Community Design: A Team Approach to Dynamic Community Systems


W. Arthur Mehrhoff

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  • Cities & Planning Series

    The Cities & Planning Series is designed to provide essential information and skills to students and practitioners involved in planning and public policy. We hope the series will encourage dialogue among professionals and academics on key urban planning and policy issues. Topics to be explored in the series may include growth management, economic development, housing, budgeting and finance for planners, environmental planning, GIS, small-town planning, community development, and community design.

    Series Editors

    • Roger W. Caves, Graduate City Planning Program, San Diego State University
    • Robert J. Waste, Department of Political Science, California State University at Chico
    • Margaret Wilder, Department of Geography and Planning, State University of New York at Albany

    Advisory Board of Editors

    Edward J. Blakely, University of Southern California

    Robin Boyle, Wayne State University

    Linda Dalton, California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo

    George Galster, Wayne State University

    Eugene Grigsby, University of California, Los Angeles

    W. Dennis Keating, Cleveland State University

    Norman Krumholz, Cleveland State University

    John Landis, University of California, Berkeley

    Gary Pivo, University of Washington

    Daniel Rich, University of Delaware

    Catherine Ross, Georgia Institute of Technology


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    Series Editors' Introduction

    The study of cities is a dynamic, multifaceted area of inquiry that combines a number of disciplines, perspectives, time periods, and actors. Urbanists alternate between examining one issue through the eyes of a single discipline and looking at the same issue through the lens of a number of disciplines to arrive at a holistic view of cities and urban issues. The books in this series look at cities from a multidisciplinary perspective, affording students and practitioners a better understanding of the multiplicity of issues facing planning and cities and of emerging policies and techniques aimed at addressing those issues. The series focuses on traditional planning topics, such as economic development, management and control of growth, and geographic information systems. It also includes broader treatments of conceptual issues embedded in urban policy and planning theory.

    The impetus for the Cities & Planning series was our reaction to a common recurring event—the ritual selection of course textbooks. Although we all routinely select textbooks for our classes, many of us are never completely satisfied with the offerings. Our dissatisfaction stems from the fact that most books are written for either an academic or practitioner audience. Moreover, on occasion, it appears as if this gap continues to widen. We wanted to develop a multidisciplinary series of manuscripts that would bridge the gap between academia and professional practice. The books are designed to provide valuable information to students/instructors and to practitioners by going beyond the narrow confines of traditional disciplinary boundaries to offer new insights into the urban field.

    Arthur Mehrhoff's Community Design: A Team Approach to Dynamic Community Systems represents a unique way of analyzing a community and the steps needed to help design a sustainable community. In this important contribution to helping design sustainable communities, Mehrhoff, through his work with the Minnesota Design Team, seeks to “help communities take control of shaping a sustainable future of their own by means of information, insight, and civic dialogue.” He urges readers to rethink the shape and shaping of their communities by looking at the idea of community in a more holistic and multidisciplinary manner. Mehrhoff tackles such topics as defining community, understanding the history of a community, understanding the issues and problems affecting a community, examining the visual aspects of a community, and obtaining citizen opinion throughout the process of becoming a sustainable community. Small communities everywhere can replicate the process discussed in the book. This well-written and thought-provoking book provides a nice blending of theory and practice and should be useful to all students, academics, local policymakers, and citizens who are interested in creating a common sustainable vision for our communities.

    RogerCaves, San Diego State University
    Robert J.Waste, California State University at Sacramento
    MargaretWilder, University of Delaware


    I have witnessed, with both amazement and alarm, the rapidly accelerating changes occurring in and to American communities since the Second World War. As I've grown from wide-eyed child to bifocaled academic, the shape and shaping of American communities has been and remains the polestar for my life and work. In a very real sense for me, the personal has become the political.

    American communities like those I have known have been flooded by a tidal wave of social, economic, and political forces. Their natural environments, social networks, economic structures, and even self-images have been engulfed and often destroyed in this process. Although these so-called megatrends have often produced important economic, social, and cultural benefits—such as new products, global communications, trade opportunities, and sometimes even an enriched sense of our common humanity—they have also contributed to many unhealthy patterns of local community development that seriously threaten our well-being now and in the future.

