Co-Designing with Hilltop Residents

Urban environments are continuously transitioning. As a result, the narrative of permanence in these areas is lost due to shrinkage caused by vacancy (Burkholder 2012). Vacancy is a huge problem facing U.S. cities that once relied heavily on the revenue from industrial production. The moniker “Rustbelt” is one that describes such cities spanning the upper Midwest and parts of some Northeastern states. Many of these cities struggle with turning the corner, and while some have successfully navigated the changing landscape, many continually work to exorcise the demons of past failed industrial investments and environmental liabilities which are often highlighted by the shrinking of the city’s core and the loss of industrial jobs—both factors lead to vacancy and blight. Pittsburgh is one of these cities that is effectively leading the effort to transition and re-brand itself into a modern city. There is, however, a lot more work to be done on the community scale, since some of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods are dealing with the challenges caused by vacancy. Hilltop is one such community in which GTECH is actively involved.

The ReClaim South program is an example of a community-driven design initiative that empowers residents to convert vacant lots into usable spaces and shared commons. We hypothesized that through our co-design process, with the right mechanisms for collaborative decision making and by fostering feelings of empowerment, members of a community can turn this corner and improve their neighborhoods.

Co-design is a process of collaborative designing that emphasizes the democratic design process that drives at consensus (Martial & Botero 2013). In contrast, other forms, such as participatory design, do not presuppose the possibility of consensus and “rational conflict resolution.” (Bjorgvinsson, Ehn 2012). In essence, consensus building is an important ingredient for co-designing, and it serves as a platform for new ideas to arise. Co-design also blurs the distinction between the user and the designer because of the level playing field it fosters and the new role of the non-expert participant now serving as co-collaborator. It makes us all designers.

On November 18th, we were fortunate to lead one such co-design session in an effort to better understand what community means to the residents of Hilltop neighborhood, and how these residents feel empowered to improve life in their community.  Prior to the workshop, we shared some probe documents with the participants that asked questions about their sentiments on living within their respective neighborhoods. A probe is used to gather meaningful information about social practice and ignite design ideas. These questions were categorized into people, places and opportunities.  The participants were asked to “tell us your favorite things in your neighborhood” and “give concrete examples of how your neighbors help each other.” They were also asked to make a wish for their respective neighborhoods. In their responses, a lot of the participants highlighted litter as a prevailing problem, and also brought up the derelict rental housing stock by highlighting the need for better landlord practices. Others shared concerns about general safety, the need for good schools and the desire to keep children off the streets through engaging afterschool programs.

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Individual Exercise

During the workshop, nine residents, two community organizers and one designer/researcher gathered at the community office of a local church to compare notes. During this session, we were able to go over the workshop exercises with them and shared the principle that everyone is a designer. We brought in generative research and tools and divided the residents into working groups of three participants each. Residents were asked to write phrases indicating their sentiments about living in their specific neighborhoods. These ideas were categorized into people (relating to social capital and community relations), place (referring to housing, vacancy and a sense of belonging) and dwelling (relating to lived experience and social practice). Participants wrote these ideas on post-it notes which were then discussed and arranged within their respective categories. The participants’ sentiments reinforced some of their initial responses in the pre-workshop activities and allowed the them to distill their thoughts even further.

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Group Exercise

The neighbors were again divided into groups of three and presented with the generative tools. They were given cards created based on their initial pre-workshop responses. These cards were divided up to the categories: scale (individual, family, neighborhood and community), focus area (safety, autonomy, sense of community, social justice and feelings of control), and future scenarios using the Taxonomy of Futures idea from Dunne and Raby and derivative of the work of Stuart Candy (probable, possible, plausible, preferable and proven future scenarios). The deck of cards was shuffled and each group was asked to take at least one card with one color (or category). The groups were asked to build their ideas of the perfect lived experience with the constraints of scale, future scenarios and focus areas. The groups worked together to build consensus around their ideas. They used the generative tools to create and build their ideal spaces, futures and social relations.  The groups were then asked to describe what they built and present their ideas to the overall session. This exercise allowed the participants to collectively frame the challenges associated with living in their community that they observed. Group members deliberated over questions like “do we want a gated community,” “do we need money” and “what do we do about senior citizens,” and consensus was reached around what is most important to include or exclude.


Results & Discussion

The co-design session led to a variety of promising revelations. Some of the ideas derived from group members included creating mechanisms to engage the entire community in opportunities that are inclusive and encourage participation across all levels, and flattening hierarchies in terms of how residents create and use gathering spaces. Residents suggested that these spaces have a lot of active programming that encompasses the diverse needs of the community’s members and brings neighbors together. Other proposed solutions included green/alternative energy infrastructure for the entire community, greenspaces and opportunities for senior citizens to blend in with the other residents as full partners in addressing community needs. Law enforcement presence was also recommended as an important part of neighborhoods, but most participants agreed that such law enforcement presence should be be embedded within the fabric of the community and not separated from it. Residents also proposed governance and economic structures that keep financial resources within the neighborhood through fourth order organizations of new economic practices such as community cooperations. In considering safety, neighbors suggested block watches and street lamps to illuminate their neighborhoods. These ideas are important first steps on how a community can be empowered and engaged to improve livability for its members.


This research and application effort was led by GTECH Applied Innovation Fellow, Dimeji Onafuwa, PhD Candidate at CMU’s School of Design. The Applied Innovation Fellowship was made possible by The Hillman Foundation.

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