Public Involvement Lessons: Inform, Engage … Co-Design

Co-design connects deep public involvement and design excellence.
Case Studies, videos, photos, and “How To’s” follow.

20 years of industry experience as a planner and developer have given me an appreciation of the benefits of embracing the ideas of creative people within our communities. Excellent public involvement processes build trust and are essential if we are to redevelop our neighbourhoods with intensity and commensurate amenity.

by Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner ©2016

In my view, stepping up the ladder of public involvement results in better projects that attract more support and generate better economic, social and environmental outcomes. We begin here with a cautionary tale from a “design-defend” project in West Vancouver British Columbia, Canada – one that I was definitely not involved in. Then we move to a more positive case study – only a few blocks away – where I implemented a Co-Design planning approach with the talented Stanley King, the pioneer of Co-Design facilitation, and with James Cheng one of Canada’s most successful architects.

How to Sterilize a Site … A True Story

File this one under “Just Don’t”.

The Seniors Centre was packed, warm with the heat and breath of many bodies as the architects began their presentation of two different design visions for the full-block. Months ago, their client had commissioned this work and this was the day of the big reveal for this major project.

Unfortunately, the mood in the low-ceiling room was not particularly receptive, and it would soon get worse. No member of the public had been involved to this point. Many people had come because they heard rumours that the owner would present plans for a tall building. What would become of their views? Others just did not want to see change happen to them – at least not in the balance of their lifetimes. In attendance also were a couple city Councillors, the Director of Planning, and the Senior Planner assigned to this application.

The architect presented detailed plans with colour renderings illustrating two choices: “vanilla” or “chocolate” if you will. Unfortunately, the crowd assembled was unanimous that they did not want any ice cream at all, thank you. Questions and feedback became hostile. At the microphone, people jostled. In the hot crowded room, a lady was struck in the eye by a cane and fainted. The owner and design team left the meeting with their boards in tow – months of work and thousands of dollars of design fees wasted – and a community left distrustful and entrenched with the relative security of the status quo.

Suffice to say, redevelopment plans for that site have been shelved for a long time.

The Ladder of Public Involvement

Clearly what went wrong was that the owner and design team used a “Design & Defend” strategy and failed to involve their neighbours and the community in any meaningful way in the period before and leading up to the proposal. The team might have been rushed, or they may not have comprehended that the scale and the impact (real or perceived) of their proposal would require a much more collaborative approach.

Urban Planners often refer to the “Ladder of Public Involvement”, an idea first introduced by Sherry Arnstein in 1969.  Some proponents (government and business) operate by keeping the public in the dark and avoiding public involvement. However, that’s far from best practice and most local authorities have basic minimum requirements for notification and consultation. Others step up a rung and “inform” people what is going to happen to them – for minor items where there is little impact or complexity, this may be OK. Those who envision some public opposition or contention in a project may “consult” with the public. The highest rung however is “Partnership”.

I’ve been involved in many public involvement initiatives as a Citizen, as a City Planner, and as a Developer and I’ve seen the benefits that accrue when we work cooperatively on the high rungs of the ladder – particularly for projects that involve scale and a lot of information and complexity. A long time ago I found online an adaptation of Arnstein’s Ladder reworked to illustrate these extra dimensions. It’s a useful tool when considering how you will involve people in your plans.

Public Involvement Matrix

Co-Design – a Case Study

A short distance and a few months away from the location and time of that cautionary tale, I was working on a comprehensive redevelopment opportunity for the 1300 Block of Marine Drive in West Vancouver. At that time, the block was a neglected collection of properties. For more than 50 years, a row of small shops and a parking lot had mostly turned their backs to the waterfront. A fenced-off, remediated gas station site had sat vacant for 14 years on the west end of the block; on the east side, an aging police station awaited replacement. The District owned half the property and the company I work for had assembled the other half.

Notwithstanding the condition of the block, many of the shops, services and restaurants there were still loved by the community. I knew intuitively that the scale and impact of this site required that we involve people deeply in its planning. And I knew that I wanted my team to work with Stanley King and his Co-Design Team.