    Trends, however, are not necessarily destiny. Our futures can be shaped by informed choices made today based on our vision of the communities we want tomorrow. Academic researchers and design practitioners have over time created many of the research and planning elements needed to fashion a holistic (systems) approach to community design. Such an approach to community design, however, is no mere academic exercise. A community design process that addresses and integrates both natural and human needs in a thoughtful, participatory manner, while focusing on long-term health instead of simply promoting “growth,” is now not just possible. In fact, such a process has become essential to reversing the decline of our communities and to transmitting our natural and cultural heritage to future generations. This book represents one contribution to this process of designing sustainable communities.

    The American Dream

    During my lifetime, I have both witnessed and experienced profound changes to some of the most basic forms of community found on the American landscape. These changes can only be described with a deepening sense of loss for their passing. Nostalgia, however, is not a particularly productive form of social analysis. The key questions involve unraveling and refashioning the meanings of those changes.

    My early years were spent in an old, inner-city neighborhood on the north side of Saint Louis, Missouri, where both my parents’ families had dwelled for generations (Figure P.1). A classic urban neighborhood in the Jane Jacobs idiom, the near North Side was filled with family, friends, church steeples and school houses, familiar parks, and intriguing corner stores. As a child, I would sit with my grandmother peering out the second-floor window of our tenement building, counting the passing cars to learn my numbers while unknowingly watching the future taking shape.

    Figure P.1. Family Photograph Taken March 5, 1950, in St. Louis Park

    The juggernaut named the Interstate Highway System soon steam-rolled some of those parks and old neighborhoods, paving the way for many of those cars I had counted while relentlessly siphoning off the people and vitality of city neighborhoods. The American Dream of the Fifties lured millions of families to greener pastures, often quite literally. For example, our church in north Saint Louis used to hold its annual picnic in a farmer's hall and picnic grounds miles away from the city. Within the span of a decade, the farmer's hall and grounds were surrounded by new homes and shopping areas. Families like mine were attracted to what had recently been farmland by the prospect of new, single-family homes with garages, located in pleasant natural settings. Exciting new shopping centers, filled with the things one now viewed on television, seemed to spring up everywhere like some new bumper crop amid vast expanses of free parking that made it easy to take the whole family shopping. After all, gasoline cost less than 20 cents per gallon; who needed a corner grocery store?

    Cheap gasoline also made it easy for families like mine to take to the open road. Regular travel along the Interstate and state highways crisscrossing the Midwest now highlighted our summers. Getting out into the countryside, seeing the USA, seemed to be everyone's goal. However, it became increasingly apparent that what we were seeing from the windows of the old Plymouth was beginning to look remarkably different from what we had expected to see. The surrounding countryside started filling up with filling stations, fast-food restaurants, and, I gradually noticed, more and more empty farmhouses where I earlier had recalled families living. The dream landscape did not seem as promising anymore.

    Rethinking the Dream

    Perhaps because of my personal experiences with some of the dramatic transformations occurring to American communities, especially involving their physical landscapes, I became highly receptive to emerging new ideas about how to create more attractive, humane settings while preserving valuable aspects of our natural and cultural heritage. Like many college students of my age, I found the first Earth Day in 1970 to be an intellectual watershed. Earth Day tapped into a collective sense that there was something fundamentally wrong about the way the American Dream was taking shape.

    Earth Day made it seem to this young scholar as though America had become one large university, with information and debates about ecology, pollution, population trends, and myriad related topics flowing rapidly across the country through books, journal and magazine articles, formal seminars, and informal discussions. Images of oil spills, traffic-clogged highways, and belching smokestacks filled the popular media. President Richard Nixon and the U.S. Congress seriously debated sweeping new environmental laws and regulations. The press and television tapped into the spirit of the times, devoting considerable coverage to environmental issues, some of it highly theatrical but some actually quite complex and insightful.

