-driven design is when community members are invited to give input on the design of a project so that it really reflects community values. I think when people are left in the dark, that’s when rumors get started and how they spread, which is really preventable if you’re upfront with the community. It’s also an opportunity for the developer or municipality to hear concerns and find ways to address them before something is fully designed.

Sarah Steimer 02:21
And that’s really I mean, nobody loves change, maybe some people really love change, but to your point, it helps to sort of prevent those insecurities, those concerns, etc, when it comes to change. So let’s talk about some of the other problems that are solved by community-driven design. And when you and I spoke previously off the record, we’ll call it, we talked about two main things that are really solved by community-driven design. So if you would walk us through those two big pieces.

Nora Bland 02:50
It really makes the design better, it helps the design reflect the history and culture that’s been cultivated over generations. So residents of a neighborhood are really the experts on their neighborhood. They know the good and the bad of the history. And this helps the design really nod to the past and provide place-based solutions. It also helps make local changes more digestible for the residents, when they’re able to be a part of the process, which in turn can help the developer get through the public process. So if the developer makes all of their decisions in a vacuum and decide what they’re going to do with the design without input, they’re likely to get a lot of community pushback when they need a zoning approval, even if it would have been a good addition to the community. So pushback from the community results in a longer approval process, which increases some of the soft costs, and then ultimately can take money away from the final construction, which can result in some really boring design. And then finally, it’s an opportunity to introduce mixed-use developments, and provide more neighborhood services and residential areas, which in turn can reduce vehicle trip, eliminate food deserts, and provide some of those third places where the community can gather and interact.

Sarah Steimer 04:12
What really sounds like this is a chance to I mean, it’s almost like you already have these eyes and ears these resources on the ground. So why ignore them? Of course, you know, do you find that there are a lot of situations where maybe a design firm, almost like parachutes in with a little bit too much, “Oh, I know what you guys are going to need,” you know, maybe there needs to be this like, Okay, let’s do this together this sort of like really become a part of the community because I’m sure. I mean, there are many cases where there are cities, you know, communities, what have you, where they’re not necessarily working with a local developer?

Nora Bland 04:49
Exactly. Yeah. So you’re you’re totally right. I think it’s important to involve the community from the inception. Maybe the first path is a meeting with neighborhoods to talk about what’s the vision, you don’t want to come in with something that’s already fully baked. And then the community feels well, you’ve already made all of your decisions, why are you even bothering to involve us at this point, you can really have a visioning session, understand what the needs of community members are, what their concerns are, and kind of put everything on the table within the parameters of the project. And then once you’ve gotten that initial feedback, you can incorporate that into the design, and then come back to the community where it’s still not fully baked, but you’ve incorporated their input and you’ve got some ideas on the table. And then they can give you feedback on that iteration. So it really needs to be a multistage process. And it shouldn’t be just a box checking exercise where you just have one community meeting, and none of the input is really incorporated into the design.

Sarah Steimer 05:52
So it’s sort of just this constant feedback loop. You can’t turn that loop off in a lot of ways. But of course, and you know, I just want to make note of this. It’s not as though we can assume that, yes, the community is an expert in where they live, but they’re not necessarily design experts. So, you know, before we jump into maybe some examples, can you give me an idea of what sort of parameters maybe you have to put on as a team when you are introducing the opportunity to give feedback?

Nora Bland 06:20
Sure, exactly. So I think it’s important to be armed with some data and some realities, a concept that’s out there right now is design thinking, which is a really holistic approach to problem solving. So looking at a project from what’s desirable, from a community’s point of view, together with what is economically feasible. So it’s really the intersection of desirability, viability and feasibility. And so when you come to a community, and you say, we’re looking to add some residential units, it’s gonna be a mixed use project. And we’ll have some commercial on the ground floor. But these are our limitations. This is the size of our piece of property. These are some of the mobility considerations, we need to have bike lanes, we know that there’s a parking problem in the neighborhood. So we need to come up with some creative solutions around parking. And then what’s viable in the market, when it comes to what that retail or commercial looks like. Some communities members may be saying, you know, we really want a grocery store where you really want a coffee shop. And you can come with data to that meeting and say, you know, actually, that’s not economically feasible, that will not work with the way that the market is right now. And so you can lay out what is feasible, you know, these are the types of uses that could work here. And can you help us choose from these. And so it’s kind of a back and forth where it really, there’s a little bit of hand holding, that needs to happen with community members so that they can understand what the market forces are at work. And that can help inform the design.

