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Re-visiting co-design as participation in planning

20120504-105203.jpgSource: Co-Design Group

About three years ago, prior to entering UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning, I had a chance to attend a demonstration of the co-design method pioneered by architect Stanley King. This article will give a brief rundown of the major activities involved in a co-design process, This will be followed by some links to other resources about co-design, examples of projects that have used the co-design method, and how King is moving forward with integrating co-design methods into current work.

What is Co-Design?

Broadly speaking, co-design brings members of the public together with artist-facilitators to dialogue and collaboratively produce a community vision. These visions can guide and inform planning and design activities as a project unfolds. Stanley King has been using this method with communities since 1971 through The Co-Design Group, an informal association of architects, designers and researchers based in western Canada.

The bulk of these activities occur during an event commonly known as a co-design workshop (although, depending of course on the circumstances of the project, this may be paired with other activities such as an ideas fair). Members of the public are invited to the workshop – often, a day-long event. As with many participatory activities, broad representation — by age, background, activity — is key, although groups within the broader community may need special consideration.
As with all dialogues and participatory activities, setting expectations and boundaries is key. As explained in the report of the use of co-design in Vancouver’s Woodwards Project:

Participants were asked to observe 3 rules during the visioning:

1. Speak for yourself – say “I” not “We”- let others speak for themselves.

2. Avoid negative criticism – if you don’t like an idea suggest your alternative.

3. Don’t attempt solutions – think of the life of the place, consider possibilities.

Co-design Agenda

A co-design workshop often starts with a Site visit and Walkabout, allowing the facilitators and members of the community to jointly learn or re-discovering salient features of the site, like lighting, topography or existing infrastructure.

With the atmosphere of the space fresh in everyone’s mind, the public is asked to brainstorm an Activity Timeline. As a group, the public discusses what kinds of activities they envision taking place in the space over the course of a day. I sometimes refer to this as, “A Day In the Life.” This brainstorming serves as an opportunity for people to give voice, in a large-group setting, to how a place would fit into their daily lives.

Next comes what is referred to as the Image Creation phase, and the heart of the co-design experience. The artist facilitators take what is said in the brainstorm and categorize it into general guiding themes that they will be focusing on for their drawing. Members of the public are then broken up into smaller groups and assigned to work with the artist-faclitators on those themes. The artists then begin to sketch an image of the place, in close discussion with their group as they discuss specifics. It can often result in a dialogue process rooted in the constructive: what should be here? What will the people here be doing, and how will they be doing it? (Artists, King notes, cannot draw absences — at best they can draw two desired things co-existing.)

Once all the groups have completed their images, the specific elements that have been included and highlighted in the image are listed. The images are displayed and the larger group is invited to view all the images produced and to express their preferences for the qualities and features in the images, as well as their suggestions for what might make them work or not work in the particular place.

Co-Design in Action

  • This site from the City of Vancouver has three co-design reports for the Woodward’s Project in Vancouver, and can give you a good idea of the output of a co-design process as well as the way a co-design workshop might be coordinated with other community engagement activities.
  • I was fortunate to get to see King and the artist facilitators at work as part of my course work focused on a community visioning process for Britannia Community Centre in Vancouver. See him speaking about co-design in this video on the Britannia community engagement process. (Disclaimer: I shot and edited this along with two colleagues in my Multimedia for Planning Engagement class in 2010, and also participated as a student in the urban design class.)
  • This video is from Stanley King’s work on the Little Mountain Housing Project. It has been edited together by a local community group and provides an overview of the workshop and shows some of the resulting images. (Stanley himself appears 7:53 into the video.) The community’s groups description of the video highlights an important point that is true of all participatory tools — that what happens during a co-design process needs to be integrated and followed-up in a planning and development process.
  • My blog post of a co-design demonstration from 2009 also contains some images of the consensus process where people vote on the features in the images.
  • Here is a photoset of images from an adaptation of the co-design workshop adapted for the City of Vancouver’s Transportation 2040 transportation plan update public consultation activity.
  • See more about the co-design method in this 1973 film called Chairs For Lovers. (Note: Dial up the National Film Board nostalgia.)

Co-Design Moving Forward

Stanley King and his colleague Susan Ng Cheung are applying their experiences with co-design to better engaging youth in planning activities. They recently released a book called Youth Manual for Sustainable Design:

Together they created a Co-Design Youth Program to help youth participate in the ecological design of the spaces they will ultimately inherit. Recently, the program has enabled youth to participate in school garden design, architectural design of a waterfront and also in transportation planning. Currently, Stanley and Susan are researching the connection between co-design and the ecological interactions of communities.

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of the method, because I think people inhabit a different frame of mind when they are in engaged in constructive processes of making things together in addition to the usual talking, discussing and deliberating.
It’s been pointed out to me that it may be challenging to some for relegating planners in a seemingly passive role, of recording and notetaking the public’s interests rather than more actively applying planning skill. I would respond that by hypothesizing that an awful lot happens in those conversations while the artist-facilitator is drawing. Furthermore, I’d be interested to see what role the images created in the process might have in identifying community assets for implementing what is brainstormed, and coordinating that with more formal activities involving developers, architects, designers and planners.


  1. Given your technology interest, what do you think about the opportunity for iPad apps to help here (or better hardware in the future). The direct interaction of the screen seems to help people express themselves well. You could keep the real-life social context of course.

    I’ve imagined a “simple” app for a while, that lets you mark out perspective lines (& horizon: the app could help snap to its own guesses of building lines etc.) on a street-scene (from gmaps, or one you’ve taken yourself) and then drop in street features. Bike lane, trees, bench, 3-story with groundfloor retail. The results would clearly be uglier than a real artist, but a twitter/blogosphere of amateur quickly-hacked-together street visions would really help discussions, I reckon.

    What would this street look like if narrowed? What if it had a streetcar down the middle? What if there were a row of townhouses instead of single family homes.

    There are complicated apps that let you drop sketchup objects into a live virtual reality, but I’m looking for something more like cut&paste collage with perspective-smart scaling.

    Once you’ve drawn on the perspective grid, I’d imagine you could also cut out elements from your original to add to the cloud or your own other scenes. e.g. what would this mount pleasant street look like with a row of kitsilano apartments?

    Posted May 15, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  2. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for the comment! You are far from the only person thinking about using iPads for planning in this way — in fact, while I was at the American Planning Association conference, I bumped into Darin Dinsmore of Crowdbrite who said his company’s iPad app was close to or already in the App Store. Now that I look it up, I see that the Crowdbrite app is indeed in there, although having just downloaded it myself and not being able to see any of their projects underway, I don’t know if the augmented reality features he had mentioned when he was talking about the app last year have made it into the app as available just yet.

    I don’t know enough about scenario planning just yet to know if this sort of activity falls into scenario planning (my instinct is yes, although perhaps mostly on the urban design side of it) — Frank Hebbert, during a session at the APA on Advancing Scenario Planning tools (blogging backlog ack!), said that it was very likely that by this time next year we’d start seeing scenario planning in the palm of your hand, i.e. on mobile devices. I’m fascinated and thrilled but also hesitant, mostly because I’m always wondering who these kinds of tool would help, but also who they really wouldn’t.

    That said, if this is a tool that can help people looking at spaces like Lougheed Highway to begin considering what it could look like as a place and not just a giant thoroughfare for cars, all the better! :)

    Posted May 15, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

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