    One of the more thoughtful programs during this period was a public television special about Ian McHarg, a planner and landscape architect who forcefully challenged the existing order of business. His refreshing new approach to development depended on a clear understanding and appreciation of natural processes. Perhaps because he had emigrated from his native Scotland to America, he seemed to bring a lively, critical detachment and fresh eyes to the development process that was engulfing us, but that we could no longer understand. In no uncertain terms, McHarg brought home the foolishness of the relentless overturning of the land and the communities built on it. His alternative to further destruction involved respecting and working with the natural processes underlying all life, including human communities, and bringing the full range of human knowledge, the natural sciences, social research, and the creative dimension of the arts and humanities to bear on how we shaped our world. An alternative future now seemed possible.

    Taking it to the Streets

    These epiphany experiences in the early days of the environmental movement inaugurated my own odyssey into community design. It is a career I have followed as both a practitioner and a professor for well over two decades. While pursuing a graduate degree in urban affairs, I developed a master's thesis considering the role of citizen participation in environmental impact analysis. The City of Saint Louis at that time was preparing to construct its last link in the Interstate Highway System, a link that would have obliterated several older neighborhoods, including the near North Side where my parents had grown up and my grandmother and I had counted cars from the tenement window. Building on McHarg's ideas about design, I tried to demonstrate that this project ignored a whole range of legitimate environmental and human concerns in the decision-making process. Environmental impact analysis was still in its infancy at that time, especially regarding the application of social research to planning practice, but the thesis furthered my thinking about community design for future reference.

    I continued to work for years in the field of community design, first as a community organizer in an old south Saint Louis neighborhood, then as a city planner involved with a variety of projects including housing and neighborhoods, transportation, historic preservation and downtown development. It became increasingly apparent to me that the problems of central cities such as the one in Saint Louis were not isolated phenomena but directly related to those abandoned farmhouses I remembered from my childhood travels and linked by a view of land as a consumer commodity. A doctorate in American studies eventually followed, focusing on material culture studies, especially American cultural attitudes toward the natural and built environments, a stint as a museum educator at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in Saint Louis, then finally a move into university teaching.

    Ironically, the physical, economic, and social decline of the old North Side neighborhood eventually made it attractive enough for reinvestment on the part of the city and redevelopment companies. Despite considerable abandonment and demolition, new and renovated housing has sprung up like new shoots after a ferocious forest fire.

    Back to the Land

    The study of American cultural attitudes toward the natural environment has proven to be an excellent avenue and guide to addressing current student concerns about community design. Environmental problems and issues now appear to be the major impetus for current student interest in urban studies. A new generation of students, raised in those suburbs I watched taking shape, for the most part now views cities as foreign and alien places. “Saving the cities” lacks the same dramatic appeal for them that it held for an earlier generation of urbanists like myself.

    However, I have learned that these same students are extremely concerned about the general decline of a sense of community and especially about the rapid transformation of farmland and open space in and around their suburban homes into a hybrid or mutant form that is neither urban nor rural. Bridging the gap between their generational experience and mine has become a key part of my evolving odyssey into community design. To help myself better understand the community issues affecting my students, I became involved with the community design work of the Minnesota Design Team.

    The Minnesota Design Team as Community Laboratory

    The Minnesota Design Team represents a working laboratory for the study of sustainable community design. The Design Team is a pro bono organization established in the early 1980s to provide community design assistance to small Minnesota communities that would otherwise have not received such help. In addition to stimulating valuable design projects in over seventy communities, the Design Team has also generated a wealth of case studies about the issues facing communities.

    Minnesota Design Team was founded by a group of design professionals who wanted to serve small towns and to encourage greater awareness of the positive role of community design. Previously known as the Governor's Design Team, it has, from its origins, been a volunteer organization comprising design professionals who donate at least one extended weekend each year to help communities envision alternative futures; team leaders contribute many more hours in preparation for the visit. Team members come from a wide variety of design professions such as architecture and architectural history, landscape architecture, planning, and interior and graphic design, with additional support provided by other disciplines or fields such as anthropology or marine biology. A voluntary steering committee provides ongoing policy and administrative support for the work of the organization.

