Beyond Authentic and Equitable: A New Trajectory for Engagement

To navigate today’s social challenges, we can look to to sustainable design for a roadmap. (Reading time: just under 5 minutes)

In the 1970s, a growing environmental awareness fueled a radical transformation of the built-environment disciplines. Landscape architects, planners, and policy makers sprung into action by cross-pollinating with environmental sciences like biology and ecology. Whole new disciplines and paradigms were birthed.

These new practices came to be known under the umbrella of “sustainable design.” And after decades of advocacy, research and development, sustainable design is now the air breathed by most practicing built-environment professionals.

Fast forward to 2024. We now face a similar critical moment to that time in the 1970s, but this time with our civil society. We are grappling with incredible overlapping crises of social fragmentation, polarization, and loneliness.

Bowling Alone is the new Silent Spring.

Regular readers will be familiar with my drum-beating advocacy for the process of place-based community engagement as a counterforce to this troubling social trajectory.

But to fulfill community engagement’s potential, we need another revolution fueled by another round of cross-pollination.

Sustainable design can provide a useful roadmap for the journey community engagement practitioners now need to undertake.

Take this common graph describing the current spectrum of sustainable design practice. It’s adapted from the work of Bill Reed, a leading thinker in the world of sustainable design and a co-founder of the LEED Green Building Rating System.

You may be surprised to see “sustainable” at the center of this graph. That’s because sustainable design aims to minimize its impact on the planet, but doesn’t necessarily replenish its natural systems.

To do so, you need to move towards design that is “restorative” or “regenerative” — towards approaching design as holistic living systems.

Regenerative design is critical for addressing our environmental crises. And it is the leading edge of design and planning work right now. For example, the Living Building Challenge, the most rigorous sustainable design standard today, explicitly brands its goals as regenerative and uses a similar version of this chart.

We can take this sustainable design trajectory and make an equivalent version for the practice community engagement. Let’s take a look.

What do you notice?

You may not have expected to see “authentic and equitable” engagement in the middle of the chart.

“Authentic” and “equitable” are the buzz words right now amongst design and engagement practitioners. You’re probably familiar with these terms. They are used at just about every conference, by every consultant, and in every award that has something to do with communities.

But I contend that when it pertains to supporting the well-being of our communities, this type of engagement is merely the equivalent of “sustainable.”

Authentic and equitable engagement is merely the equivalent of “sustainable.”

Naturally, anything less than authentic and equitable engagement puts you into socially degenerative territory. You are likely causing harm to the communities involved.

There’s plenty of engagement being done today that qualifies as degenerative. We see it most egregiously in processes that employ “checkbox” strategies or solicit only token input from involved communities.

And yes, the conversation around equitable and authentic engagement is important. People are doing great work defining those terms and exploring its implementation. It is particularly important for communities that have historically been harmed. We gotta get out of the red zone.

But addressing fragmentation, polarization, and loneliness means focusing on how community engagement can be intentionally restorative and regenerative for our social systems. Authentic and equitable engagement is a prerequisite component, of course. But we must look further to envision how it can also intentionally support the health of social institutions that foster social mixing and sustain connection and belonging.

From what I’ve seen, most contemporary community engagement — even that labeled authentic and equitable — is agnostic to such restorative and regenerative outcomes.

(Remember, we are talking here about the process, not the product. The process of meeting, sharing, visioning, and building in place-based communities holds a unique potential, distinct from a project’s other outcomes.)

In theory, you can have 100% authentic community participation and fully incorporate a community’s feedback into equitable outcomes, with no exchanges between people. In fact, it happens all the time. For example, open-house style events where participants have one-to-one conversations with a project’s designers, but never meet or share ideas with other community members.

In theory, you can have 100% authentic community participation and fully incorporate a community’s feedback into equitable outcomes, with no exchanges between people. In fact, it happens all the time.

On the graph I label this “individuistic” engagement, although there may be a better term. Such engagement focuses on the quality of individual contributions from community members, with little regard for how those individuals may form lasting connections across their community.

It’s like an architect who incorporates on-site salvaged building materials but doesn’t consider how to also strengthen the health of its encompassing ecological systems. Sustainable? Sure. Regenerative? Not so much.

And given our epidemics of loneliness and polarization, this approach is simply not enough.

We need to be explicit about socially regenerative outcomes. I have found that many practitioners of community engagement haven’t considered approaches beyond a middle-of-the-chart position. Some are even resistant. Most lack the money and time to support this kind of work.

We need a language and framework to talk about how the process of community engagement can replenish community life, just as the sustainable design movement is now doing with the environment. Maybe then we can convince project sponsors to make investments in “building community” as an intentional goal of a community engagement process.

We also need a healthy dose of interdisciplinary cross-pollination. We can look to the social sciences, for example, to understand how to bridge identity groups and foster place-identity. We can also seek guidance from those who study the structures of community and the institutions and organizations that uphold community connectivity.

We’ll dive into this last subject in a future post, and also spend some time sketching some parameters for restorative and regenerative engagement practices. Stay tuned

In the meantime, I would love to hear from you about moving the needle of engagement practice towards social regenerativity. How do we mirror the journey of sustainable design, and get to a place where it’s just the air we breathe?

What Else I’m Reading (and Watching)

  • I coincidentally just stumbled across this slick but inspiring video, “What is Regeneration?” I’m skeptical of the efficacy of this particular campaign, but it’s testament to the potency of the concept. Check it out and hop aboard if you feel inclined – apparently you will have Jeff Bridges as company!
  • Despite the obvious title, in Robots are no Substitute for Social Life, Ever Harold conducts a compelling examination of the current state of our loneliness epidemic, and peaks over the edge into the darkness of our potential future.