Finding a Way Forward: livingLAB

livingLAB is a collaborative landscape architecture and planning studio focused on community-driven design. Based out of the Green Garage for nearly eight years, they work on open space planning, landscape design, pedestrian/bike mobility projects, stormwater management, and green infrastructure development for a wide variety of clients throughout metro Detroit. You might know their work from such recent projects as Beacon Park in downtown Detroit, MoGo (the city of Detroit’s bike share program), and the transformation of Bagley St. in southwest Detroit into a walkable and bike friendly commercial corridor.   

livingLAB’s four person team is among the millions of Americans who have been primarily working from home since the pandemic started. Principal and planner Leah Groya says that one big reason for this is that the livingLAB team has a combined total of eight children, none of whom has been back in school since March of 2020. “So that’s created some craziness and chaos,” she says, “and this sense of, ‘How are we doing all of it, working, parenting, and schooling at the same time?’”

Beyond the demands of being stay-at-home parents and full-time professionals, one of the biggest pandemic-related challenges they’ve faced has been a broad-based shift to the digital world. Leah is a systems thinker, so on one hand, she acknowledges the process improvements that have accompanied moving the majority of their business banking online, for instance, and the efficiency of being able to just push a button to attend a meeting.

“If you have a meeting from 2:00-3:00,” she says, “you don’t have the transition time that comes with leaving at 1:30 and getting back to the office at 3:30 anymore.” But she’s also conscious of the downsides. “Our team has talked about how now you schedule back to back meetings, and it turns out that that transition time was actually important in terms of reorganizing your thoughts—actually physically transitioning yourself to another project and thinking about that other project. And then you start to think, ‘When are we eating? When are we taking a 20 minute break?’”

Another significant change has been the migration of most of their community engagement activities online. For almost every project they work on, livingLAB facilitates robust community conversations. “We don’t walk into a neighborhood with design ideas of what we think a place should look like,” Leah says. “We want to talk to the community to create something authentic, that comes from the people who live there and use it, and who are going to have the space in their neighborhood for years to come.”

This community orientation is a fundamental part of livingLAB’s work, and it usually involves in-person discussions with neighborhood associations, community groups, and other stakeholders. Leah says that in the fall, livingLAB held a couple small, distanced, outdoor meetings with residents, but that most of their meetings for ongoing projects (like improvements to Balduck Park on Detroit’s east side and the redevelopment of Rogell Park on the northwest side) have moved online. She says that while the virtual meetings don’t quite compare to in-person conversations, their team has been working with clients to find ways to make the process more engaging (adding pop-up poll questions to Zoom calls, for instance, and incentivizing survey completion with gift cards to local businesses). They’ve also worked to extend the meetings’ reach by advertising for them with lawn signs in the neighborhoods where they’re working, alongside real estate flyer boxes with informational flyers that neighbors can take home.

Their effort to involve as many people as possible in these conversations reflects livingLAB’s commitment to creating places that are useful and beneficial to all members of a given community. Early in the spring, when Michigan was closed down tightly, Leah says she found herself reflecting on the pandemic’s impact on local neighborhoods. “It struck me how important it was to have outdoor spaces in close proximity to you, where you can go to get the physical and mental recharge that happens from being outside, and that are large enough to allow for the social distancing that everyone needs right now. But the reality is that not everybody has that.”

Looking ahead to a time when the worst of the pandemic is behind us, Leah is optimistic that there will be a shift toward more accessible open space. “Like with anything,” she says, “We’ll have to keep reminding ourselves as we get further and further away from this time of crisis, but I’m hopeful that parks and recreation and open space will have a rebirth and a reprioritization.” She cites ongoing, pre-pandemic work in the City of Detroit to expand green space in multiple neighborhoods, as well as more recent activity at the state and federal levels to secure and stabilize historically imperiled grant funds for parks, recreation and conservation efforts.

“I think these are perfect examples of how open space is going to remain a priority on all levels,” she says, “not just with the public, but on the side of government and funding as well.”

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