    A Design Team visit involves months of preliminary preparation by team leaders and members of the participating communities. The team selects for visits only those communities who demonstrate broad-based support for inviting the team. The town or neighborhood provides base maps and other valuable data about its physical, economic, social, and cultural characteristics. The three-day design charrette1 begins on a Thursday evening when team members arrive in the town, often greeted by a welcome banner spanning Main Street. Local families host members of the team that weekend, feeding them extraordinarily well for the work ahead. An army travels on its stomach, and the Design Team has traveled far and well.

    Community, the team has learned over time, is a complex phenomenon possessing multiple meanings. Consequently, the team spends Fridays listening to and observing its host community through a number of different lenses. Citizens analyze their community through a variety of background briefing sessions, SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, visits to local schools and senior centers, and bus and walking tours of the community. Building on Christopher Alexander's pattern language of communal eating, Friday's activities include a community-wide potluck dinner and town meeting open to anyone.

    At the Friday night town meeting, the Design Team employs a nominal group process, which it more folksily calls “democratic brainstorming.” Democratic brainstorming uses anonymous responses to questions about key local issues as well as small group discussions to overcome some of the typical barriers to communication in small communities; it also encourages an open discussion of the full range of community issues, which is recorded and publicly displayed.

    On Saturday, the Design Team synthesizes the mountain of information it has acquired through Friday's activities. The team attempts to integrate the mass of background information into a distinctive design framework that reflects the unique characteristics of the host community. Team members further develop the key elements of this design framework, such as entryways, Main Streets, circulation patterns, or regional connections, into a series of graphic images to be presented to the community at a Saturday night town meeting.

    The Saturday night presentation culminates the weekend design charrette. It attempts to generate widespread community interest and commitment to some of the new design principles and projects that have emerged during the past few days. When the Saturday evening presentation proves successful, discussions about the ideas and recommendations in the presentation often continue well into the next morning.

    On Sunday morning, team members join their host families for Sunday brunch, additional brainstorming, and networking before bidding their adopted families and community farewell. A follow-up visit within the next year offers the community an opportunity to assess its progress toward its shared vision.

    Although the procedures of a Minnesota Design Team visit have been studied, played with, and rationalized during the past fifteen years in order to make the process itself more effective, each team and its host community possess their own “messy order.” No two communities or teams are exactly alike, nor do they all share the same visions for the future. Discovering and giving form to that uniquely messy order, I have concluded, is what community design is all about.

    The University as Community Designer

    Universities offer excellent venues for studying the messy order of communities. To be a professor by definition means to put something forward as being true, to advance a thesis and program about one's field of study. My personal odyssey into community design has led me to profess the firm belief that our future well-being as a civilization requires fundamentally rethinking the shape and shaping of our communities. Such a rethinking involves bringing the knowledge and resources of the academic world into a much closer, better organized, working relationship with citizens and practitioners attempting to fashion more livable, healthy communities. This book represents one attempt to help bring about this rethinking of community design.

    Three basic assumptions underlie this effort at rethinking community design. First, I believe that the academic profession possesses a profound responsibility to help promote and create healthy communities. In a very real sense, we are supported by our constituents in these communities to serve them as guides through the uncharted seas of the new global village, provided with the time and resources to chart new courses for others to follow if we serve our missions faithfully. We can accomplish this mission through our teaching, academic research, and applications of our findings to community service. This book attempts to synthesize all three elements of the mission of the university.

    The second assumption involves the design of the university in relation to contemporary communities. As the old saying goes, if your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail. The single-focus lenses of academic disciplines, although valuable as heuristic tools, distort the appearance and nature of our communities. Communities cannot be dissected or pinned beneath a microscope. They are complex social systems and need to be studied within this living framework. Academicians need to acknowledge the limits as well as the strengths of their academic disciplines in order to serve their communities more effectively.

    The third and final assumption about rethinking community design underlying this work involves the need to operationalize the systems approach more effectively. Reinvigorating and building on the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), especially its requirement for environmental impact analysis of major federal projects, offers an excellent starting point for this crucial task. This landmark legislation not only embodied the ethos of the environmental movement of the 1960s, it also provided a meaningful model for a holistic approach to community design by its explicit recognition that communities involve complex networks of relationships. In particular, NEPA called for the integrated application of the natural sciences, social research, and the design arts to the practice of decision making on environmental issues; it also urged citizen participation in the design process.