 “People know best how they want to live; architects know best how to design places people want to live in”

~ Co-Design founder Stanley King

Stanley King is a Vancouver resident who came to BC from the United Kingdom in the 1960s and developed a special type of graphic architectural and planning facilitation that is driven by authentic and deep public participation. The zeitgeist of Vancouver in the late 60s and early 70s was all about citizen participation – from decisions to reject the freeway through the downtown, to planning South False Creek and Granville Island, to the 1972 Habitat for Humanity Exposition – people wanted to be involved in the direction and shape and quality of their city. And Stanley was at the epicentre of all of that from the very beginning.

I’ll describe Co-design from my general experience, and specifically with my work with Stanley King on the Ambleside project with some imagery from that process.

Co-Design: Storytelling and Drawing

Co-design blends two ancient traditions: storytelling and drawing. It’s what humans have been doing for millennia – drawing images while sharing stories and ideas. Co-Design sessions are held in multiple circles of about 10 people. In these small groups, participants share ideas and stories about a site with a talented graphic facilitator who draws these ideas. It moves us away from the 1950s paradigm where “Experts” solve problems to the present day where people and experts can collaborate on solving problems, even wicked problems.

Co-Design is a “High Touch” experience in a “High Tech” age. You can’t do this online. It’s personal – people wear name tags; no hiding behind anonymous emails and blogs; speak for yourself. It’s social and polite – people interact with one another rather than just filling out a survey; they hear each other’s views – sometimes converging, sometimes diverging. And it’s iterative and real time. Facilitators ask questions: “Tell me what you see yourself doing in this place at noon?  Is this what you mean? What else is happening? Who else is there with you? What happens at night? In the summer?  In the winter?”. As they listen, they draw and color images, bringing to life people’s ideas and connecting threads of thought.


Stanley King and the Co-Design Team facilitating an Ideas Fair,
Ambleside West Vancouver, April 2011

But first a site visit …

It is important for people – developers, planners, architects and citizens – to begin by developing an intimate physical understanding of the site they are planning and shaping with their ideas and comments. Its a good idea to take them there to spend some time reflecting on the place. They need to understand the site using all senses – sight, views, light, sound, smell, feel, temperature, mood – even what their stomach is telling them. For mixed-use development opportunities,  the basics of food and refreshments are important! Participants need to consider opportunities, context, constraints and the special features of the site. They need to imagine it through full cycles of nature, morning, noon, evening, night, as well as its progression through all the seasons.

One interesting thing we did in tandem with the Co-Design process was to transform and give over a portion of our vacant gas site to the community as a temporary art greenway with the assistance of Barrie Mowat of the Vancouver Biennale. Barrie donated a sculpture by artist Jaume Pleansa and connected us with Konstantin Dimopoulos who installed the living “Blue Trees” you see in the pictures below.  This flipped the typical marketing paradigm of “Allegation > Explanation > Substantiation” on its head. We truly believed that the community could help us connect this site to the waterfront. And we demonstrated our commitment by putting the substantiation part up front with an experiment that demonstrated much goodwill from the very beginning of the process. This was a transformational opportunity, and we were inviting the community to help.

Now back to the drawing!

A Positive Experience

There is an inherently positive direction to the Co-Design process. Facilitators encourage people to discuss and draw what they would like to see and experience on the site. It is easier to do that than to draw negative ideas (i.e. “No _____ ”) and it is also easier for people to vote on positive ideas. As you will see later – everyone will vote on each idea using a rating system and it gets confusing to assess negative ideas using the rating system. Positive ideas also attract other “piggy-back” ideas as people link one good thing with another.

As people talk and draw and watch their ideas put to paper, something else is also going on at a very deep level : the simple pleasure of pure creativity. Humans are wired for it. So much of our brain is devoted to language, vision and hand movement,  that the very process of watching a talented person draw sets off a pleasant storm of neurotransmitters. It is quite a rewarding experience  …  much better than being “talked at”. And by all means if a person in the group wants to draw, then all the power to them!

Here’s an example of a board produced by the community for the Ambleside project:

Planning the events

Co-Design events require much careful setup. You need to get a good mix of people to attend – reflective of the diversity of the community. It helps to have a number of connected people in the community to help you attract other people to participate in the events. Reach out to the Arts and Culture community in particular – they are natural transformers and bring positive energy to the room.

