Surdna Foundation 2014 Annual Report
Programs > Thriving Cultures > Community Engaged Design
Community Engaged Design

Community Engaged Design

Coachella, Calif., the desert town where a popular indie music festival is held each year, is also home to thousands of immigrant agricultural workers, many of whom live in under-built and poorly maintained trailer park communities like St. Anthony. It is in this “other” Coachella, a dusty place with localized flooding, sometimes undrinkable water, and intermittent electricity, that a new approach to design and community planning is unfolding. Residents, many for the first time, are participating in the design of their own community. And through their engagement, they are introducing a sense of pride, accountability, and belonging that is helping make this desert town more than a place on a map.

Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit design and planning studio working in partnership with residents and local nonprofit groups, has already built a new common space with garden plots for residents, a playground for youth, and better-engineered landscaping to capture and gradually release water during the rainy season.

Based on the partnership’s success at St. Anthony, KDI is now working with residents of nearby North Shore to re-imagine the town’s five-acre park. The design firm not only brings resources and technical expertise to the community, but also deeply values the process of engagement with residents and community-based organizations. Chelina Odbert, KDI’s co-founder, emphasizes that it’s only through partnership that these ambitious projects can be realized.

Surdna is supporting organizations whose approach to design recasts the traditional top-down method to one that prioritizes an understanding of the way people live and work in their communities. We believe designers, architects, and planners can play an important role in translating community values into solutions—solutions that will benefit the people in these communities.

Transforming a profession whose practice has historically revolved around the drafting table—rather than community needs—and where a project’s success has been measured in design awards—not impact—is not easy or quick. That’s why we believe a movement toward greater equity and inclusiveness requires more than cultivating a new type of practice—it demands a new type of practitioner. So, Surdna is also cultivating talented and innovative leaders who more closely resemble the communities they’re engaging with.