Have you ever wondered why abandoned or dilapidated buildings lie vacant for years on end, why traffic patterns isolate people from businesses, or why there are so few safe and accessible open spaces in your community?

Locals don’t need to accept the flaws in their towns’ layout, say architecture and planning experts. Communities can take steps to be safer, more visually appealing, and more functional, and citizens can help by learning more about the process and getting involved.

Good design

It all starts with good design. Luckily, new programs are helping communities achieve development goals through design assistance.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA), for example, has a Center for Communities by Design that has spent the last 50 years reinvigorating over 200 communities in need. Their design assistance program is a collaboration that brings together teams of professionals to provide free technical assistance and design expertise in developing realistic, customized plans that improve local ecological, economic, and social equity concerns.

The process includes a preliminary visit with local officials and stakeholders and a three-day visit from a multidisciplinary team potentially including architects, urban design professionals, economic development specialists, land use experts and others. The team draws up a report highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the community with recommendations for implementing strategies for improvement. Lastly, the team will provide a review of a community’s progress.

In multiple instances nationwide, this results-oriented program has led to new construction and development, new parks and open space opportunities, the creation of affordable housing, commercial and economic revitalization, preservation of historic districts and landmarks, and pedestrian systems.

Civic engagement

Most communities have hearings and meetings where issues like new development are addressed. Do you wish your town had more parks, a community garden or safer intersections? The experts are urging local residents to become advocates for positive change by attending such events and getting these issues on the agenda. Strength in numbers typically works best, so if you have like-minded neighbors, consider asking them to accompany you.

Interested citizens can also encourage their local governments to apply for a program such as AIA’s. Contact your local planning office or AIA chapter to suggest they apply; more information can be found at aia.org/cxd.

If you desire a more healthy, productive and vital local community, don’t assume there’s nothing you can do. By getting involved, you can help make important improvements that benefit everybody.

About the author: Erin Simmons is AIA's senior director of design assistance.

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