Our design work in communities of all types and sizes reveals a powerful, universal truth about the real purpose of what we do as architects. Simply stated, it is the realization that design is not about just the building. It is about the place.

If you think about the narrative connected with architecture, the story is usually confined to how nice it looks instead of how well it works. PCA’s purpose centers on placemaking. The task is to design active, welcoming communities – designed at a human scale – that people will embrace for generations to come.

Our practice at PCA, our role as architects, is to create a successful community experience – while also providing a compelling design. We are after a holistic objective, a design that reflects the character of a neighborhood, understands its traditions, and respects stakeholder aspirations for a better future. In short, we take a different attitude into the design opportunity, an attitude that energizes the process and resets conventional design norms.

Empathy First

In order to design using these human experience values, we begin with empathy as an anchor. Empathy is the capacity to step into other people’s shoes, understand their lives, and address issues from their perspective.

When planning a community housing or mixed-use project, empathy includes the fundamental idea that the people you are designing for, including your client, future residents, city oversight officials, neighbors and local businesses and civic associations are sources for great solutions.

An example of this is taking place right now at the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments redevelopment project in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. This large-scale redevelopment will consist of approximately 690 apartments including replacement of the existing 253 public housing units and the construction of 435 new low income to middle income affordable apartments. Our scope, including 224 apartments looks to activate the public realm around the first two built buildings.

The project is in an urban neighborhood that has suffered from a very insular layout. It is home to one of the city’s largest public housing projects, formerly called Bromley Heath. PCA is working with the City of Boston and The Community Builders, looking at the community in new ways to reconnect the residential blocks with the community and the adjacent Southwest Corridor space.

What is interesting to consider is how the entire neighborhood was established in a vastly different way that isolated the people who lived there from the rest of the city. The designers back then made the housing cluster into its own enclosed fortress. Urban planners and architects at the time considered these designs as a way to formulate a safety strategy.

Today, when we think of safety, the strategy is to encourage 24/7 activity with people walking up and down the street. This is what truly makes a neighborhood safer. By studying the Health Street neighborhood history, and by listening to the people who live and work there, we are looking to thread the community back into the city and tie it into the Emerald Necklace, the 1100-acre chain of renown parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted 150 years ago.

Deeper Dive
One of the advantages of building trust with people throughout a neighborhood is that we can effectively serve as a liaison connecting the wide-ranging interests of the developer, the city, and the community. We do this by taking a deeper dive beyond the typical approach. By becoming known in the community, listening to a variety of views, and then acting on what we hear, we create long-term mutual respect that produces better project outcomes.

This listening and action mindset extends from the sidewalk and front-step conversations to the more organized setting of community meetings. Among the lessons learned:

  • Approach that first public forum with the intent of listening to what people say the neighborhood needs before focusing on what the architect or developer have in mind. Bring that feedback into the next steps of the design.
  • Talk in human terms, avoiding the jargon and acronyms that permeate development and design. Make sure your examples and stories are easily understood by relating them to hopes and goals.
  • Use graphics that focus on the real world – show the sidewalk level experience, illustrate how the open spaces will work, and show why selected height and density contributes to an active, safe neighborhood.

Through decades of our work with commercial development clients and communities, the PCA team believes that the public review and engagement process, while sometimes stressful, always contributes to a better design and an improved integration of neighborhood priorities. The conversations contain ideas and opportunities that make the project a better fit in the community. The goal is a project people will love and a design that fits comfortably into the fabric of the neighborhood.

Community Values and Design
Bringing disparate parties together, integrating all voices, and then designing affordable housing is one of the most challenging yet ultimately rewarding responsibilities imaginable. For me, it provides an opportunity to channel my hopes as a Boston resident for a future city that works well for everyone, regardless of social and economic standing.

Some architects will claim that affordable housing and related public realm work never have the right level of fee or budget to emulate the tenant experience of market-rate housing. This view makes it a certainty that the mistakes and inequitable patterns of the past will continue.

The architecture and buildings we are replacing at Mildred Hailey are examples of a mindset beset by low expectations and a lack of empathy for residents. Designers back then prioritized durability and economy, specifying three-foot wide corridors and lots of concrete blocks. The same building design was produced repeatedly in every American city, producing buildings that bear no resemblance to market-rate housing.

We see our work as an opportunity to leverage all our creativity to provide not only an equitable experience, but to pull out all the stops to create cherished places where residents will have a strong feeling of pride, belonging and optimism.

Fortunately, we have the benefit of PCA’s decades-long experience designing multifamily housing and the ability to utilize 21st-century technology, material choices and health and wellness best practices.

And yes, it takes a lot of creativity to push the aspiration forward and to make projects such as Mildred Hailey come in at a cost level that qualifies as affordable. But what better moment than now to harness our passion and placemaking skills to create impactful, community-based designs and elevate the human experience?

Mark Eclipse is a Principal and architect at PCA. As a resident of Boston living in the Roslindale neighborhood his roots to the community reflect throughout his work.