The People's Design Library includes, among other guides, a how-to on establishing a community garden, like this one in Dallas. Megan/Flickr

The People’s Design Library gives neighbors the reins on public-space projects.

There’s a lot to consider in designing effective public space: accessibility, walkability, a pleasant ratio of infrastructure to greenery. But there’s also a consensus: community action is essential.

A new resource launched in February by the Texas-based nonprofit buildingcommunityWORKSHOP makes it a whole lot easier for community members to articulate what, exactly, they want from their public spaces—and to accomplish whatever that may be themselves. It’s called the People’s Design Library, but it’s not a library so much as it is a digital aggregate of guides and planning documents that activists, designers, and neighbors can access at any time.  

(Lizzie MacWillie/bcWORKSHOP)

“There are so many common issues that come up in community association meetings,” says Lizzie MacWillie, the senior design manager at bcWORKSHOP, which was founded in 2007. “People want to know how to deal with illegal trash dumping and speeding cars, but they’re also interested in beautification projects. We often hear: how can we start a community garden? How can we get our own Little Free Library?”

The documents accessible through the People’s Design Library make visible the range of possibilities for neighborhood development, and provide manuals to help bring those projects about. The website is divided into three parts: guides, inspiration, and bcWORKSHOP publications. “We just thought: the how-to’s are one thing, but it’s also important for people to see successful models for these types of projects,” MacWillie says.

The guides apply to a range of skill levels, so those averse to wielding a drill, MacWillie says, shouldn’t be deterred. Some guides, like a how-to on weatherizing buildings, require technical expertise to see through, but others are more organizationally driven: the Neighborhood Stories Project Guide, for example, offers instructions for jump-starting a local oral history project, and the PARK(ing) Day Manual shows communities how they can turn parking spaces for cars into mini public parks.

The documents in the People’s Design Library also enable residents to better articulate their needs to municipal agencies. “If you want to approach a city and be able to quantifiably say you want better sidewalks, there’s a language and a vocabulary for that,” MacWillie says. Asking for “better sidewalks” means asking for a particular width, particular amenities, particular kinds of trees—but without knowledge of what a request entails, it can fizzle out when it reaches the city government, she adds.

Though the People’s Design Library originated from the Dallas branch of bcWORKSHOP, MacWillie says the tools contained within it can inform any city. And when the Dallas office moves buildings in July, she adds that the digital toolkit may be supplemented by a physical one: in addition to housing printed versions of the materials, MacWillie hopes that the space will allow for a tool-lending library, from which residents could borrow cameras, tape measures, and assorted necessities. “That way, when neighborhoods identify something they want to work on, they’ll have access to a process, but also the physical tools needed to carry out these projects,” she says.

The People’s Design Library is not a fixed entity, MacWillie adds. There’s a portal on the website where people can submit guides and inspirational projects they’ve come across on their own; as communities start to implement the ideas on the site, the Library will grow in response. “We have all these resources around us,” MacWillie says. “This is a way for people to put them to use.”

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