What we’ve forgotten

Black and white drawing of street with homes and trees lining street

Scott Simmons

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 1, "Building South." Find more from that issue here.

Our great-grandparents built their own farms land towns, certainly their own homes. Most of the Southern buildings which we now look to as our best examples of architecture and city planning were designed as well as built by farmers, carpenters, merchants and ship builders.

On the other hand, few community groups today can build even a small playground for their neighborhood without a grant, an organizational structure and professional design assistance. It seems that most people do not really know how a retaining wall will affect water run-off, that a telephone pole stuck in the ground a couple of feet will topple, that unprotected pipes will freeze, that wooden beams have a limited span. 

Why is it that 200 years after ordinary people designed and built towns, plantations and fine homes across the South, most people need design assistance to build a good small clinic or playground? 

Quite a few things about the way we live have changed in the past several generations. These changes help explain why people became more dependent on outside, professional experience.

Personal Experience: Most men 200 years ago knew how to build. Few became adults without working on the construction of a house, a barn, a ship or a cupboard. Construction materials were few and simple and the characteristics of the materials and the methods of joining them were common knowledge. People also knew from personal experience the difference between ordinary construction and good workmanship, and they respected the experience and care that craftsmanship demands. 

Most people also knew about land. From farming or gardening, they knew how soils differ and what kinds of soils and slopes drain well and how erosion and ponding happen. They knew from experience how to make use of soils, slope, sun and shade. Personal knowledge and experience with simple building and land development gave people confidence in their ability to design and build their own environment. Scale and Speed: As individuals and as a society, we have so increased the scale and speed of our activities that we have stopped observing and understanding our environment. Two hundred years ago, most people were pedestrians most of the time. People see more as pedestrians than as drivers, and seeing more means observing more and caring more. Walkers experience at First hand the effects of sun and wind, enclosure by buildings or exposure in open spaces, hills and ridges and valleys.

Cities have grown in scale as well as speed. We are unaware of the quality of design of our cities now because most of us see closely only very small parts of the city in which we live or work or shop. We drive so quickly through them and from one to the other that we do not see what is in between. 

The rate of change in the environment also affects our ability to observe how activities are related and how we are affected by the physical environment. The vacant lot with the big oak tree at the subdivision entrance is replaced by a fast-food outlet before the new homeowner is aware of its importance. Fields disappear before anyone realizes how pleasant they made the drive home. Somehow we may realize that the success of a drug store is related to the business of the laundromat next door, but both move in and out so fast that the observation never registers as a piece of planning information. Intelligent observation is the primary prerequisite to overcoming the barriers imposed by scale and speed. 

Efficiency and Specialization: America pushes people toward producing more and having more as cheaply and efficiently as possible. The drive for production and efficiency leads us to radically new and complex building, transportation, utility, communications and administrative systems. For most people, the major impact of rapid technological change has been a profound feeling of helplessness in an environment that seems entirely out of control. People who have the knowledge and power to control anything are likely to be very specialized and as uncertain as anyone else about what should be done about problems outside their areas of specialization. A Ph.D. and a plumber are equally unable to design a pleasant park or even to choose an appropriate tree for the front yard. The traffic engineer designs our streets, the recreation specialist our parks, the architect our schools, the builder our houses, the planner our neighborhoods. The effect can be paralyzing if we conclude that all information is specialized and that every problem can be solved only by experts. We do not trust our common sense in anything. 

Dependency: The major reason why people once designed and built their own communities and eventually did it well is that they had to. People on the frontier had to learn from their mistakes and try again. There were no experts around to call in and no outsiders to blame. An effect of specialization is the feeling that someone else — usually the government — is responsible for each individual or group getting its share of society’s benefits. The feeling may be justified in terms of equity, but it discourages the initiative and individual risk-taking which can lead to undertaking a design effort on a do-it-yourself basis.


Taking Control Back

Many of the things we have lost or had taken away from us over the years can be remedied with the sensitive help of a community-minded design center staffed by professionals, students and community men and women. It can encourage full participation of local people in designing their own structures; provide the framework for citizens to slow down, observe and analyze; and overcome the tendency for us to “let someone else” take care of our problems. 

The East Tennessee Community Design Center has served many of these functions since its creation in 1970. Through the non-profit center, designers contribute professional time and skills to grassroots community projects — neighborhood rehabilitation, playgrounds, rural health clinics, day care centers, converting old buildings to new uses. Clients, architects, planners, VISTAs and students work together to solve building and design problems to meet the client’s needs. Community Design Center’s program has provided free planning and design assistance to over 100 community organizations in Knoxville and 16 surrounding counties. 

