Design for Equitable Communities: Citizen HKS Empowers People through Architecture

An architect’s credo is to protect the health, safety and welfare of people. That’s more important than bottom lines and financial margins that can sometimes consume design projects. People, not profits, should be the motivation for what architects and designers do.

At HKS, our Citizen HKS public interest design initiative provides designers with opportunities to serve a higher purpose and create authentic social impact in their communities.

Citizen HKS began in 2014. It has grown from a small grassroots effort to a full-fledged program that enables us to do pro-bono projects by donating 1 percent of the firm’s billable time toward public interest design work each year. From a sustainable maternity unit in Kachumbala, Uganda to a ground-breaking sensory well-being hub for diverse learners at a Chicago high school, Citizen HKS projects have come to life in cities around the world.

But while they may be far apart and address various societal needs, all Citizen HKS projects have one thing in common: they are designed for, and in collaboration with, the people who will use them.

“If you don’t have the voice of the community that’s fueling, motivating and building the bones of the project’s intent, then who are you designing for?” asks Lisa Adams, a Chicago-based Senior Interior Designer. Adams, who directs Citizen HKS, believes that the 8-year-old initiative exemplifies HKS’ continued efforts to “serve and uplift marginalized and underserved populations.”

Adams describes the work of Citizen HKS as human-centered participatory design focused on creating triple-bottom line value by solving ecological, economic and social issues. That mission coincides with “Design for Equitable Communities,” one of the 10 measures of design excellence championed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Designing for equitable communities, according to the AIA, is a way for architects to extend their reach. By engaging with community members, providing for greater mobility, access and long-term resilience, designers can be a conduit for social justice and inclusion.

Addressing Problems through Design

Public interest design is becoming increasingly important as our profession races to positively transform how buildings and construction impact people and the environment.

“We generally try to look at a project to understand a deficit in society that’s causing a struggle within marginalized populations. We make investments in design solutions that can be applied to a host of other entities that may be facing the same issues,” Adams said, noting that one of the tenets of Citizen HKS is to apply research and design thinking to broader social and environmental concerns.

Citizen HKS projects and programs hinge on three interconnected impact areas — Create, Connect and Contribute. “Create” encompasses our public interest design work while “Contribute” and “Connect” reference HKS’ annual fundraisers and Month of Service volunteering, which have totaled more than $150,000 and 30,000 hours of donated money and time in the last few years.

Dreaming Big in Communities Worldwide

Each Citizen HKS project team — from the U.S. to Singapore — strives to connect community members with each other as they work on defining and refining their goals for their built environments. HKS designers then work with communities to bring their vision to life.

Last year, HKS staff and community members teamed up to raise $25,630 to support the construction of a Citizen HKS design for the Benefield Building, an adaptive reuse project intended to serve a Richmond, Virginia neighborhood that is in the initial stages of revitalization.

Benefield’s new community building will include a garden, outdoor plaza, flex space, food and retail options. Currently targeting a net-zero energy strategy, the sustainable project will also feature an artistic wall that will be curated by the community to celebrate the story of Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood.

In early 2021, Citizen HKS began a new partnership with southern Dallas’ Floral Farms neighborhood to design a large recreational park in a residential area that was once a dump site for toxic shingles. The project will restore hope and offer healing to a neighborhood that has suffered from poor air quality and neglect in recent years.

“We got involved because we wanted to help the community envision what it was that they wanted,” said HKS’ Erin Peavey, the architect leading the design of the Floral Farms park. “We wanted to give the visions in their hearts and minds physical form.”

Peavey and the Citizen HKS team from Dallas have consistently engaged local residents in community design meetings this year and will continue to help them reach their aspirations for Floral Farms.

“We’re so excited for people to come out and help us after being turned down so much and not getting as much support in the past,” said Marsha Jackson, a longtime Floral Farms resident. “I don’t have the words to express those feelings.”

Extending our Impact

The 2021 Citizen HKS fundraiser added to the firm’s existing work with the Atlanta nonprofit, Soccer in the Streets, which builds soccer fields on underutilized public transit land to give underserved communities access to sports programming. HKS has designed several soccer fields for the StationSoccer initiative, and more fields are planned.

“StationSoccer is inspiring kids both on and off the field through mentorship and encouraging them in their dreams. It is so much bigger than just soccer,” said Meggie Meidlinger, a design architect at HKS Atlanta who is part of the project team. “What StationSoccer is doing for kids in the community is incredible, and for us to get to be a part of something like that is such a privilege.”

In the fall, HKS staff raised $40,000 to build a pilot installation for a new program. Decommissioned rail cars donated by the City of Atlanta will be transformed into traveling studios, bolstering after school programs, addressing food insecurity and hosting adult education programs for a multitude of communities.

“Through this project, land is going back to the community. Thankfully, with partners like HKS, The City of Atlanta and their design studio, we’re able to design for the community by the community,” said Sanjay Patel, Soccer in the Streets’ Director of Strategic Projects.

An upcoming Citizen HKS project, Into the Light, will install a parklet with potted plants, a couch and facts about Singapore’s homeless population just outside the HKS Singapore office to humanize the city’s housing crisis. Into the Light was one of three tactical urbanism projects recently chosen to become official Citizen HKS efforts.

Connecting the ‘Three Cs’

This year, Citizen HKS established a Donor Advised Fund, allowing HKS to allot even more time toward project implementation and enhancing external fundraising efforts for maximum influence.

Exemplifying HKS’ desire to educate and pay equitable design forward, Citizen HKS recently launched a new mentorship program with architecture students at Dallas’ CityLab High School, including two who interned at HKS Dallas where they worked with professional design teams.

These newer Citizen HKS initiatives, along with multi-phase design and fundraising efforts like the Benefield Building and Floral Farms, illustrate how Create, Connect and Contribute work together to raise up communities.

Holistic Design Excellence Includes Equity

Designing for equitable communities is often an arduous process that requires buy-in from a broad range of public and private stakeholders with competing interests. But when approached as a collaborative act of service, design can empower and benefit all people, whether they are architects, high school students, elected officials, business owners or community members in need.

Earlier this year, HKS introduced ESG in Design to bring all of our Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) initiatives under a unified holistic design ideology that encompasses HKS’ UN Global Compact agreements, Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) efforts, and Citizen HKS public interest design projects.

“Our ESG initiatives are so interconnected; they’ve become the soul of our drive to become the most influential firm in the industry. And you don’t do that by staying where you are, you do that by raising the bar to do better,” Adams said. Citizen HKS projects, she said, have become a testing ground for how the firm can successfully implement ESG in Design in real and measurable ways.

As Citizen HKS continues to expand, its steering committee envisions that public interest design will become “a way of thinking” for all HKS projects. The long-term goal is to increase access to meaningful and impactful design work by engaging as many community members as possible.

“We’re trying to make sure that there’s equity in our design process. We want these concepts and solutions to create an elevated human experience that design has the potential to bring,” Adams said.