Community engagement is the foundation of equitable, built space

When self-described recovering architect Rico Quirindongo talks about creating enriched built spaces, he frames the conversation — and his design solutions — around the people who will inhabit them. 

Throughout his 27 years practicing architecture, and now in his role as interim director at the City of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development, Quirindongo bases his approach to design on the incorporation of community-based perspectives.

“Culture and needs of the community are the most important contexts for any project getting built.”

– Rico Quirindongo

Generally, during a design process, there’s not enough engagement with communities to identify their needs. This missing insight is often subconsciously embedded in people’s cultural experiences and backgrounds, and can reveal what a community requires of a space.

Quirindongo’s goal in this scenario is to help draw that knowledge to the surface, so people become aware of, and understand, the impact that built environments have on them. Once others better understand the requirements of a built environment, they can then influence the design process by asking for specific needs to be met. Quirindongo believes this collaborative process is integral to framing equitable design choices and directions.

An empowered community engagement process does lead to the creation of environments where “your product, your office space, or your project will be more well embraced and more well utilized because of that input,” he says.

But productivity should not be the key metric by which we gauge the value of a built environment, says Quirindongo. Rather, through advocacy, he foresees a future where buildings are the consequence of “a decision-making process that’s about personal wellness, family well-being, and community health.”

Create an empowered community engagement process

Quirindongo’s community-centric approach to design is not focused on revenue or profit-related outcomes, “but more on the social determinants of health and individual and community wellness,” he says.

So, how does he discern and incorporate these considerations? 

As a contextualist architect, he designs a building’s shape and form in response to the built and natural components of an environment. Two key considerations are history and culture.

When understood — thanks to a stakeholder engagement process — Quirindongo says history and culture provide a detailed, contextual map of the racial and social demographics that impact a project. With this insight, he can craft a more equitable design approach that reflects the specific cultural needs and well-being of those set to use the space. 

Quirindongo says architects and designers should ask themselves several questions throughout the community engagement process: Where am I? Whom am I serving? Whom should I be talking with? What do they need? What is their context? Where did they come from? What are they projecting their needs to be for the future?

Methods of engagement range from surveys and face-to-face interactions or interviews, to public open houses and even gamified consultations. 

From there, Quirindongo combines the discovered foundational cultural knowledge with his own research on the history of a place. And, throughout the process, he checks in to ask stakeholders the following: “Did I get that right?”

The process is not meant to be a one-sided, fact-finding mission for the sole benefit of designers, though. Quirindongo says it’s a chance for all parties to learn the value of, and advocate for, a space that enhances well-being, as well as to inspire respect for an environment’s culture, history, and place.

Advocate for human health and well-being

Alongside jobs, living wages, and housing access, Quirindongo lists the “quality of a built environment” as an equally important barometer of human health and wellness. 

It’s just not greatly understood as a need, he says, which is why community engagement must connect the dots between quality of life and the way space is accessed. Armed with this awareness, inhabitants will have the “tools to explore manipulation of their environment and how their environment can change, and then empower them to take actions to make those changes for their own betterment,” he says.

But he doesn’t think the general public should be responsible for making those initial connections on their own. Through the act of public engagement, architects “have the opportunity to provide a bridge and to give people a reason to want to know more,” says Quirindongo.

Of course, they aren’t the only part of this puzzle. He notes that an investment in design centered on health and well-being requires buy-in from corporate entities like real estate developers, property owners, and employers. 

While the design community can’t directly incentivize these industries to adopt a contextualist approach, “we can advocate for — or provide case study examples of — how we’re able to create more enriched environments,” Quirindongo says.

“My job has always been to push on comfort.”

– Rico Quirindongo

It can be challenging for companies to adapt and change the way they engage with spaces, but, increasingly, employees and neighborhoods are asking Quirindongo to do just that. 

People are starting to realize they have choices and don’t have to put up with living circumstances or workspaces they aren’t happy with, says Quirindongo.

“Over time, we’ll see more of a demand and a need for place-based decision-making,  community-based decision-making, crowdsourcing of information, a need to understand the history of community and people, and then how that informs what our investments are,” he says. 

For Quirindongo, this is the beginning of a revolution.

Rico Quirindongo, interim director at the City of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development, is one of six design Iconoclasts DIRTT interviewed on why adaptable design matters.
Rico Quirindongo, interim director at the City of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development, is one of six design Iconoclasts DIRTT interviewed on why adaptable design matters.

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