Landscape designer Tom Knoblauch and volunteers install plants in April 2010 at the Markey Machinery

Landscape designer Tom Knoblauch and volunteers install plants in April 2010 at the Markey Machinery "Industrial Strength" natural drainage site. Photo: Carl Simson

When I first visited the Duwamish River, I was immediately struck by the raw industrial environment. I was out in the middle of the river in a kayak, and as we paddled past rusty pipes disgorging foul-colored water, an Eagle perched on an abandoned barge and small pockets of native grasses and shrubs defied asphalt parking lots, all under the glistening, regal shoulders of Mount Rainier. Where was I? How did I have no idea that Seattle had a river flowing north into Elliott Bay that also contained a massive Superfund site just south of downtown? It was the summer of 2002, and the EPA had recently declared the lower Duwamish River one of America’s most toxic sites and one perilously close to where people lived and worked—yet completely out of sight of most Seattle citizens.

In 2003, I began my Masters at Antioch University, Seattle in the Whole Systems Design program. The fusion of systems theory and sustainable social change brought my years working in environmental education, arts, small business promotion, live music production and a desire to make a difference together at last. With the collaborative nurturing of my advisor, Dr. Farouk Seif, an architect of Egyptian descent, educator and artist with a passion for design communication, wholeness and semiotics, I found a powerful and peaceful method in the design approach he taught. Client and designer can move in a dance to achieve mutual outcomes, whether creating a house or organizing a grassroots community campaign; this type of design approach allows for desires to flow from client to designer and back again.

In the case of the Duwamish River Superfund site, for which I dedicated my Antioch education and ultimately created a thesis project in the community, the clients were the people who lived along the river, volunteers, artists, history buffs and cyclists daring to cruise the industrial streets, dedicated citizens who attended every community meeting and many others who didn’t have the time or inclination to do so. I sought out the offbeat and marginalized, those who also saw beauty in the rusty barges sprouting trees and gleefully watched Harbor Seals plying the river. I found a common work ethic in the restoration ecologists, who worked tirelessly to breathe life back into the river shoreline, creating a “string of green pearls” along the Duwamish, and with crusaders like John Beal, who devoted his life to restoring the river.

Participatory design-in-action is exemplified by the Georgetown Riverview Restoration Project (GRRP), which I facilitated as a contractor working for the Georgetown Community Council. Through several rounds of City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Matching Funds and other grants, the GRRP aligned the Georgetown community’s need for pedestrian improvements with the roadway work sought by the businesses that line 8th Avenue South, an industrialized street that dead-ends at the Duwamish River. The project forged a lasting partnership between industrial businesses, nearby residents, City staff and restoration advocates, who ultimately completed Seattle’s first “industrial strength” natural drainage swale, sited in the frontage of a marine-industrial business.

A design approach to sustainable community involvement provides opportunity for the people most affected by the changes to be active agents in the process and puts the designer in a role of facilitator and coordinator of the project, rather than a sole instigator or martyr without whom the project would fall apart. A design approach can be dynamic, without an action plan set in stone, giving all parties the opportunity to modify and update the process as project elements change over an often long-term timeline. This type of design method also puts power in the hands of the people in the project’s “watershed,” linking previous actions, partnerships or community concerns with current goals and opportunities. Leave no stone unturned; look for partners and supporters in all forms. Design focused on community development has the power to make positive, sustainable changes in our neighborhoods and cities by linking past efforts to the present, honoring those who have paved the way, and looking forward with renewed enthusiasm.