We have seen numerous benefits of the design competition model in Sydney and other Australian cities. Sydney’s “compare, critique and commission” approach has been regarded as “truly pioneering and innovative”. Design quality has been elevated and it has grown and supported talent in small, medium, and emerging practices.

At the same time, research has pointed to concerns relating to the design competition process, such as a missed opportunity to engage the public more deeply in design matters. And together with new agendas, such as maximising social value – what is good for society – that have grown in prominence in the investment industry and real estate sector, it is time to rethink the role of community in articulating what is “good” and their voice and influence in design competition decision making.

This article explores the drawbacks of limited or no meaningful public participation or interaction with users of the building or place or other stakeholders in design competitions. But also, at a time when there is an increased need for social capital to be elevated through the planning and design process for more socially sustainable communities.

Looking to an example from Washington, DC it considers a highly participatory way of integrating a communities’ contribution and its role in creating socially cohesion. It presents a new model for a community driven design competition process as a means for addressing unequal access to place decision making while cultivating social ties in communities.  

Design clearly has a role in building social capital. During a design competition, there are opportunities for placemaking and designing in other physical elements or “social connectors” which are known to facilitate the creation of social capital, such as social infrastructure, shared spaces and streets and public transport.

These are outputs of design. However, the opportunity for designers to meaningfully engage with communities during architectural design competitions and contribute to a process to enhance social capital is typically less recognised, despite the benefits being clear, according to a Kirwan institute article:

“Intentionally using the community engagement environment to build bridging social capital—social capital that is built among diverse community members—has been shown to help create new connections between diverse community members and make resources available within the community, encouraging community member to become involved in the lives of their neighbours.”

Kip Holley, Kirwan Institute

Design competitions typically involve an independent panel or jury of design professionals and government stakeholders who select the winning design. While the composition of the jury may include a member of the public – as currently being recommended by the City of Melbourne for Design Excellence Committees – this is not always the case.

Other opportunities for the community to be involved in design competitions may be through developing the brief and providing contextual and historic information and insights.

While pursued in the public interest, these approaches, however, limit a community’s participation and typically are not used as means to build social capital: broadly defined as the functioning of social groups that is, relationships between people and their interactions within institutions and their communities.  We know that these relationships and their positive impact on communities are even more relevant in a post-pandemic landscape with levels of social isolation and loneliness increasing.

At the same time, we are seeing the emergence of a new “social contract” that expects businesses that gain from society to also give something (more) back. This is already the case in public sector procurement which has seen the requirement for social value to be a part of the supplier relationship and gain in importance rather than diminish.

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all our readers. We require 700+ words on issues related to sustainability especially in the built environment and in business. Contact us to submit your column or for a more detailed brief.

This expectation has flowed over into the design and planning process where design teams, developers, contractors and their suppliers are expected to provide even more tangible local benefits that make a real difference to the communities where they are working. Part of making a difference includes meaningfully engaging with people who have long been left out of community engagement activities.

One such project however that serves as a model for creating bridging social capital before, during and after the design competition phase is the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington D.C, United States. It demonstrates a deliberate approach to building social capital through engagement among a diverse community and a commitment to making DC’s Capitol Hill and Anacostia neighbourhoods better places for all.

Before the reno…11th Street Bridge

The 11th Street Bridge Park is a US$92 million development that will span the Anacostia River. It aims to be more than a place for recreation and physical connection. Its goal is to knit together the two communities on either end of the span without displacing people in the historically marginalised neighbourhoods on its eastern bank.

Artist’s impression: 11th Street Bridge Park. Courtesy OMA + OLIN

Prior to embarking upon a design competition process, Building Bridges Across the River – a non-profit organisation that provides residents east of the Anacostia River access to the best-in-class facilities, programs and partnerships in arts and culture, economic opportunity, education, recreation, health and well-being – undertook an extensive engagement process in collaboration with The Washington D.C Office of Planning.

For over two years, community meetings with nearby residents, faith leaders, business owners and city government representatives were used to generate design principles and list of facilities for a future 11th Street Bridge Park – all before commencing the competition. The brief or what was referred to as the DNA for the future bridge park, were reviewed by the design oversight committee and were then shared with designers entering the competition.

Throughout the eight-month competition process, shortlisted design teams were allocated 2 ½ day sessions with community members to test ideas and seek feedback.

The community members also served to play a key role in evaluating the design competition submissions through surveys, voting and having design teams make their final presentations to the public. Decision making was firmly placed in the communities’ hands. Architecture firm OMA and landscape studio Olin were the winning designers.

There is wide recognition that the ongoing community led process and the physical bridge once constructed in 2025 will act as a social connector and continue to enhance social capital. Tendani Mpulubusi, a resident and artist in the Anacostia neighbourhood says: “I think the bridge is going to bring together a lot of people who normally don’t cross paths”.

By adopting inclusive and participatory approaches and bringing together community groups as a collective for decision making before and throughout the design competition process and beyond, local needs and community-owned interventions can be generated.

Through the sustained efforts of Building Bridges in leveraging existing networks and community groups into a collective for decision making, they have contributed towards building and enhancing these social connections.

The benefits of this type of competition process can clearly be many. The governance of them and the payments to the designers must also be equitable and also recognise the need to compensate communities for their expertise and involvement.

In the wake of the pandemic and the increasing prominence of social value and social licence, we’re interested in how we may create closer dialogues between designers, local communities and those that procure these competitions – both government and the private sector – and move beyond generic top-down engagement to contribute to more socially sustainable communities.

As we have previously pioneered and innovated on design competition processes in Australia, how might we advance the role of the public in design decision making and leverage the process to build back much needed social capital?

Georgia Vitale

Practice Leader of Urban Strategy and Social Outcomes,


Georgia Vitale is the Practice Leader of Urban Strategy and Social Outcomes at Grimshaw. As a participant in the Urban Land Institute’s global Health Leaders Network, Georgia attended a convening in Washington D.C. focusing on centering health and equity real estate practice and a study tour of the emerging 11th Street Bridge Park project. More by Georgia Vitale

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *