Community Organizing, Civic Engagement, and Professional Liability


I am wondering what people's experiences are with being on steering committees and sitting on boards - and how you assess/manage potential conflicts of interest and your own liability as a professional.


Thanks in advance.

Dec 6, 15 11:44 am

I have been deeply involved in my community mostly without sitting on boards. I am becoming a believer in informal networks rather than formalized systems as a means for real change. 

Different communities will have different policies on conflicts of interest. I dont know how any of that will have anything to do with liability. you dont typically sit on a board as an architect, but as a citizen. 

Try thinking about hosting 'chats' at your house or develop an email chain with other concerned citizens that ultimately hold the powr. Too much to explain here... Look up 'the power of informal networks.'

Dec 6, 15 12:39 pm  · 

you dont typically sit on a board as an architect, but as a citizen. 


good point. 


My primary question has more to do with being involved at the community level where you're trying to resolve a design issue (i.e. streets, parks, parking, municipal buildings, etc...) - In this case I, as the concerned citizen, am playing the role of client - but I also have a certain level of expertise as a design professional.  I know this relationship is much easier when you feel like the architect/engineer tasked with the problem is fairly competent and capable of listening and incorporating neighborhood concerns - but if you see some issues with their standard of care and conduct - at what point do you express your concern as a professional?  Where is this line between citizen and professional?


Second question is if there's a specific issue in your community that you've spent many years thinking about - is it reasonable to expect the architect/engineer tasked with the project to at least entertain and address said idea - especially if it has the backing of your community organization?  Personally,  I'd think that if someone has done a bunch of work for you that you might want to at least take a look at it and see if there is anything useful there.  Also - is putting your thoughts out in this manner going to subject you to any liability as a professional?



My apologies if this seems overly risk-averse - I'm just curious.

Dec 6, 15 3:09 pm  · 

If I understand correctly you are an architect/designer who is looking for some opportunities to give back to the community without assuming too much liability?

This is awesome of you to set out to do if that is the case.  My experience with a project in Urbana Illinois basically went as follows

Identify a community in need of some advocacy

Set up a 401c3 non for profit that has at least half of the board members being residents and a clearly defined mission statement to serve the community.

treat the residents like clients

get the city council park district board and other elected officials on board

hold lots of meetings every other week if you have an ambitious agenda

identify a few projects that the residents believe they would benefit from (it is important to not have a design looking for a home as this can close down the conversation and prevent you from identifying other community needs just go to people with a blank slate and ask what they would like)

organize a design committee to draft plans for those projects

have the board approve one or all of them 

set about finalizing the design and building it.


This process is potentially very long for a built space but can be shorter for a temporary art installation. I worked with the Leirman Neighborhood Action Committee (LNAC) to create a community garden, in 11 months we got the city to buy a vacant lot at auction, give our organization a lease on that lot for $1.00 per year, set up municipal water service so we can water the gardens, set up an agreement to absorb the cost of the water, coordinate lawn mowing, and build a garden with 16 raised beds and a half acre of cultivated land with about 250 volunteers and residents over 4 weekends. Residents directed the design team to have tall 3 foot high planters in the mix as some residents can't stoop down to low, and we kept everything at least 16 feet from the sidewalk because residents did not want people loitering and potential doing illicit business deals with passing cars, we also removed a wall and benches that were commonly used by drug dealers from outside of the neighborhood to sell to people driving up to the corner. We learned about this need to not have benches close to the sidewalk from the residents and they felt more compelled to tell us this probably because we were not initially showing them plans or designs. 

The project was highly rewarding and created several references and connections that helped propel me back into the profession after a hiatus brought on by the recession.


In summary what I would do for liability sake is to work for or with a non for profit and have them own and be solely responsible for your design work, if they get sued you won't be held personally liable but you should expect some risk. LNAC was covered under they City of Urbana's liability insurance but liability insurance to cover your work and the site your work will be on, even if it is temporary is a must.  It is important to think critically about the available labor to build a project make it volunteer oriented. Also important get good press for your work.

links below to see the press and the planter boxes

Over and OUT

Peter N

Dec 7, 15 9:34 am  · 

It's usually not an issue unless you start directing decisions, provide drawings, or steer work to yourself.  Speak up at meetings and sit on boards - many people respect what you know, and it will give you a good understanding as to how these things operate. 

A participatory democracy relies on the citizens to contribute to general society in the best manner possible.  As long we you try to maintain an inclusive conversation, it should be fine.

I participated in municipal charrettes and voiced my opinions and concerns at local advocacy groups to help them understand why certain municipal departments did the things they did (helping them understand broader issues and how to address them).  I thought of it as a way to translate between the public and the city's consultants - it got to a point where the planners and engineers expected me to be there.  It's also a nice to be able to give a heads up both ways with some under the radar information (if something is riling a group up to the city, or the city's initiatives back down to community groups), as it can ease tensions and increase communication.

Peter's suggestion is great.

Dec 7, 15 11:38 am  · 

Great post Peter!

Dec 7, 15 11:45 am  · 

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