Through Conversations Come Solutions

Design Issues

community input session

We’re entering Civitas’ 40th year and I’m truly inspired by the level of talent around me. Throughout our firm’s history, our business model has been based on a strong culture of empowerment and trust, and on our commitment to each other. We seek colleagues who are motivated to play a role in designing places that have a positive impact, and who recognize that “impact” can come in many different shapes and sizes. We tend to be an agile, observant and optimistic group.

Our world is facing major challenges right now and yet we see them as opportunities to listen and learn. Conversations about equity, sustainability and health are more prevalent at the civic and community level than ever before, and – while we wish they weren’t so necessary – this is a good thing. These issues have been big ones for generations, so the conversations are necessary. Just within the past three years, people have seen first-hand the clear evidence of the health, equity and climate crises we’re facing, and have greater concern and care. People are more willing and able to talk.

Here’s what I’m hearing:

Equity: Design can’t be complete until the whole community is heard.

Everyone deserves equal access to a safe, healthy, comfortable and fulfilling life, and yet many populations have been disconnected from this access for generations. Recent social and political events have put a spotlight on these issues, and our design industry is waking up to the role we play in this, and the obligation we have to repair.

community input session
community input session
community input session
community input session

The Civitas team works directly within the North St. Louis community to gather and share ideas and collect feedback.

In North St. Louis, we are working on a master plan for six underserved neighborhoods that struggle with the highest crime rates in the country, and yet still hold onto strong community pride with a powerful history. We have been hosting a series of neighborhood meetings, and in conversations with community members, we consistently hear residents say they just want what other people have: investment in their neighborhood.

Resources like parks and trails and town squares and sidewalks serve as connective tissue that every neighborhood needs and deserves. Just a few years ago we were having conversations, for example, about “complete streets” and finding better ways for cars and people and bikes and public transit to share space and to help people connect to work, school, and to each other. But now that notion of “complete” takes on more meaning, as we aim to create space for all kinds of people in all kinds of places.

Sustainability: As climate concerns increase, design must consider its long-term impact.

Sustainability has become bigger than ever before as the conversation expands to global climate change. Whether we’re talking about shortages or floods, water has always been a big consideration, but extreme heat and violent weather are emerging as greater concerns and (for better or worse) bring climate to the attention of non-coastal cities. With our clients, we have conversations about the small ways that each individual project can contribute by reducing energy consumption and carbon footprint, and by creating more green space. We consider each project’s long-term value rather than short-term transactions.

tampa bay riverfront

Tampa’s redeveloped Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park is designed to cleanse and protect the water and its shoreline, while creating more equitable access to the river for recreation.

This focus coincides with the global shift toward adaptive reuse and renovation instead of tearing down and building new. In October, Bloomberg reported that, “for the first time in 20 years, renovations have overtaken new construction in architectural billings in the US.” We need to be better at using what we have, and – when we do build something new – build places that are designed to last for generations. This is the root of sustainability. Civitas’ central focus has been on getting the bones of a place right, rather than focusing solely on aesthetics or style. This approach gives each project greater longevity and resilience. With a strong foundation, places are more flexible and functional for the long term, empowering style and even purpose to evolve over time.

Health: Small design interventions add up to big impact.

After three years (and counting) of a global pandemic, the design industry continues to respond to public health concerns by creating more places and spaces where people feel safe and comfortable. There’s more open space and access to fresh air, even within buildings. Underutilized urban spaces are being converted into parks and gathering places, linked together by better systems of urban trails. New residential developments are being designed with layered community green spaces – multiple small interventions rather than singular big ones.

This layered approach links the issues of health and equity to each other: Rather than focusing resources on a singular large park at the center of a city, today’s cities benefit from networks of many small parks – green spaces that are visible and accessible from every neighborhood, easily reached within a few minutes’ walk and open to all. Sustainability is affected too, as these green spaces literally breathe life back into the city and its residents.

5280 trail rendering

Denver’s 5280 Trail improves underutilized urban spaces and creates much-needed connections between neighborhoods, easing and encouraging outdoor activity and movement.

These are big challenges to tackle, so many of these conversations are taking place between governments and private organizations. In 2023, I expect to see an even greater emergence of public-private partnerships, as more of us realize that no company or community can do this alone. We have to work together.

It would be inauthentic and inappropriate to say our team, as talented as it’s grown to be, is solving all the problems and saving the world. But hopefully our work – our small interventions – will add up over time and contribute to a cumulative, positive impact. In the meantime, we’ll continue to listen, believing that through conversations come solutions.

Want to join the conversation? Reach out. We’d love to connect.