How do we design with communities rather than simply for them?

How do we design with communities rather than simply for them?

This question was top of mind for dhk Candidate Architect Ismaeel Davids as he journeyed to Madrid in January 2024 to pursue a master’s degree programme at the Norman Foster Institute Programme on Sustainable Cities. 

Three months have passed since Ismaeel left and he is gradually uncovering some answers to his question. The opening weeks of his programme highlighted the importance of data-driven conclusions and the importance of being inclusive when it comes to design.

“An aspect of research that I have been exploring is how to marry qualitative research as a means to uncover the intricacies of people’s daily lives, their emotions, aspirations and struggles, which are often overlooked in traditional data-driven approaches,” says Ismaeel.

During his time in Madrid, he has been working with the City of Bilbao to look at an inclusive approach, rather than working in isolation, when considering the lived experiences of residents. This way, solutions that are data-driven and rooted in the realities of those most affected by urban challenges can be co-created.

As Ismaeel says: “We aim to shift our proposal towards a more inclusive and participatory approach to city building. By creating a platform for the voices of unrepresented areas to be heard, the project acknowledges the importance of community input in shaping the future of the city. The approach is being developed as an antithesis of master planning as we look to create a platform where city building becomes an activity of the collective. I believe that the lived experience of these groups of people offer powerful insight into the needs of the neighborhoods.”

As Ismaeel ponders on this question, he has also been drawing inspiration from other thought leaders. This includes Tim Stonor, an architect and urban planner, who suggests there are aspects of cities, the finer grain, that cannot be seen through quantitative data. He has also been inspired by the work of city regeneration expert Maria Vassilakou who was the first green vice mayor of Vienna and city councillor for urban development, traffic, climate protection, energy planning and citizen participation. Her view is that if you want to build an inclusive city, there must be a high level of diversity. His other source of inspiration is Alfredo Brillembourg, the co-founding partner of Urban-Think Tank, who believes that the aesthetic of the city should reflect the condition of its people, since people are the true clients for architects.

Photo supplied by the Norman Foster Institute, Madrid