    Such a rethinking of NEPA does not represent nostalgia for the lost glory days of the 1960s but rather vital preparation for the needs of the twenty-first century. Although seldom fully used and often trivialized into pro forma bureaucratic procedures, NEPA still represents one of the best starting points for revitalizing not just federal projects but contemporary community design practice at the grassroots level. It can help in this important challenge by drawing the research and experience of the last quarter century into a true systems approach necessary for genuine community design.

    Purpose Statement and Overview

    Helping communities take control of shaping a sustainable future of their own by means of information, insight, and civic dialogue is the fundamental task of community design and the underlying purpose of this book. This work attempts to bridge the too frequent gap between theory and practice and to strengthen both elements in the process. Good theory should also be practical.

    The book is divided into two main sections. The first investigates the problems facing local communities caused by the rise of a global economy; it also attempts to demonstrate the pressing need for a systems approach to community design. The second part examines the principles and practices underlying such a systems approach to community design. This section draws heavily on case studies culled from my work during the past eight years with the Design Team. It also considers issues involving the implementation of successful community design, such as a prototype identifying key criteria for success.

    Like my own life, this book remains a work in progress, an outgrowth of seeds planted many years ago that are still growing and evolving. I hope that readers of this book, especially the next generation of students, will come to regard it as a valuable starting or reference point for their own odyssey into community design.

    W. ArthurMehrhoffSt. Cloud State University

    1. Design students at the Ecole des Beaux Arts would typically work up until the last minute on their final projects. The Ecole would send a charrette (cart) to collect their projects, and many students would climb into the charrettes to continue working on their projects. The design charrette is intentionally a short, two-day intensive collaboration, with design work being conducted right up until the time of its public presentation. The compressed nature of the charrette generates a great deal of synergy and creativity among the participants.

  • Epilogue: Genius Loci

    In the summer of 1992,1 received the gift of an opportunity to teach at the Centre for British Studies in Alnwick, England, located in Northumberland not too far from the border of Scotland. This wonderful experience allowed me to explore some of the most celebrated and beautiful landscapes in the world. These fabled English countryside estates created by Sir Humphrey Repton and Capability Brown back in the eighteenth century still provide value and delight as we approach the twenty-first century.

    Such an approach to shaping communities and landscapes seems incomprehensible to many Americans, especially young people. Far too many students and young people in general have learned from us to focus only on short-term consumer wants; the concept of civic life has withered. Not surprisingly, many of them have also given up hope on the future, perceiving it as a fearful place of environmental disasters, a harsh and unforgiving economy, and widespread social disorder. The possibility of designing communities seems foreign to them.

    A small group of students and professor living in a castle therefore provided the perfect vantage point to view American culture, in particular the design of our cities and towns. It helped to create a sense of community that is quite often missing in normal collegiate life and in American life in general. As a result of numerous field trips through cities and countryside, as well as helping the local community succeed with its beautification efforts for a Tidy Britain award, we began to talk about the values underlying these landscapes and their possible relevance to students' lives. Students noted with amazement that these experiences were beginning to change their value systems in significant ways.

    We began to develop a checklist of what an enduring community would be like, and they suggested several important considerations that have guided me in my own efforts at building sustainable communities:

    • Preservation of historic buildings and open spaces
    • High level of care provided for civic spaces
    • Finding new uses for historic sites (e.g., for film making)
    • Emphasis on good work (e.g., arts and crafts)
    • Respect for cultural diversity
    • A long-term approach to resource management
    • Education as an enduring source of meaning

    In the final analysis, then, I discovered that community design is not really about fashioning more handsome buildings, interesting views, or attractive landscapes. Community design is ultimately about empowering the citizens of local communities to shape their own preferred futures by acquiring and applying information and knowledge about their communities in a far more systematic, thoughtful, and democratic manner than current practice. Unlike many famous Utopian designs for more enlightened physical and social landscapes, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City or the Ville Radieuse of Le Corbusier, community design does not depend for its ultimate success on the knowledge and control of one charismatic leader, like Wright's Master Architect. Instead, community design attempts the far more challenging task of building a new sense of what the ancient Romans termed communitas, or civic engagement, at the grassroots level.