Most of the work is done by volunteers. Professional people in the community last year contributed $75,000 worth of time to help organizations develop both projects and effectiveness. The professionals made valuable time, skills and experience available through the enthusiastic and dedicated cooperation of VISTAs and students. 

Design center projects vary with the interests of community organizations and the skills of the designers. A lighting engineer helps a neighborhood club light a little league ball field. A planner works with several neighborhoods to develop a grassroots community plan and a strategy to obtain city adoption of it. An architect helps a rural community convert an abandoned grocery store into a health clinic. An interior designer finds ways to make more effective use of space in a small neighborhood center. 

Whatever the kind of project and the kind of skills it requires, the basic ingredients of a design center project stay about the same:

·      A community organization demonstrates a need: it shows that it cannot obtain sufficient assistance through private consultants or public agencies; that the proposed project is of general neighborhood or community interest; and that there are reasonable prospects of success.

·      The design center coordinator assembles a task force responsible for completing the design work requested by the community organization. Each task force consists of a core group of three people: a professional designer, a VISTA or preprofessional student and a representative of the client.

·      The design center tries to make participation an active instead of a responsive process. Ideally, designer and client share responsibility for the whole design process and for the final outcome of the process. We emphasize that we are not a group of “experts” who draw up plans for other people. But the idea of shared responsibility is a hard principle to follow.

Community groups, like the rest of us, have their own work to do. They would rather not bother with arranging work sessions with children to help the architect find out what the kids want in a park. Taking inventory of neighborhood building skills and materials sources is tedious and time-consuming. They want to say, “Just draw us up a plan.” And too often, architects agree. Commitment to shared responsibility is hard to stick by when it is translated into long meetings, arguments, delays and personal conflicts. Nevertheless, the success of a design center project depends on the level of personal investment and involvement in design by the project’s users.

·      To share equally in responsibility for the outcome, the participants must learn from each other. One of the things community people learn by working with design professionals is that a designer’s most important skills do not involve drawing or structural information, data or materials. The'y learn that important design decisions are based on things like how water flows on a piece of land, how people move around in a building, how sun and shade and wind work, where people sit in a park. They learn that city planning is based on observing and analyzing. One of my most rewarding experiences over the years was hearing an elderly woman who lived in public housing explain to the mayor how to read the topographic map we were using in a presentation. 

Designers, on the other hand, become better designers by the insights they gain in listening to and working with the people who will use the structures. They learn that the political system does not work equally well for everyone. They learn to respect the commitment of people who attend task force meetings and community meetings, get out mailings, sit through city council meetings and try to cope at the same time with serious problems of paying the rent.

·      Working through a design center task force brings all participants into a political process. The first contact between a community organization and a city official may be made by an architect familiar with the politician; later contacts are made directly. Developing skills and confidence for dealing with the bureaucracy may be the most important spinoff of design center projects. 

The obstacles to doing it ourselves — political, economic, historical, educational — are immense. Until the time comes when all community groups have the responsibility, ability and confidence it takes to plan and design for themselves, design centers will be an effective mechanism for helping people help themselves. By making us observers, first, and designers, eventually, of our own community environments, design centers lead us towards taking control of our own lives.


In 1972, a half dozen people in the Mechanicsville neighborhood of Knoxville asked the East Tennessee Community Design Center to help them design, find resources for and build this small playstructure. Over the next several years, the Design Center consulted on many Mechanicsville projects, including a grassroots land use plan, housing rehabilitation, successful opposition to an expressway and a major street extension and a community center. These projects also contributed to the formation of an active umbrella community organization, Advocates for Neighborhood Development, and gave residents frequent experiences lobbying city officials. Four years after the playstructure had been built, Mechanicsville became the home of Malcolm-Martin Park, the first major inner-city park built in Knoxville in over 50 years. The proposal, cost estimates and supporting information for this park were supplied by a committee of now design-knowledgeable Mechanicsville residents, led by a loading dock foreman who has since become a County Squire and member of Knoxville’s Metropolitan Planning Commission. 

Annette Anderson says: “Improvements have taken place slowly but surely in Mechanicsville because neighborhood leaders have become their own planning advocates. They, not Design Center consultants, present their plans and proposals to public agencies. They ask for assistance when it is needed but more and more they do not need it, and the time has long passed when they would ask the Design Center to ‘draw up a plan for us.”’