City Life After Corona: Community Engagement

Citizen / Designer: Activating the Individual in Urban Space

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community- · City Life After Corona: Community Engagement
16 Sep 2020 All, Research, News


Grassroots methods of organizing have proven to be effective in creating a sense of community during this remote time and designers are finding ways to establish these ideas on a citywide scale. These proposals emphasize the resident’s role in community recovery, the need to re-establish trust in the built environment, and the important steps designers should take to effectively connect with the people they serve.



In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Urban Design Forum launched City Life After Coronavirus, a digital program convening Fellows and international experts to document global responses to the current crisis and to strategize a road to recovery for New York City. In April, we released a Call for Ideas to our network soliciting a broad range of submissions that envision how urban planning and design should change in the wake of Covid-19 as we strive to build a more just city for all New Yorkers. We are featuring some of the most compelling ideas in a series of reflections and proposals about diverse topics like education, community engagement, and mobility. Explore the full Gallery of Urban Ideas here.




by Jonathan J. Marvel, Tim Fryatt, Ishita Gaur, and Isabel Marvel


What is the role of the individual in the design of urban space? Has the ever-expanding nexus of profit-driven development, foreign investment, rezoning and gentrification rendered the individual effectively helpless- a bystander in a much larger game of real estate speculation and inequality? Or, are contemporary urban realities simply milestones in a broader historical continuum of urban development? And, is it possible that creative new modes of participation fueled by coronavirus, via teleconferencing, social media, and crowd sourcing, provide the individual with radical new opportunities for creation, intervention, occupation and resistance in the urban context.

What will become of “City Life After Coronavirus?” Citizens will decide. We imagine a city wide public participatory effort, called “Citizen/Designer.” A series of open conversations to explore both the possibilities and limitations faced by individuals who wish to contribute to the design of their cities post coronavirus.

The series will bring together engaged citizens with practitioners, policy makers, community leaders and activists across the fields of planning, real estate, art and design in discussions that reflect on the new realities foisted upon the city by the coronavirus pandemic. In a context of inclusivity and exploration, the conversations will begin to imagine new dynamics in which individuals play an active role in the reshaping of New York City in the wake of coronavirus. 


We gathered the community in a series of workshops centralized in energy, resilience and future plans to restructure the neighborhood.


With so many pressing civic needs playing out in the streets and the news today, now is the right time for a call to action to engage citizens. Marvel Architects brings many lessons from our past work in engagement after a community crisis.

For example, after the category 5 Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, we formed Resilient Power Puerto Rico to respond to the immediate and long term sustainable energy needs of the people. the project sought to bring resilience to cities and communities by quickly offering photovoltaic (PV) energy systems and battery storage.  These solar microgrids were created through donations of materials and work and developed by a group of collaborators in New York and Puerto Rico.

We generated and leveraged a network of committed collaborators to strengthen communities’ capacities to assess and address their critical needs. We went to where the people were, we listened carefully through many community events, then helped build local access to knowledge, tools, and resources for sustainable and equitable community development. We discovered that by fostering the continuity of critical built and social infrastructure systems, we could leverage the power of community to forge concrete positive changes.


We targeted common spaces such as community centers to create distributed energy storage systems that serve a wide range of people.


This ongoing outreach effort has to date yielded 35+ new solar power community hubs in the underserved communities throughout Puerto Rico, created a robust on-line platform called the “tool-kit”, and is active in creating legislative changes to promote the use of affordable renewable energy.

Social interaction and democratic participation are especially critical in a time where so many of us are self isolating in quarantine. Moving forward into the recovery period, many people will continue to work largely remotely, some never to return to the city. So we need new methods of interaction, that are equitable and accessible to all – those physically present and those digitally present.

New technologies can facilitate this interaction and even better advance citizen engagement as they become more accessible, seamless, and human. Such tools include computer vision, conversational voice, auditory analytics, haptic sensors, advanced augmented reality, and virtual reality, which will expand the audience, offer personalized targeted updates, and better convey environmental context cues of complex and nuanced human behaviors like gestures and gazes.

The steps of the process are time honored. First a select group of practitioners, policy makers, and community leaders are to develop a series broad but provocative topics related to the new urban planning issues necessitated by coronavirus. How do we best share competing interests of the street? What makes public space democratic? How are changing populations affecting neighborhood identity? What can commercial businesses do to ensure viability and safety?

Second, there will be a broad outreach program, which leverages many possible platforms (digital, print, postings, etc.), targets individuals and groups, and solicits their assistance to expand further. Third, hold a series of civic engagement opportunities by topic which may take the form of panel discussions, town hall forums, charettes, field walks, and more.

All along the process will make personal connections, foster community, build coalitions, develop strategies, and strengthen knowledge. Finally, synthesize findings and results into a series of goals and objectives, implement action.

Working in concert, the time honored civic processes and new high tech digital platforms will transform the way we engage each other. The result can be transformative – a city shaped by and for its citizens, with equity and inclusion.



Marvel Architects is a solutions-driven design practice that integrates context and nature into every project, meeting each design challenge by listening to its surroundings. With offices in New York and San Juan, Marvel is an international firm dedicated to creativity and diversity. From the New Jersey Institute of Technology to St. Ann’s Warehouse, the team has pioneered an entrepreneurial approach to architecture and place-making that has been recognized by over 135 industry design awards including the AIA’s highest honors.


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