Sarah Steimer 07:52
This kind of reminds me a little bit of, you know, when we watch House Hunters, and people come with this, like dream scenario, you know, they want the pool and they want this and they want that. And the realtor almost kind of has to be like, look like, we can’t hand you your dream home, that’s going to check every single box. But we can problem solve for you, we understand that you have kids, and that maybe you need a little bit more space, we understand that you have this and that. So it does sound like it’s not just like let’s throw out every nice to have in the world. It’s more about what are the things we’re trying to solve? If I’m not mistaken?

Nora Bland 08:28
Yes, exactly. It’s problem solving, together with the community.

Sarah Steimer 08:33
So now let’s jump into I know that you have a really great example for us from Missoula, if I’m not mistaken. So I want to get an idea of how you approach us kind of walk us through not only the process, but how it helped to really solve those two big problems that we talked about earlier, which is you know, making the design better and having it reflect the history and culture, but also making sure that the changes were digestible. So tell us a little bit about this project.

Nora Bland 09:00
So this was a project with the Missoula Redevelopment Authority. It was a parcel about nine acres in Missoula as Northside Neighborhood. And we knew there was going to be an affordable housing component, we knew there was also going to be some mixed use some some commercial and retail. And that’s really what the vision was when it came to the Redevelopment Agency. This area was also in a lot of the long range plans for the city as looking to be a solution for affordable housing. We looked at some of the history of the site. It used to be an old wood mill. And then we created a collaborative relationship with the kind of neighborhood association. And we invited some of their leaders to actually help us craft what our engagement strategy was going to look like, you know what engagement techniques are going to work for your neighborhood and what concerns do we need to be aware of upfront that we can really try to address in some of our community meetings? Our first meeting we had it at a known neighborhood space that a A lot of community members already visited often, we included some games, we made it fun and interactive, we had a little station where we had the site map. And people could move different 3D pieces around to show where the different users could go and what different density levels made sense were at this meeting, we were able to understand what the community was looking for in this site, and what some of the bigger concerns were, that our design needed to help solve. Making this super collaborative was how we got some initial support for the project. And then when we went back to the community, at our second meeting, we had really incorporated a lot of their feedback. So we made sure that some of the architectural form were a nod to the old wood mill that was on the site. And then we addressed a lot of the parking concerns a lot of the density concerns and included a really big community square that was lush and green and really gave back to that neighborhood.

Sarah Steimer 11:06
I really want to underscore the idea that you guys didn’t just invite the community to come talk, but you actually made it engaging and interesting and really tried to actively draw them in, because it’s sort of like, okay, so we know that like voting and participating in democracy is important. But just knowing that fact doesn’t draw people, you kind of have to make it a bit more engaging, you know, and it sounds like to the fact that you did make those 3D models that people could move things around and truly make it a hands on experience, you know, what sort of feedback did people have about that, that it wasn’t just this sort of run of the mill, we’re all going to sit on uncomfortable folding chairs, here you out, and then maybe stand up and talk,

Nora Bland 11:49
It was really well received in the neighborhood. I think the fact that we included childcare, we catered it with really yummy food from a local restaurant. And I think all of those kinds of incentives brought out some of the folks that don’t normally show up to say, a city council meeting or a planning board meeting. These are folks with families that have jobs that you really need to make this meeting seem like a good investment of their time, to have them show up. And so some of the feedback we got from the city even was we’ve never seen something like this, we’ve never seen a turnout of such a diverse group of people. That’s not the folks that show up, say to the public meetings, and parks and recreation, it’s a certain demographic, and they all have similar concerns. And they tend to have a lot of time on their hands, right. Whereas you really need to thread the needle of providing a space that’s comfortable and known that it’s not a stuffy city building, you need to have dinner there. If it’s at dinnertime. Absolutely, you need to provide dinner, and then also offering childcare and games for kids and making it a really fun and interactive exercise was really well received by the community.

Sarah Steimer 13:02
Well, so I mean, we talked about how there could be community pushback, because you’re sort of dealing with almost two different experts in a way. So you have the expertise of the design firm. And then you have the expertise of the locals. And one is going to feel like maybe they know a little bit more than the other right, especially when it comes to different topics. Have you ever seen much pushback as far as maybe folks on the design team going? We know better than the community? You know, has there been? You know, we talked about the community pushback, has there been pushback as far as engaging with the community on the design side at all?

Nora Bland 13:41
Oh, absolutely. And I think that’s why it’s so important to have the back and forth and to give multiple ways for people to engage. So whereas if there’s an online way for people to interact with the project, like an online survey or an online forum, that’s going to attract a different type of person than somebody who wants to go to a community meeting and have a conversation. So I think the important when it comes to this type of engagement is to have it be conversational, and really try to understand what those shared community values are by asking questions and inviting participation that can help us understand as designers, what, really the community values and help them understand each other’s shared values. And therefore we can really make the design cater to those values.

Sarah Steimer 14:31
So I wanted to also find out from you, you know, maybe it was this project, maybe it was a different project. Was there ever anything and maybe this happens every time you do it? I don’t know. But was there any one that sticks out in your mind or anything that sticks out in your mind rather, that came from that community engagement that never would have made its way into the design project? Had you not opened it up to the folks actually living there?

Nora Bland 14:56
The idea that comes to mind with that is when we We’re working in Chaffee County, Colorado, it’s a very rural area. And they were really struggling with growth that was happening in the unincorporated county, really a lot of sprawl that was negatively affecting the natural environment. And a lot of the community was not in favor of this type of growth. That said, there was a big portion of the community that really valued private property rights, and didn’t like the idea of being told what they could do with their property. And so there was really this divide in the community. Among some of the longer term residents valued the private property rights. And then some of the newer residents that were really interested in community and environmental objectives. What we did was we took some growth scenarios, and we modeled them using maps, and showing what different growth scenarios could look like geographically and what that would look like in terms of growth within municipalities within the unincorporated county, and other kind of urban nodes in the county. So we showed these three different scenarios on the maps. And we were able to understand from the community, okay, we actually don’t like this scenario, because it’s a lot of growth in the unincorporated county. So we’ll consider this scenario, which involves some higher densities in the municipalities, but protect our open and working landscapes, we were able to get these two really divided pieces of the community and bring them together to a preferred growth scenario that otherwise a lot of them probably would have reacted negatively towards.

Sarah Steimer 16:43
I feel like this just like suddenly became a slightly political episode of the podcast, I guess it it really, I mean, look at this, like, you’ve got like bringing everyone to the table, obviously, like, you can find a middle ground that does exist, you know, especially like you’re saying, when things are modeled out, and you can actually see what the potential effects would be. That just seems like a massive lesson to engage with everyone before decisions are made. And I don’t know, feelings are hurt, or know someone sitting around going well, I wish someone would ask me, that sounds like such a great opportunity for, you know, I’m saying the same thing over and over again here, but to actually be able to include all of the experts, because yes, there’s that high level expertise that a design firm is bringing in, where you have the background, you have the knowledge, you have the research, the skill sets, but there’s something to be said about that the expertise of the people who will be using this from day to day and their background and living their their understanding of the history and the use cases, etc. It just seems like a great meeting of the minds in a lot of ways. Well, Nora, that was most of what I was hoping to ask you about community driven design. Was there anything that we didn’t mention, though, today that you wanted to bring up? Maybe some surprises? Or really just trying to drive home the importance of working with the community?

Nora Bland 18:05
Yeah, I would say where developers or maybe even municipalities might have the mindset that this is such a big upfront cost to do community engagement, because it does cost money, you you do have to pay for food and childcare and the space, maybe even it might seem like some sticker shock of oh, gosh, wow, that’s a lot of upfront costs. But I think it really will end up saving you money in the long run. Because if the community is on board with it, you’re going to have a much easier time getting through the approval process. And ultimately, you become a trusted person within the community, where they’re much more willing to hear about your next project because they trust that you have their best interests in mind.

Sarah Steimer 18:51
Ask them I mean, this this really just seemed like the the way to go like you said, you know, starting from the beginning of the approval process, almost instead of at the very end, just kind of turning around and going. So what do you think they’re, you know, being being some issues that way? Well, Nora, thank you so much for joining us today. I really enjoyed chatting with you about this and hopefully we can discuss this further in the future but anything else though, before we go i i do love that idea of you know, if you get them on board from the get go and you don’t have to worry about maybe some, you know, costs or no even time in further down the road.

Nora Bland 19:26
Yeah, no, I think that’s it for me. Thanks so much for having me.

Sarah Steimer 19:29
Awesome. Thank you.

Producer 19:37
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold. And a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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