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Process and Collaboration: Why Community Design Needs More Cross-Fertilization

April 8, 2015

This is the sixth post in the “Design for Equity” series. Read all articles in the series in the design for equity section.

I once had the good fortune to have lunch with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi at a meeting for a group of politically active young women. To demonstrate why she was so committed to developing that group, she told us a story of a conversation that had taken place in a members’ lounge inside the U.S. Capitol Building.

A group of around a dozen Congressmen had started telling the stories of their children’s births. The stories focused on frantic drives to the hospital and rushed orders that the men had received from labor-and-delivery nurses in the hospital. Pelosi turned to the only two other Congresswomen in the room—the three had borne 10 children among them—and asked, “How long do you think it will take before any of them think to ask us about our experiences of childbirth?” The disappointing answer was that each of the men in the room took a turn in telling his (or his wife’s) story before any of them thought to ask the three people with first-hand experience in the room. This struck me as a perfect illustration of how someone’s lack of awareness on their limited perspective results in a failure to learn from those around them.

Framing the Problem(s)

Every professional discipline travels with its own baggage – specific terminology, ways of looking at the world, and preferred tools for solving a given problem. Advanced degrees, professional associations, and conferences all serve to further socialize members of that profession into its codes of jargon and collective ways of approaching the world. The advantage, then, of gathering experts from different disciplines around a table is the necessity for each individual to examine his or her own biases and redefine terminology to be meaningful and relevant for those unfamiliar with their profession’s jargon.


In recent years, a wide variety of professions have begun discussing the value of multidisciplinary teamwork in order to provide different perspectives on problems, create comprehensive definitions of problems, and develop the consensus that is necessary for a project or solution to proceed to implementation. The environmental design fields have a mixed history of crossing disciplinary boundaries. City planning emerged at the turn of the 20th century; landscape architecture organized itself as a profession at around the same time. Before then, architects were the only profession concerned with the built environment of the city. As the technical know-how required to practice in these fields expanded, it made sense that the disciplines would divide and conquer. But it takes hard work to keep all of this disparate expertise (not to mention that of other fields like economics, politics, art, sociology, and geography) working together to transcend natural disciplinary boundaries.

What follows are examples of why this thinking is critical.

Defining the Terms

The terms multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary are increasingly used to describe thinking across diverse fields of work, but the terms are ambiguously defined and used interchangeably. The Swedish environmental researcher Malin Mobjörk offers a useful description of the continuum of the three terms:

Multidisciplinarity refers to a number of disciplines investigating a specific problem from their respective perspectives. Investigations are made using each discipline’s ordinary tools. This approach has been described as ‘a side by side of disciplines.’

Interdisciplinarity implies a shared problem formulation and, at least to some extent, a common methodological framework for the investigation of the different themes. Cooperation exists between researchers from various disciplines involved in the process who develop a shared problem formulation.

Transdisciplinarity describes a practice that transgresses and transcends disciplinary boundaries, including the development of common language and novel or unique methodologies that integrate the fields and disciplines. The cross-fertilization of ideas yields both an expanded vision of the problem at hand and more imaginative solutions.

Why Aim to Transcend Disciplines?

When the very nature of a problem is under dispute, transdisciplinarity can help determine the most relevant present and anticipated problems. In the case of community design, this calls for a deep knowledge of the systems at play in development. Since the systems that perpetuate environmental injustices are complex, the solutions for them will be too. Successful solutions require knowledge from anthropology, architecture, economics, history, geography, real estate, sociology, and psychology. More inventive solutions will come from different conceptual, organizational, and geographic vantage points than any one discipline could create.

Transdisciplinarity arises when participating experts interact in an open discussion and dialogue, giving equal weight to each other’s perspectives and constantly relating them to each other. This is difficult because of the overwhelming amount of information involved paired with incompatibility of specialized terminology in each field of expertise. To excel under these conditions, practitioners need not only in-depth knowledge and know-how of the disciplines involved, but skills in moderation, mediation, adult learning, and transfer of knowledge.


A concrete example of transdisciplinary thinking in action is the field of “place identity”. Beginning in the 1970’s, a group of architects, planners, and urban designers worked closely with environmental psychologists and human geographers to significantly advance thinking about how individual people incorporate an understanding of place into their larger concepts of self. The concept of place-identity yielded a tradition of research on people’s experiences of the urban landscape, which has had a powerful impact on the ability to tell the stories of under-represented populations in urban areas.


