Public buildings and spaces are designed by architects. However, if these spaces are to truly serve their communities, a clear and accessible community engagement process must be incorporated into the initial visioning and design process.  


At INFORM Studio, we have recently held community workshops and engagement events for public projects in Detroit, Miami, and Traverse City. In Traverse City the community engagement process is informing the visioning and design of a new riverfront and pedestrian plaza in the downtown. This project is managed by the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and is working to embrace the Boardman/Ottoway River that cuts through downtown rather than have its back to it. The Traverse City DDA CEO, Jean Derenzy, emphasizes that “We want a waterfront that is engaging, exciting and inclusive.” Redesigning the riverfront was identified as a top priority in the three-year long process to develop a unified plan for the entire 1.6 miles of the lower Boardman/Ottaway River that meanders from Boardman Lake to Grand Traverse Bay.


INFORM Studio was hired to design three preliminary concepts, first informed by discussions with local property owners and businesses in June, 2022, and then a public open house in July, 2022. The three concepts were then brought to Traverse City for another public open house that took place all day on September 7, 2022. 

Welcome Board for Traverse City Public Open House on September 7, 2022

Following September’s public engagement event, I spoke with INFORM’s Eric Klooster, Mike Amidon, and Renee Baker:


What is your role in this project?


Eric: I am leading the project from the design team standpoint, coordinating and overseeing all of the conceptual design moves and the process for engaging with the community.


Mike: I am one of the project team’s designers


Renee: I am the the Project Manager


What was your role in developing this community engagement process? Did you use a similar process in a previous INFORM Studio project?


Eric: We worked with our community engagement consultant, Blue Orange, to develop the process. Our role was really focused on designing the material, collateral, and methods of engagement while we worked w/ Blue Orange to really drive the outreach efforts to spark participation. We have leveraged lessons learned on projects like The New Community Center at AB Ford Park (formerly known as Lenox) and the I-395 Pedestrian Baywalk in Miami to influence a lot of what we did in Traverse City.


Mike: INFORM has carried out a few projects with a similar community engagement process. A lot of the general strategy was first developed for the AB Ford Park New Community Center in Detroit as a way to effectively engage the community, but we also had to keep the event spread-out in self-contained stations that minimized the potential of spreading COVID. Since then, the Miami Bridge project adapted engagement for a different project scale and an event contained in a smaller area. The Traverse City project uses a similar framework and analyzes similar categories, but it was adjusted to incorporate lessons learned and best practices from the previous events.


Renee: As the Project Manager, my primary responsibility was to coordinate with the DDA, the design team, and the consultants to ensure that the engagement process and events synchronized with the project goals, the overall project schedule, and the event schedule. Much of the process success hinges on facilitating clear communication amongst project stakeholders.

Traverse City Public Open House, September 7, 2022

What are the methods for community feedback (for example post-it notes for suggestions; using stickers to vote on different concepts, etc.)?


Eric: We leveraged a methodology that allowed us to get pointed feedback on specific things, but also allow the nuanced understanding that comes from verbal + written responses. We created design concept boards that asked for feedback on specific things through a series of colored stickers with different types of questions. We asked questions that were trying to understand the broader categories of things the community would like to see in the space at a high level: green: I’m excited about the potential of this being in this space or red: I’m concerned about the potential of this being in this space. We also then tried to drill into some of the nuances that existed within those categories by asking questions of ‘which do you prefer?’ and placing blue stickers on the more preferred options within categories. We also wanted to make sure we provided opportunities to understand the nuance of those issues further by encouraging the community to provide comments or questions on sticky-notes. This allowed us to understand where there were subtle differences in the requested responses and also allowed us opportunities to hear about things we hadn’t considered.

Example of a concept board with public feedback, INFORM Studio

Mike: There are multiple levels of feedback that we were seeking, but the feedback boards had to be self-contained and largely self-explanatory to accommodate the large number of participants. We found that people are hesitant to actually design and draw, so we receive better responses when we give people images to compare with simple captions to describe the intent of each image. Stickers are easy to place, don’t require a lot of effort, and through using different colors, they make people’s opinions really clear throughout an event. One of the primary methods was giving participants red and green stickers. They place red stickers on things that they don’t want to see, and green stickers on things that they do want to see incorporated into the designs. Another method is to use blue stickers and have people select their top pick out of a series of images. Post-it notes are really good at capturing anecdotal comments. The prompts are very simple. What makes you excited about what you are seeing? What makes you concerned about what you are seeing? What are we missing?

