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Reviewed by:
  • Democratic Design without Borders: Across and within Nation States
  • Randolph T. Hester (bio)
Los Angeles, 27–30 May 2015

The first-ever meeting of Democratic Design Without Borders convened at EDRA 46, organized by Jeff Hou (University of Washington) and Rachel Berney (University of Southern California). The Intensive Workshop featured presentations of community design research and case stories by activists from Russia, the Middle East, Asia, and the United States. The meeting grew from the efforts of multiple groups who share a commitment to environmental justice, and seek culturally-informed and empowering design. Henry Sanoff (North Carolina State University) invited participants from EDRA networks in participatory community design along with others he has inspired since he initiated EDRA in 1969. Hou invited the Pacific Rim Network, a group which he cofounded in 1998.

Hou’s goals were to provide a forum for democratic designers to meet, get to know one another, and share their work, and to determine interest in forming a “glocal” network for creating more just environments worldwide.

Berney orchestrated the event. Dramatizing the tasks at hand, participants exited the insular elegance of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and walked to the subway, trading the fashionable side of the city for a ride on the Blue Line through neglected service/ industrial neighborhoods and the essentially hidden poverty of Los Angeles. The destination was Augustus Hawkins Park (designed by this reviewer). Less than five miles from the Westin Bonaventure, society’s detritus filled the streets of Compton and Slauson, in such contrast to downtown, that one participant remarked, “This is injustice at work.” The park itself was created to address a startling spatial inequity. Los Angeles’ affluent Westside has 13,310 acres of open space, whereas the entire South Central and East side had only 75 acres before the opening of Augustus Hawkins Park. Berney wisely arranged for the workshop session to take place in the community center of a neighborhood like the ones participants would be discussing. Intense and passionate deep democracy soon filled the room.

Hou grouped the presentations into four roundtables: Contexted Participation; Enabling Participation; Embodied Participation; and Embattled Participation. [End Page 200] Each consisted of short presentations followed by cross-cultural discussion and spirited debate. Four themes stood out.

  1. 1. Crossing cultures. This requires reading the nuances between political lines, and many examples suffered from a lack of political context. Yeun-Kum Kim, a community designer in Seoul, provided the exception by providing a history of the role of design in the democratization of Korea that should become the standard for comparing cases. She traced the “small rights” movement from its radical roots to the present day, where some leaders now view it as a dangerous seed that threatens the stable political ground of vestiges of a de facto dictatorship while other agents institutionalize participation as a means of both reform and corporate control. The contexts across borders vary so that participants were constantly reality-checking and contrasting laws governing participation, political situations, freedom of information, democratic life-cycle stages, and citizen attitudes about democracy. This raised the question of whether the real value of crossing borders is to learn more about home.

  2. 2. Cuddly stories provoke insight. Participatory design conferences often are filled with heart-warming cases absent critical evaluation, but cases here revealed how challenging democratic design is today—for reasons old and new. Questions of who we serve and who is excluded continue to bedevil. But in many countries, reaching old minorities and recent immigrants in cities without any majority adds wicked problems. And we are just learning about the effectiveness of techniques emerging in Hokkaido, Vologna, Woonsocket and Medford. Which techniques really do work and for what ends? In addition, there is the conundrum of scale. Scale up? Scale down? Most projects presented were small-scale interventions, often at schools. But some were city, state, ecosystem or multinational in scope. What does the disagreement about scale tell us?

  3. 3. Only the big picture will advance the field. If democratic design is inevitable, what knowledge is essential for designers in the future? Why? Generational and practitioner goals currently divide community designers...


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pp. 200-202
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