Equity, Sustainability and Health in 2024, Part 1: Putting People First

Design Issues

Our latest blog post is the first in a three-part series that comes from the collective minds of Civitas team members: Juliana de Affonseca, Jessica Doig, and Jason Newsome.

For forty years, Civitas has been driven to ensure that our work has a positive impact on communities. We’re continuously expanding our perspectives and honing our craft in order to meet this mission, and hopefully move the needle on health, equity and sustainability. Not long ago, Mark Johnson shared his perspectives on these topics, writing that “through conversations come solutions” as he challenged all of us to consider every project as an opportunity to ask questions, to listen closely, and to remember that even seemingly small gestures can have a big impact. We have many of these conversations, often, and this is what we’re learning from them:

Equity Means Putting People First

We design places for people, so while health, equity and sustainability are equally important, we tend to consider equity as the foundation. The process of defining health and sustainability goals becomes more logical after we’ve defined the people-focused project intent. But first, we want to be sure that we’re considering the way a project affects people – all people – by engaging the community in our design process. By designing with our client and with all of their stakeholders rather than simply presenting our ideas and asking for feedback.

Equity is achieved through a public engagement process that is genuinely open and unbiased. We don’t just ‘check the box’ for community engagement, we seek out meaningful engagement and dialogue to reveal local truths that help create unique, cherished, and lasting places. As urban designers and landscape architects, the public realm is our canvas. So we consider the first step in our work is to figure out what the public needs and wants. This takes sincere time and attention. Our current work in Arkansas, California, Minnesota, Idaho, Florida, Alberta and beyond – and of course Colorado, too – must suit the needs of each unique local community and their native environment, not ours. That requires proactively reaching out to the people who we need and want to hear from in order to better understand the local context and the real issues. Taking the time to build relationships. Building trust. Helping people feel heard and understood so that we can best communicate their story. Actually listening.

This work is hard but it’s incredibly fulfilling. In many communities, the places we design might be their best (if not only) access to open, green space where they can play and gather in the fresh air or be the town center or cultural heart that is the identity of home for them. This motivates us to get it right. Once we understand the community’s culture and history, the challenges they face, the goals they aspire to reach, we can help them understand what’s possible with a variety of design options that acknowledge their culture and address their history, and that help them overcome their challenges and reach their goals. Then, through their local knowledge and lived experiences and our broad international expertise, we can work together to make educated choices that push our designs forward. And if it feels like the aspirations are aiming too high, we can recommend attainable strategies and phased approaches to implementation. And in the end, the needs and wants of the community are felt and seen in the final design and the process continues to help everyone get equitable access to the spaces they need and deserve.

About the Authors

  • Jason Newsome

  • Jessica Doig

  • Juliana de Affonseca

Jason Newsome is an urban designer and landscape architect who’s excited about the constant evolution of cities and the challenge to evolve urban communities into more timeless, accessible and livable places for everyone.

Jessica Doig is a landscape designer who’s passionate about creating public spaces that tell real stories of the local people, culture and history.

Juliana de Affonseca is a landscape designer who loves helping small cities dream big, illustrating what’s possible through design.