The architectural historian Dolores Hayden —a noted scholar in the field of place-identity—writes about how certain identities are hidden in cities. In her book The Power of Place, she shows how privileged positions can obscure the narratives of racial, class, and gender minorities in cities. From places where dressmaker and cannery workers formed in the 1930s and 1940s to pre-World War II Japanese American business districts, she confronts each story’s bitter memories to show the perseverance of these marginalized communities. The outcome combines urban preservation, public history, and public art to recognize and celebrate American diversity in the everyday urban landscape.

Stakeholders among Disciplines

Starting from a position of recognizing that one’s own expertise may be insufficient for solving or even identifying a problem means that the transdisciplinary practitioner begins the day with three traits that are essential to good and equitable community engaged design practice:

  1. A commitment to practicing modesty and humility
  2. A sincere belief in the value of listening to others early and often in the process
  3. Faith that the effort to incorporate another perspective has merit for its own sake

Because of these perspectives, the transdisciplinary practitioner sees collaboration with stakeholders as essential, just like collaboration with any other professional expertise. In such a way, transdisciplinary collaboration becomes uniquely capable of engaging with different ways of knowing the world, generating new knowledge, and helping stakeholders understand and incorporate the results or lessons learned by the research. A defining characteristic of a transdisciplinary approach is the inclusion of stakeholders in defining the project’s objectives.

Megan Sandel and Affordable Housing as a “Vaccine”

A prime example of the advocacy and organizing power that transdisciplinary thinking can have is the work of Megan Sandel, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. “Housing can act like a vaccine to provide multiple long-lasting benefits,” Sandel states. The use of terminology normally reserved for medical discussions in the conversation about affordable housing is a powerful turn of play for Sandel.

Sandel explains that children’s health is affected by the quality of shelter at many points along the continuum between homelessness and stable housing. For example, frequent moves increases risk of diabetes, insect and rodent pests lead to higher hospitalization rates, and lead and mold in substandard housing has long-term health effects.

“Public health professionals no longer debate whether housing matters,” she said. “It’s how much housing matters” that’s the real debate.


She has become an advocate for housing subsidies because they free up resources for other necessities such as food. A recent development showing signs of progress is the investment in low-income rental housing units for families in a dozen states by UnitedHealth Group, one of the nation’s largest medical insurers.

In medicine, the benefits of vaccines are widely established. Sandel’s advocacy that a product from outside of her field (stable housing) can provide similar benefits to children’s health brings not only the opportunity to access health-focused funding into housing solutions, but a united front of advocates from many professional backgrounds arguing in support of housing.

Who speaks to Whom

Sandel, who is now sought as a speaker at conferences outside the pediatrics field, represents just one of dozens of bright innovators in other related fields who could turn community engaged design on its head. Last week in this blog post, Christine Gaspar and I wrote about the importance of paying for, or at least covering the travel costs of, conference speakers. By implementing a policy for covering speakers’ expenses, conferences can benefit from having more outside-your-own-discipline perspectives. The alternative is a world where only architects speak at architecture conferences and only planners at planning ones.

In the recent Community Engaged Design Leadership Equity Research Report for the Surdna Foundation, UT-Austin researchers Barbara Brown Wilson and Nicole Joslin, analyzed 34 individual conferences, trainings, and events in the community engaged design world. Through their research, one key insight was the demographics of the 439 individual speakers at these events. Among these speakers, the largest profession represented is architecture at 40%, with planners following behind with 27% representation. Many speakers had a multidisciplinary background in planning, architecture, and public policy. Those professions with very limited representation included practitioners trained in community organizing and development (4%), landscape architecture (3%), social enterprise or nonprofit management (1%), and business administration (1%).


If architectural professionals represent 40% of the “expert” speakers on community design, the wider field is bound to be driven by those demographics. The field of architecture has difficulty reflecting diversity in race, gender, class, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation of society at large. Maybe that’s okay if you’re running a high-end architecture firm or an elite architecture school, but if you consider yourself part of a movement that is trying to up-end entrenched power structures in the built environment, this demographic disparity should give you cause for concern.