The venue for Co-Design needs to be carefully considered because sometimes location is a barrier for the participation of some groups. I like holding them in the open in bright, naturally-lit community centre spaces. Want elevated thinking? Pick a room with tall ceilings. Find a place popular with families, and kids and seniors – a good cross section of society.  Many people will attend because they planned to come; many will join in because they are passing by and find participation irresistible. Plan for some extra seats and facilitators.

The events involve plenty of interested people (some at 100+ participants) and require a few hours of their time, so you have to plan well to ensure everyone is comfortable. You need appropriate space for the set-up and format of the particular Co-Design session, and participants’ basic needs need to be met. I even went to the lengths of testing the room set up in SketchUp so I could be sure that the space would work, that people would see the displays, and that people would not be cramped. Consider food and refreshments for longer events and also Co-Design activities for kids to help busy parents participate. These details matter.

A funny story … On the morning of one of these sessions I asked myself, “what is THE one thing could I not live without today?” My answer was “Amplification” – we were in a big room with plenty of seniors, so I packed my electric guitar amp and a microphone into the hatch of my car “just in case”. Sure enough, the Community Centre sound system was not functional that morning. A little intuition saved the day!

Ideas III set up

Some detailed planning ensures things run smoothly

Working in 3 Dimensions

Beyond drawing, it is also possible to work in small groups with scaled building models so people can get a reasonable understanding of potential building massing and height.  This is probably something for a second or third round of Co-Design “Ideas Fairs” once more basic questions and ideas for the site have been asked.  Having a number of inexpensive foam working models allows for multiple tables of participants.  It is also helpful if the models have the built context in place as well – again giving people some frame of reference as opportunities for the subject site are explored.

Shown below are context models developed by James Cheng’s architecture team. They created square foam blocks, each representing a piece of a building floor; these could be arranged on the site in a variety of configurations. The context model also reasonably illustrated the sloping topography of the uphill context. Participants developed about a half dozen different building configurations by playing with the building blocks. Interestingly, through the workshops, they developed terraced forms that opened up views and provided inspiration for James Cheng’s final building design.

Reaching more stakeholders

The Co-design process makes participation easy and it can draw in groups that do not normally get involved in development planning. For example, we brought Co-Design facilitators to elementary and secondary schools to get feedback from children and youth.  At the sessions, they reminded us to be inclusive in our designs and encouraged us to think about environmental quality in a different way – one removed from our sometimes stripped down instrumental view of the world.

Sometimes, they suggested things that are simple but bring everyone delight  – a place to linger, or a shallow water feature with stepping stones. Teenagers reminded us that they need a place “to be” as well, to find association and acceptance. District of West Vancouver Mayor Pamela Goldsmith Jones (now a Member of Parliament) attended this event below just to hear what the youth in the District wanted to see on the site.

We can also reach out to other groups who find participation challenging. People who run businesses, particularly those who run small independent street-front businesses, are often challenged to find time in the evening and weekends to participate in planning events. Again, we brought the Co-Design sessions to them, after shops had closed.

Rating the Ideas

When they are finished, participants in the Co-Design circles sign their drawings and then take the time to review and rate the ideas produced by them and by other groups. Stanley King’s 3-choice rating system is brilliant and tactful:

  • “Go For It”
  • “Needs more design”
  • “Perhaps Somewhere Else”

Rating Device MemoryhomeuserpicturesIMG00116

Once the ratings are done, you can analyse ideas and trends in this feedback. Clusters of support emerge for certain ideas; others  generate less interest. The design of the boards (copyrighted by Stanley King’s firm) features an area for group ratings so the record of the event is pretty much done when participants are finished. Stanley’s boards even feature a fold that allows the boards to stand self-supported on tables, making it easy to display scores of them with minimal set-up and take-down time. I like to have all the boards photographed right away so I can have them shared online ‘real-time’ with the community and the design team.  This builds trust that the ideas communicated at the events are captured and considered as planning and design for the site progresses.

Formal Design

Some developers might initially feel uncomfortable and perhaps think that Co-Design means “handing the pen” over to the community. The fear is of course that lay people don’t completely understand the economics of development and many of the other practical and technical constraints on a site, and of course the public generally does not bear the impacts on construction cost and revenue.

