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The urban designers who bring the community in

The Denver-based firm wants its projects to be useful to the public for decades

When his firm was selected to redesign Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa Bay, Florida, a small park off the Hillsborough River, Civitas cofounder Mark Johnson knew it was a project that required more than simply sprucing up an old public space.

Once the downtown epicenter of the historically African-American neighborhood of West Tampa, the site was bulldozed in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal, and the park was put in its place. Given the context, residents despised the park, and it fell into blight.

“The mayor of Tampa says, ‘I have a disgruntled black neighborhood that hates this place and I want to make it right for them—what do we do?’” Johnson says. “He doesn’t say, ‘Give me a cool park.’ He goes, ‘What do we do?’”

What Johnson did was conduct 40 one-on-one in-person interviews and five public meetings with residents of the area to learn the history of the neighborhood and what the park represented to the community. The new park opened in May 2018, and has tennis courts, basketball courts, football facilities, a splash pad, and a family-friendly picnic area. Some of its features came directly from Johnson’s community outreach, including access to boats on the water. And it’s been embraced by residents in a way the old park never was.

“The community rallied around the idea of giving the black community access and recreation on the water for free,” Johnson says. “That turned into a boat house, a community center, etc., etc. We really dug in.”

The Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park is emblematic of the community engagement approach Civitas takes toward complex urban planning and landscape architecture projects. Founded in 1983 and located in Denver, the firm specializes in public projects that have multiple stakeholders, sometimes with conflicting visions of what they want a project to be.

The firm is currently designing an urban space that will house the new arena for the NHL’s Calgary Flames and the 5280 Trail in Denver, a network of existing streets circling the city that Civitas will design to have more bike and pedestrian space.

A pier with a boat house at the end is lite up at dusk.
Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park

But to have the staff and culture necessary to tackle these projects, Civitas first underwent a dramatic transformation. In 1997, Johnson and the firm decided it wanted to burst onto the national scene and tackle larger, high-profile projects. Prior to that, Civitas was more of a regional player that took smaller landscape projects in the Denver area.

While Civitas employed roughly 60 people before the shift, it has 21 today. The firm previously handled about 100 projects at once, but it juggles just 12 to 20 now.

While Johnson says the staff is a bit top heavy—complex urban design problems require the perspective of experienced veterans, after all—the less-experienced staff is still given responsibilities on par with more experienced staff. The firm puts younger hires through a rigorous interview process that tests how well they think on the fly.

Civitas approaches its projects not as landscapes to be designed, but as problems to be solved. It emphasizes functionality, with the aim that the project will still be popular with and useful to the public decades after its completion.

“We have a little saying: We think to draw, we don’t draw to think,” says Scott Jordan, a principal at Civitas. “I’m personally not a big drawer. I’d like to approach projects with trying to figure out really what is the problem we’re trying to solve.”

In San Diego, Civitas helped finalize the master plan for a one-mile stretch of waterfront park called the North Embarcadero, a project that’s emblematic of the firm’s ability to work through stakeholder disagreements to design functional spaces. In the late 1990s, another firm designed a conceptual master plan for the site that included an oval green park on the waterfront. The park was never actually approved in the plan, but the public had come to expect that it would be part of the redevelopment.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a second firm solidified the conceptual plan with an emphasis on securing the waterfront, as a number of cruise ships and other attractions were potentially vulnerable to terrorism. The planned park waterfront was changed to a hard urban waterfront with a walkway on the water’s edge, and the oval green park was eliminated in the process.

“It didn’t make the public happy,” Johnson says.

Now embroiled in controversy, the project was handed to a third firm—Civitas, which sought not to redesign the previous plan, but to methodically implement it by getting the public back on board.

Instead of holding a public meeting about the absent park, Civitas tackled smaller issues one by one to build trust with the public. The original plan had a circular building to house a visitors center, ticket offices, and bathrooms. The firm believed this was a mistake because a circular building couldn’t be expanded in the event that the visitors center turned out to be too small, or the ticket offices too few. Using this practical argument, they convinced the public that different buildings were needed for each of these functions.

People sit on benches in a park by the water, with many trees for shade and a view of downtown buildings.
North Embarcadero.

By the time the discussion landed on the controversial park, Civitas had built up enough credibility with the public that it was able to resolve the issue. The final plan didn’t include the same park, but it did include a park in another location.

“Our strategy was to not tackle the big questions about the missing oval park, because we knew that was just an argument and we probably wouldn’t win,” Johnson says. “We built trust by just taking on those small issues one on one and showing we were straight shooters, and that we cared about how it would perform for the public.”

Civitas took a similar approach to the master plan for the redevelopment of a lakefront park in a much smaller, more quaint community: the affluent Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata, Minnesota. As the town considered the redevelopment of a stretch of lakefront park, residents divided into those who wanted something new and those who wanted the park to stay the way it was.

Once again, the firm tackled small issues, such as whether to eliminate a turn lane to add more pedestrian space, one by one, and incorporated feedback it had gotten in interviews to show it was listening to the public and to build trust. Jordan says that while not everybody got what they wanted with the plan for the waterfront, which begins construction this summer, the firm was still able to show it was making a good-faith effort to address various concerns from the public.

The resulting plan is one that Civitas believes will make the waterfront a popular destination for Wayzata residents for decades to come.

“We don’t design to get pictures in magazines,” Johnson says. “That’s not our purpose. Our purpose is to build something that 50 years from now, people will still use it and love it.”