Building Transdisciplinary Capacity

Short- term, project- based training modules can be helpful for alerting team members to the challenges and tensions often associated with transdisciplinary collaborations. They also raise team members’ awareness of their respective–and often divergent–disciplinary and professional perspectives; as well as alert them to the challenges and tensions commonly associated with transdisciplinary collaborations. Parsons now offers a two-year Masters Degree in Transdisciplinary Design, also known as “TransDesign,” that focuses on this kind of practice.



Another model for teaching transdisciplinary skills is the Urban Land Institute’s annual Gerald Hines Urban Design Competition. Each year, university’s gather field teams of 5 graduate students that “must represent a minimum of three disciplines that grant three different degrees, one of which must be a nondesign-related discipline.” (In fact, if a university doesn’t offer one of the required degree programs, they must partner with another school that does in order to form a “complete” team.) These teams work intensively together during the winter break to craft a development proposal that responds to a detailed site, market, or community context brief. Although the short-term and long-distance nature of the student teams’ work prevents them from doing on-site or community engagement, they do learn valuable skills on how to work with their peers in other disciplines in order to produce a comprehensive proposal that includes all relevant expertise.


The Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design also devotes a great deal of effort to building a space where transdisciplinary work and conversations can occur. Each year, ten accomplished mid-career design practitioners are selected to spend one academic year taking classes, conducting their own research, talking with professors, and mentoring students. Sally Young, Coordinator of the Loeb Fellowship, explains how the program is very intentional about assembling diverse classes of fellows. “Talking to people from other backgrounds forces you to examine your own biases,” she said. The space to step away from the busy pace of their professional lives seems to give the Loeb Fellows an opportunity to build a more iterative feedback loop. Projects like this are living examples of the Loeb Fellowship’s statement on diversity:

Diversity is at the core of the Loeb Fellowship.

We believe the experience of the year in residence is enhanced by sharing it most intensely with people who bring a wide variety of cultural heritage, lived experience and professional training.

We believe Fellows will best help shape the urban and natural environment by drawing upon the strengths and wisdom of the full range of people who live, work and play in it.

The Loeb Fellowship even supports this transdisciplinary practice after the fellowship year through a series of small grants to convene teams of alumni fellows from different professional backgrounds on particular projects. Recently, 2011 Loeb Fellow Ana María Durán Calisto called on a team of her fellow alumni to offer feedback on the design of a complex project in Ecuador. With travel funding from the Loeb Fellowship, she helped to convene a think tank of leading figures in urban planning, urban design, landscape architecture and architecture from among Loeb alumni. The team reviewed, refined and improved a master plan for the city of Yachay, with a particular focus on off-the-grid and green infrastructure. In a series of workshops, design studios, charrettes and consultancies, they set to work improving the master plan and proposing a plan of action.

A new normal

Community engaged design needs to go beyond the boundaries of any single professional discipline. It demands a legitimate and sustained involvement of various technical expertise, as well as community and political stakeholders who bring expertise just as valuable as that of any professional training to the project. Projects should include opportunities for all parties to learn from and contribute to the process as well as build capacity to address future design and development challenges. The work of constantly reaching out, including, analyzing, translating and re-translating among bodies of experts is resource-intensive. But if we want a more equitable practice, transdisciplinarity must become the norm.

– Jess Zimbabwe 

Do you practice using transdisciplinarity? Or do you know of other examples of projects, people or orgs that do? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Be sure to check back April 15th for the seventh feature article in this series –“Outcome-Based Design & Evaluation” by Barbara Brown Wilson and Liz Ogbu – or sign up for the IDH newsletter to have it delivered straight to your inbox!

Image sources: Jess Zimbabwe, Urban Land Institute, Yale School of Architecture, Loeb Fellowship

One Comment

  1. Really important to get this discussion out there. Most disciplines are still largely their own audience, and are severely limiting demand for their skills, their impact and their learning accordingly.

    We have always (for about 20 years) described Placemaking as a “Transdisciplinary” approach to community design. This article helps make the case for why that is important. If we recenter design in communities with places s a shared goal, Transdisciplinary collaboration becomes natural, with the skills and expertise of communities valued and energizing to those disciplines.

    More on Placemaking as Transdisciplinary practice:

    Several Placemaking leaders are having a happy hour in DC tomorrow (Friday) afternoon. To join, tweet @EBKent or email me: ekent at pps dot org

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