    Like the concept of communitas, community design ultimately aims at transmitting important, valued elements of our natural and cultural heritage to future generations for their own use and delight. I have been privileged to see many communities work at making their visions become realities, but it was a group of young children who truly taught me and other members of the Minnesota Design Team what community design is all about.

    The River Guard is a group of children between the ages of eight and eleven who began to clean up the Crow River in the city of Paynesville shortly after the Design Team visit to their community (see Figure E.1). One of the key recommendations by the Design Team had been to attempt to recover the community's relationship to the river, from which the place had first sprung. The mayor of Paynesville, Joe Voss, asked local resident Tom Koshiol if he would consider helping to carry out that goal. Tom had not been heavily involved in community politics before the Design Team visit, but he enjoyed being outdoors and working with young people. He began organizing some of the youngsters who typically hung around the river to carry out this formidable task. Members of the River Guard first hauled out over two dozen truckloads of accumulated rubbish from along the banks of the river, then set to work making it a place of beauty both for themselves and for their entire community. They created a series of walking paths along the riverbank, then built an attractive footbridge across the river. A new spirit of place, what the Romans called genius loci, began to emerge where people had previously dumped their trash.

    Figure E.1. Members of the River Guard Cleaned Up the Crow River Frontage in Paynesville Photograph courtesy of Paynesville Press; used with permission.

    When the Minnesota Design Team returned to Paynesville over a year later for a follow-up visit, members of the River Guard proudly guided us around the newly transformed riverfront area. We followed them as they eagerly described their various projects and accomplishments, marveling at their sense of pride in reshaping their small piece of the community. After a while, we stopped at a rest area they had built along the trail, a very special place called Molly's Rest. Molly was the name of a beloved golden retriever who had belonged to one of the members of the River Guard. Molly had been buried in a quiet spot overlooking the river, and they had created and dedicated a lovely rest area of quiet dignity along the bank of the Crow River to her. The sense of peace and respect for the natural world at Molly's Rest was profound and absolutely overwhelming; in a very real sense, it had become a sacred place. I realized then that in its honest, simple way Molly's Rest represented the essence of what we were calling community design: creating meaningful connections between people and places that link the past and the future while helping to balance us against the forces of relentless change.

    My thoughts slowly drifted back to when I was a little boy playing with my parents in that old park in north Saint Louis, how community design has given and continues to give meaning and order to my own life, and I gratefully recalled the classic words of another native of Saint Louis, T. S. Eliot:

    We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploration Will be to arrive where we started, and to know that place for the first time.1


    1. From T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909–1950, New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1971, p. 145. Excerpt is from “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets, copyright © 1943 by T. S. Eliot and renewed 1971 by Esme Valerie Eliot. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace & Company.


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    About the Author

    W. Arthur Mehrhoff teaches American studies and local and urban affairs in the Center for Community Studies at Saint Cloud State University in Saint Cloud, Minnesota. A native of Saint Louis, Missouri, he earned a master's degree in urban affairs at Washington University in Saint Louis and a doctorate in American studies from Saint Louis University. His M.A. thesis looked at the role of citizen participation in environmental impact assessment, a theme continued in this work.

    He worked in community organizing, community economic development, and urban design and was a city planner for the City of Saint Louis Community Development Agency. He also has worked as a freelance writer and has published scholarly articles in a variety of journals such as Urban Resources, Urban Affairs Quarterly, Humanities Education, Minnesota Cities, The Canadian Review of American Studies, and Environment and Planning. His first book, The Gateway Arch: Fact & Symbol, examined the evolution of American cultural attitudes toward the natural environment from our origins to post-modern America.

    Since moving to Minnesota, Dr. Mehrhoff has taught numerous urban studies courses such as environmental design, housing and neighborhoods, and community development. In addition to teaching, he has been actively involved in community development activities throughout the state. He has led five Minnesota Design Teams and has served for many years as the community relations coordinator for the Minnesota Design Team Steering Committee.

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