Helping Residents Design the Fabric of the City: Architecture Students and Storytelling as Engagement

Design Researcher : Tommy Yang / Research Mentor : Dr. Sharon Sutton

Design Researcher : Tommy Yang / Research Mentor : Dr. Sharon Sutton


Provocation for a new change in architecture academia.

The right to shelter is a multidimensional phenomenon requiring the engagement of many constituencies and institutions, but only residents themselves can create a place that reflects their being. According to philosopher Ivan Illich in his book, In the Mirror of the Past, a creation such as a dwelling is an act beyond any control of a designer. It is not art. It is not science. The act of belonging and dwelling is to exist and be present in the moment.[1] Only residents can ensure that the three-dimensional space of housing becomes a home, confirming that they are key actors in the design process.

If architectural institutions are training students to become future leaders in the development of the built environment, the scope and marketing of architecture must evolve into more than the study of building construction and systems. An apt point of departure is housing since it is the fabric of the city. To create solutions for the complex fabric of the city, students must learn how to engage professionally with community members, understand residents for whom they are designing, and investigate the reality of lived space.


Architecture students need to learn how to facilitate residents in designing housing that creates a sense of belonging and reflects the residents’ perspective of home.


What would a theory-of-place relationship between architects and people look like?

What is the purview of architects in the creation of dwelling, a notion beyond mere housing?

How should architects promote issues beyond design (that is, the purely technical craft of their profession) such as enabling people’s right to shelter?

Precedent General

The proposal sets out to create a place-based learning studio that changes the design process of creating housing proposals specifically by using participatory and ethnographic techniques. According to Arnstein, who wrote prolifically on the ladder of participation, architects can engage with communities through three prevalent types of participatory models: (1) non-participation, in which end users are merely subjects for analysis; (2) tokenism, in which architects meet the requirement to engage end users but remain the visionaries of a plan; and (3) citizen power, in which the people are in control and designs are proliferating advocacy and public education.[2]  The studio would embrace the third model: citizen power.

Furthermore, teaching architecture students ethnographic techniques of storytelling pushes them to acknowledge and engage diverse perspectives and voices in the creation of equitable action.[3] Communicating in narrative form creates moving relationships to a message, allows for information absorption, and helps formulate responses.[4] This creates opportunities for designers to tap into the collective memory of a place, its people, and how they live while also allowing for a shared experience in communicating socially-relevant messages through a creative act.[5]


My research suggests the act of storytelling during the process of designing a home can advance the studios goals to advance both participatory and ethnographic techniques.

A curriculum emphasizing storytelling will help students learn to look, see, listen, and hear the voices of the communities and to empower community members to re-infer (that is, to broaden or elaborate upon) their current ideas of home. It will help them learn that the role of the architect is not to speak and act, but rather to listen and help residents engage with their living knowledge in the creation of home.[6] Storytelling in the studio can prepare students to engage with people and facilitate them in designing home.[7] Students will learn the storytelling process through three phases:

Phase 1.

Framing: Seeking the Message

A critical examination of the field, as a location, as a classroom, a political and lived site for analysis is central to the studio and crucial for the students’ learning. The first phase of the studio will help put students in touch with the environment and with the people who live in the community through resident-led site walks, photography, body mapping, and pop walks. Instead of “normal” from-the-desk analysis of CAD drawings and Google Earth pictorials, students would create a journal of the site that characterizes the infrastructures, buildings, ecosystems, and people.

These community walks may inspire the students by seeing and hearing the site through the eyes and ears of the residents. Understanding the site is the act of  designing of the right to shelter.[8]

Phase 2.

Inspiration: Fairytales of the Banal

The second phase will focus on the lived systems of the environment through gathering oral storytelling interviews. Students will learn that storytelling can help architects generate interest, understand the communities they serve, improve communication, and ultimately empower residents. The stories of residents will help the students understand the community: where they come from, what they value, and, most importantly, the characteristics of their relationship to home. These narratives help communities and residents find their voice in the design process, while the students will learn how to use their design skills critically to create design proposals out of the participants' memories.

Phase 3.

Ideation: Taking Our Worlds Back

The final phase of the design studio will ask students to create a workshop with participants to collaborate in building their ideal community, home, and/or campaign around the issue of “THE RIGHT TO SHELTER.”  Through building, drawing, designing together, participants (students and community members) can quickly communicate and test multiple solutions through visual, spatial, and story ideas. This process allows all participants to build off each other to find common themes and values in creating a collective narrative. The final “review” of this studio is a community gathering where participants can celebrate their collective designs. The design proposal is not just embedded in drawings, but in the community. The final event is not a critique from other designers but a physical activity of reflecting, touching, moving, and being with the community.

Wrap Up

The architectural design in housing, the fabric of the city, is not a visionary speculation about how pwople should live. Rather, it is an engagement with people and an attachment to their well-being within a given environment. Design is not the exercise of power over others.  Rather it is the exercise of power with community members and their stories and inspirations of hope. I propose that architecture students must learn how to engage professionally and ethically with community members through a participatory ethnographic technique of oral storytelling, to embody or develop pathos for specific peoples and their living spaces, and to better facilitate residents in shaping design proposals that reflect their collective identities and sense of belonging.


[1] Illich, Ivan. In the Mirror of the Past: Lectures and Addresses, 1978-1990. New York: M. Boyars, 1992.

[2] See for example: Arnstein, S.  A Ladder of Citizen Participation.  JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224.

[3] Sen, Arijit, and Silverman, Lisa. Making Place : Space and Embodiment in the City. 21st Century Studies. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2014.

[4] Grele, Ronald J. Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History / Ronald J. Grele ; with Studs Terkel ... and Others], edited by Studs Terkel. Second edition, revised and enlarged. ed. New York: Praeger, 1991.

[5] Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember / Paul Connerton Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[6] Pratt, Mary Louise. Arts of the Contact Zone. Profession (1991): 33-40.

[7] Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment : The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Vintage Books ed. Psychology and Literature ; V-265. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

[8] Sanders, F.C., and Rocco, Roberto. Exploring Resident-empowered Meeting Places in Dutch Neighborhoods: By Jane Jacobs Walking Action-research Methodology. 2018.

Relevant Bibliography from the Thematic Analysis Assignment

Lee, J. “Design participation tactics: the challenges and new roles for designers in the co-design process.” Co-Design, 4:1, 2008, 31-50, DOI: 10.1080/15710880701875613

Lyons, M. et al.  “Participation, Empowerment and Sustainability: (How) Do the Links Work?” Urban Studies, July 2001 38: 1233-­‐1251.


Kelly, Matthew. “On the social construction of place: using participatory methods and digital tools to reconceive distressed urban neighborhoods.” In Eds. Sharon E. Sutton and Susan P. Kemp, The Paradox of Urban Space