First, We Must Listen

December 13, 2018

Lillian Cooper is an adventurist, a doer and an architect.

In 2017, she spent the entire year participating in Remote Year, working remotely as an architect and traveling the world (living in 12 countries in 12 months).

This Fall, she joined the Odimo team, while continuing to work on a passion project in central India – helping establish a new non-profit called Critical Places. The mission of Critical Places is to improve the quality of life of under-served populations through the built environment.

The team includes a group of landscape architects, architects, urban designers and engineers who are addressing critical issues throughout rural villages in India. Issues include water scarcity, flooding, lack of public space and facilities, civic amenities, waste management, and similar.

Public participation and minimizing trust gaps between local governments and the communities they serve are central to their process.

Lillian and her team work and live alongside the residents in these villages for weeks at a time, engaging with them in meaningful ways to better understand their day-to-day. Building relationships through an interactive participatory process allows Critical Places to identify and solve root, systemic problems with design.

She is learning that improving the lives of people in these communities starts with a deep understanding of their unique culture and the problems they’re facing each day. She believes there’s simply no other way to do this well without investing significant time to listen to impacted individuals.

Oftentimes, developers and investors world-wide attempt to solve issues in low income communities through building infrastructure. As much as Lillian values buildings and architecture, she is learning that this immediate response is rarely the correct solution.

She says, “People often assimilate buildings with progress – and buildings may signify progress – but I’d argue it’s almost never the appropriate first step. We must first listen and learn. We must first invest in the people and the places who already exist in the communities we wish to impact. Step two may be implementing educational opportunities. Or reforming policy. Or researching systemic shortcomings… step five may be a building.”

After several years of travel, she is discovering strong parallels between the heartbreaking issues she has faced abroad and those occurring in the Kansas City community. Properly implementing public participation is a long-term investment for project teams and a challenge in itself, but the qualitative reward of this investment can meaningfully improve lives for decades to come.

Lillian plans to return to India this spring to continue her work with Critical Places.

To read more about Critical Places and their work, click here.