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Can a Design Competition Cultivate Resilience, Equity and Democracy?

Our Love Story in Jacksonville is a Case Study in Just Design Process

As a practice, we enter our hat into the ring for design competitions infrequently for many reasons. Often, design competitions are enacted with limited resources, even less community input and with sometimes head-scratching evaluation criteria. In our experience, these constraints alone can pose significant challenges to success and even more so to the project’s ultimate implementation.

When we reviewed the Jacksonville Landing Design Competition requirements, we had these barriers front of mind. But then…  A city with long and deep racial divisions. A powerful river that continues to lash out against the confines of its banks. A well-paid design process that required public art and community engagement both be a significant part of the team. We thought, “Challenge Accepted!” and assembled exactly the team we thought could meet the opportunity.

When we were shortlisted — the only small business and only women-led practice — among two other world-class teams, we committed to taking on the project whole-heartedly, and in creating the kind of just design process we don’t often see in design competitions. We asked, “Can a design competition cultivate resilience, equity and democracy — the things we care most deeply about?” Then, we rolled up our sleeves.

The outcome of the competition, determined weeks ago by a committee of City of Jacksonville leaders, resulted in Agency coming in a very close second. You can read about our submission here, watch the video of our approach here, or take a deep dive by watching our team’s final presentation here. This reflection, based on both community and jury feedback as well as our experience, is not meant to summarize our design, but instead describe a few process innovations. We believe these ideas can be helpful for future competitions and more traditional design processes alike.

Invite the Community Voice

Between pandemic-inspired challenges and the short three month window of the design competition, we knew we had to think differently about community engagement — and luckily, our team had an incredible engagement lead in Colloqate Design. We collectively knew community input had to come early in the competition to truly have it inform our design strategy. The first week of the competition, our team created a list of dozens of community leaders, advocates and topical experts and reached out for one-on-one conversations. Over fifty conversations were facilitated by the second week — allowing our team to develop deep understanding of the issues, make key connections and grow awareness of the competition. By the second week, we also launched an innovative project hotline. This open-ended hotline greeted callers with a simple prompt — “Tell us about your biggest dreams for this important site in your city.” The result was over two and a half hours of voicemails and hundreds of text messages. Heartbreaking, inspiring, provoking and comforting. The voices filled us with ideas and aspirations!

Tell the Community’s Story

Too often in design process, community feedback can feel overwhelming or be translated into a never-ending wishlist. Engagement is only as meaningful as it captures true public opinion and emotion — which is why we prefer open-ended questions (versus polling tactics) and deeper discussion (over social media impressions). Our work strived to honor the diversity of community feedback we received, but critically, we synthesized the feedback into a coherent project mantra — a Love Story uniting the City’s diverse culture with the dynamic St John’s River.  At its heart, this mantra captures the overwhelmingly clear community narrative. We heard,

We love our city.

The river is our lifeblood.

We need a place that brings these together with 24/7 life, community-focused programs, FOOD, boating, and everyday activities. 

While this painted a clear picture of the community’s needs and desires for our design team’s effort, it also challenged (for us) the competition brief’s call for a big, singular and “iconic” object. A large sculptural “icon” did not emerge as even a low priority for the park design based on community input, which might partially explain the ongoing controversy with the selected proposal. We imagined instead channeling limited resources into a robust activation and programming strategy — one that would dovetail with other ongoing investments in downtown and appeal to the great diversity of the Jacksonville community. Knowing shade was one of the community’s top priorities, our team’s artist, Bryony Roberts Studio, designed custom “wave canopies” that would shelter and cool high-use spaces in the park. Art was imagined not as an object on a platform, but as a series of environments within which the civic and cultural life of Jacksonville to unfold.

Create an Inclusive Design Party

At the same time that we were reaching out for community voices, we were also designing an inclusive process for working with our broad and expert team. We like to think that the best design process is like a great dinner party — everyone is welcomed to share, the table is set with the right tools and the conversation is free flowing. We met weekly throughout the three-month design process, but more important, we met deeply. Each meeting was a two hour long design workshop in Zoom that involved sketching, debating, sharing, wondering aloud and coalescing around ideas.

Within our broader Love Story for the site, new love stories emerged. Uniting their expertise, Dix Hite + Partners (local landscape architects and ecologists) and Moffatt & Nichol (marine engineers) created a riverfront edge that would model resilience and ecological health while increasing boating access. Bringing together our love of topography and Gresham Smith’s understanding of activated, resilient architecture, we created Sunset Hill, a gracious connection, public space and iconic dining terrace. These ideas were only made possible through an integrated and consistent approach to design.

The Ever-Critical Circle Back

Finally, we believe community engagement works best when it is a continuous thread throughout a design process. To this end, we made sure to circle back to some of the most vocal folks from the beginning of the process, showing them a sneak peek of the design and hearing their reaction. This feedback helped us to make adjustments to the design and fine tune the specific ways ideas and uses were described.

And finally, we brought engagement all the way to the final interview and jury presentation, creating a custom game focused on both natural and cultural uses. Coming full circle, the game allowed for folks at the interview to show us where they could see themselves in the future park and what they could imagine doing!

In a time where American life can feel more divided than ever, we continue to believe great design, rooted in deep community engagement, can rally great change. We believe The Landing; A Love Story brought together the community of Jacksonville’s needs and desires into a coherent and achievable vision.

Team Credits

Agency Landscape + Planning
Bryony Roberts Studio
Gresham Smith
Colloqate Design
HR&A Advisors
Dix.Hite and Partners
Moffatt and Nichol

with Grayscale Collaborative, Goode Landscape, Dunetz Landscape and High Dive Studio