However, the open nature of the Co-Design process does not give participants control of the design. They are expressing interests and desires; ideas and hypotheses; parts of the elephant but not the whole animal.  Given the numbers and variety of people involved, Co-Design cannot possibly produce a cohesive plan that addresses and reconciles all interests and the volume of feedback. Following principles of honesty and transparency, this information must be shared with participants from the outset to avoid misunderstandings and to properly set expectations.

The task of preparing cohesive design options really falls upon the skilled architects and engineers who will pull together plans with the goal of meeting shared interests and ideas.  In my experience design teams are richer for the experience. Certainly they may hear many truisms from members of the public – such as “we want active streets”, “small local stores”, or “green buildings”; but, they’ll also get a variety of ideas they might not have considered. Listening deeply for interests is important.

The results from a Co-Design process can be surprising. I like Stanley King’s story about the genesis of the skating rink in the lower level of Vancouver’s Robson Square, developed as part of the BC Supreme Court complex. There is a National Film Board video link to his 1972 Co-Design sessions with some great shots of Vancouver in that period!


Video Link: “Chairs for Lovers” (NFB, 1972, )

Check Back

Once design options are developed, the design team can then report back to participants, showing how the options incorporate key Co-design ideas. Again the visual record is important; drawings from participants can be illustrated alongside renderings of the proposed options. It is a special feeling to see people’s reactions at meetings when they see their idea make its way through the design process, presented side by side with the architect’s plans: “that’s my idea!”

“It’s one thing to tell your own story; but it is far more powerful and authentic when others tell positive stories about you and the plans for your site.”

~ Michael Mortensen

Those drawings, and photos and video records of the Co-Design events remind everyone that they were included and that they share some of the credit for design and place-making excellence. Simply put, development does not happen to them and their neighbourhood; they were part of the story and when they speak about your development, many people will tell a positive shared story. That’s a powerful thing.

Video: Co-Design Feedback

As an example, here’s an online video record of some of the Co-Design process for the 1300 Block of Ambleside. The feedback from participants is all the testimony one needs about the integrity of the approach. You hear from citizens, politicians and the design team. The strength and depth of our public involvement process helped the District of West Vancouver to pick my firm as it’s development partner for the 1300 Block of Marine Drive.

Co-Design Conclusions

The return on an investment in Co-design is high. If you have a large complex project, you need to partner with the local community to understand their interests and to share your design challenges with them. It’s helpful if you do that early, once you have a reasonable understanding of the features, opportunities and constraints on your site. The process takes time. It is iterative – with a number of steps between one event and the next. It will require resources – facilitators, materials, advertising, meeting space, refreshments, documentation and analysis.  The results speak for themselves: the Community is involved and included; City Leaders and Planners are involved and see the depth of the involvement of the citizens they represent; and your design team is also involved, and they take with them new knowledge and ideas that lead to better buildings and place-making.

Happy to answer questions and listen to your Co-Design stories.
Let me know how I can help with your projects. 

Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner  ©2016

Some resources below ….

Co-Design Summary

Codesign steps

Some Tips for Effective Co-Design Processes

  • Begin Early – kick it off with something creative
  • Get help from the community to organize and promote Co-Design Events
  • Pick the Right Venue: Consider all senses. Consider accessibility for young and old
  • Involve the Art & Culture Community
  • Involve Youth & Local Businesses
  • Post Boards and Share Results of Previous Meetings Online
  • Be creative – make participation fun

Co-Design Resources

Arnstein, Sherry (1969)  “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224

King, Stanley (website)

King, Stanley, with Merinda Conley, Bill Latimer, and Drew Ferrari (1989) “Co-Design: A Process of Design Participation.” Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.

One Comment

  1. There is much public distrust of planning processes these days in our age of media-and-bog-troll cynicism. However, the challenge to make better use of our cities and towns is ever increasing. Wicked planning problems need more high-touch public involvement processes to win back public confidence. Co-design is one direction forward supported by a great online platform that shares information and the outcomes of the sessions.

    What do you think?

    Michael Mortensen
    MC MCIP RPP a Vancouver Developer Abroad



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