“If you show broader and less developed concepts, people give better feedback to help inform design process (rather than get fixated on one image or detail)


How do you think community engagement has informed the design process in this project so far? 


Eric: The design responses so far have been very much shaped by the community engagement process and honing in on what is important to the community. All of the responses are still very much INFORM studio, but making sure we address all of the things that are important to the community and steering away from things that might not be favored by the community. Within that space there is plenty of room to explore the spectrum of responses and, to a certain extent, challenge the community to think about these things in different ways. I’m really excited about how receptive the community has been to ambitious and innovative approaches to the things they want to see in their community.


Mike: When we came to the first event we decided we weren’t going to develop any designs. We didn’t want our initial thoughts and opinions to cloud the desires of the community. Instead, we used the first event to show participants as many images and examples of a wide range of precedents and the ways other designers have handled similar situations to see what the community responded to, what types and sizes of activities they wanted to see, and how they wanted the look and feel of the project to be. This feedback directly informed all of the elements we included in the initial three concepts, allowing us to present ideas to the community that we knew they were already interested in and supported. Sometimes community engagement processes don’t start until the initial concepts are already started or complete. This forces the community to react to elements they had no role in picking, which provides them with a limited opportunity to meaningfully engage with the designs. For our second event, we arrived with three completely different concepts showing different ways to incorporate all of the elements the community chose from the first event. Rather than make participants choose one whole concept out of the three, we displayed the concepts in a way that broke them up so that participants could compare the individual pieces from each concept, picking and choosing the best pieces from each concept so that the final concept incorporates the best elements from each one.


Based on feedback from the community, how do you think the Boardman/Ottaway Riverfront project will impact people’s experience of downtown Traverse City?  (you can give a specific example)


Eric: I’m really excited to see how the Boardman / Ottaway Riverfront will transform the community’s perception of the river and the space along it. I think this project will make the river and the space along it into the amenity that it should be instead of being an uninviting afterthought. I’m really looking forward to the business owners and property owners investing in the ‘back side’ of their businesses because the Riverfront project has created a space that invites people and has created a business and economic opportunity for them. Most importantly I am looking forward to the community feeling like they have a space that is uniquely theirs.

The Boardman River, Traverse City = current conditions.

Mike: I think this project is going to give people a reason to stay in Traverse City longer (vs. seasonal residents), and make the city more comfortable and usable for much more of the year. Currently, there are limited ways to interact with the river. There is no reason to use it other than going back and forth between the beach and downtown. The area is dominated by vehicles ranging from cars to box trucks, and it isn’t an enjoyable place to walk.


Renee: As a Traverse City native, I see how this project has the potential to have generational impact for shared growth and transformation. As the younger generation grows with this project, they will learn about and take pride in the rich history of the river. The Boardman River is going to continue to evolve. This most urbanized segment of the river will connect the city to the greater ecological network and act as a transitionary space between the Bay, Boardman Lake, and the Boardman/Ottaway tributaries. Also, the design concepts incorporate universal design  so that anybody will be able to access and engage with the river. 


Based on feedback, how could the Boardman/Ottaway project impact small-businesses in the area?  (you can give a specific example)


Eric: Please see above. The space adjacent to the river is also a space that is adjacent to many small businesses. The placemaking potential of the space has a really great opportunity to create value for the adjacent businesses, just by bringing people and activation to the space. I think we will know the design of the space has been successful based on the business owner’s choosing to invest in the backside of their businesses because they see the business opportunity there.


Mike: If this project is done well, it will help businesses double their storefront space and drive much more foot traffic to their businesses. Many buildings are currently underutilized and only focus on the façade facing downtown. If we can flip businesses to use the river side as an asset in addition to the delivery/loading, infrastructural components, the businesses can thrive while also relieving some of the pedestrian congestion that occurs along the downtown street.


Renee: The Boardman/Ottoway project will have a positive economic impact in the area. It will provide businesses with a second entry and an opportunity to expand and incorporate more outdoor spaces for retail and dining. The project will also offer visibility for businesses from the north side – Those viewing the north side of the business from the north side of the river and Grandview Parkway will no longer be looking across, through or over an alley – they will be seeing a unique, active and appealing space. For stores selling outdoor equipment, customers will be able to test out kayaks in the river rather than having to drive out to the Bay. For Traverse City residents who work downtown, these spaces will offer opportunities to work outside. 


The final conceptual design will be developed based on input received at this open house and presented to the DDA board in November, 2022, with the public welcome to attend.


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