We all agreed. If we were going to meet in Richmond, we wanted to spend as much time as possible getting to know Manchester, our project location, and its people, those we are seeking to serve.

The 2021 Emerging Leaders in Architecture (ELA) group had been only meeting online, in classic pandemic fashion, until this past mid-May when a number of our team members made the trip to Richmond for a hybrid session of goal setting; exploring Manchester, a neighborhood of Richmond just south of the James River; and engaging with community members in person. Our group has 16 members from all over the state, but only one of us lives in Richmond. This has been a particular challenge that we have been grappling with as we seek to get to know Manchester and make a meaningful response to the particular needs of the community. Early on we decided that we wanted to be collaborators with the people and different organizations who make Manchester special and are deeply invested in its future. It is through centering these people and including typically marginalized voices in the design process that we could make something that was relevant and responsive to everyone’s needs. Manchester is changing rapidly with big questions about how it can develop in a way that benefits all who live there now. We hoped the process by which we developed our project would help build collective power within Manchester’s community and give them tools to better advocate for themselves. 

Our Charlottesville class session about community engagement left us inspired by the speakers who shared their experiences. We heard stories from Bruce Wardell of BRW about the resident-led design of a redevelopment project, gleaned insights from Katie Swenson’s experience at MASS Architects, and were excited by the examples Serena Gruia, a public engagement specialist for Albemarle county, shared with us about how we might design engagements in order to co-create with the community. These stories, and the values of centering the community in the process, formed the basis of our outreach to Manchester in May.

This first engagement was an effort to make our group known and to start building trust with the people that live and work here. That afternoon, we broke into five teams with four of them focusing on talking to businesses. Since we do not have a permanent location in the area, getting business’s support and insights were essential to starting to connect more deeply with the community. While these groups shared about who we are, asked questions, and put up our blue ELA posters, they also made observations about the different things they saw while walking around. Our fifth team was stationed outside the library with a large map of Manchester and colored stickers inviting passersby to place stickers on the map indicating favorite places, home, work, etc. The stories they shared about this place through this exercise helped us start to discern themes that we can explore more deeply as a design team. We hope to go back again with another in-person session as well as develop a survey that starts getting into more specifics.

Doing this engagement in-person made me realise how many voices we would have missed by only doing something online. We would not have been able to reach the people who engaged with us on the street that day without physically being in this place and putting faces to our name. Another in our group offered their experience of that day saying, “It was amazing to hear how passionately the local businesses felt about their community once we started our conversations. You can tell they genuinely care about preserving the sense of place that already exists in Manchester.” Someone else shared that, “I’ve realized that being able to holistically understand Manchester is like getting to know a person… To be able to offer support you have to be open-minded, compassionate to their history, their goals, and character.” 

If you have insights to share about Manchester or thoughts on our engagement efforts so far we welcome you to contact us! We can be reached at: elamanchester2021@gmail.com

submitted by:
Hayley Owens, Associate AIA
ELA Class of 2021