“Living Design” in Context: Empowerment at Windekind Commons

Not Everybody gets to be a locomotive Engineer, at Windekind we empower our visitors, after careful instruction, with the ability to run trains/


In traditional housing developments, the governance model is one in which the developer, whose motives are profit-based versus community-based, makes all the land use, design, and construction decisions for prospective buyers. In contrast, at the heart of the development of Windekind Commons is an emphasis on “living design”—a very intentional process in which members actively participate in the design and operation of their own homes and neighborhoods, and collaboratively make decisions about projects that pertain to creating and sustaining community.

In the case of Windekind, this task is made more complex by the fact that our design decisions are not occurring in an open field, so to speak, but rather in a place already rich with well-established buildings, landscape, infrastructure, and cultural and social values.

The living design process embodies what is meant by the word “empowerment:” to give people the power to do and accomplish things. Many see an empowerment model as an engine for social and environmental change. This orientation takes a positive view of the individual; it is optimistically centered on the strength and ability we have to take effective actions that bring about change in our lives, our community, and the lives of others.

Given our diversity and the powerful community orientation of the Commons we think we have a near ideal environment to accomplish the above. We have the opportunity to nurture plants and trees and, in addition, empower people —whether they are little children, or older folks like Marijke and I, and everybody in between.

In the words of D.D. Perkins and B.B. Brown, et al, in an article entitled The Ecology of Empowerment: Predicting Participation in Community Organizations:

“Empowerment is the process whereby individuals and groups progressively take control of their circumstances and gain increased access to resources. … It is mostly associated with “grass roots” or “bottom up” participation in community action. At a personal level, empowerment can result in the attainment of skills, knowledge, and competence and lead to an increased sense of self-efficacy.”

Our goal in developing the Windekind Commons is to create a “mini-democracy” where participants grow to appreciate the potential of collaborative effort while gaining a sense of personal efficacy because of practicing skills in such areas as: writing, organizing and planning, facilitation, patience, information gathering, conflict resolution and a tolerance for ambiguity.

In addition, there is a whole host of interconnected knowledge areas associated with the project, for example: plant and soil sciences, wetland management, marketing, land use planning, and permitting, legal considerations, community relations, working with organizations and bureaucracies, finances, aesthetics, and net zero construction techniques.

Being in the middle of the above process has brought an increased awareness of the quality of our surrounding environments, the people in it, coupled with an increased sense of efficacy and motivation to improve it. In our case, feeling empowered has meant some very productive outcomes, not without conflict, that impact on our sense of community together while, we believe, improving the environment from both human and environmental perspectives.

Annie Woodward and Mark Rice, who have been strongly involved in this empowerment process we have termed “Living Design,” write:

“For many, being included in important decisions is a new and sometimes uncomfortable experience. We are more accustomed to being told what to do by those in authority, leading us to resent the decision maker if we disagree with the decision, or to praise the decision maker if a decision is made in our favor.

The living design process changes the playing field so that empowered participation is not only encouraged, but also necessary. New skills and capacities must be developed to feel comfortable in the living design arena: to gather and organize information, to understand one’s own needs, to speak up about them with honesty and clarity, to be patient with some ambiguity and discomfort when things are unclear or unsettling, to listen to others ideas and needs in the same way we need to listen to our own.

Our recent experience with Mark and Marijke in regards to requesting that a parcel be created in an area not planned for residences is a great example of both living design and empowerment. We became clear about what we wanted and, though reluctant to “make waves”, spoke up about it to Mark and Marijke. Because of their commitment to the living design process, they immediately started to gather, evaluate and communicate new information that helped all of us to fully consider this new option.

The end result was a creative plan that not only allowed the parcel to be included, but also added an entirely new vision for a previously undeveloped area that will enhance the Commons as a whole. Good people committed to thoughtful, inclusive decision making—empowerment and living design at work! “

Mark Rice and Annie Woodward. January 2016

Mark Rice and Annie Woodward







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