Participatory Design in Zambia through the University of Oklahoma

A team of students and faculty from the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma is using photovoice and focus group approaches to design more effective spaces.

Associate Professor of Architecture Dave Boeck, Associate Professor of Regional and City Planning John Harris, alumnus Chris Lê, and Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Regional and City Planning students traveled to Lusaka during the summers of 2014-2017 to design and evaluate various architecture and planning projects.

The OU team used focus groups and photovoice to identify community desires. Focus groups allowed community members to discuss their needs and to share those insights with the designers. Photovoice allowed community members to identify their needs and desires through both images and conversation.

In 2014, the students helped design a village for 1500 orphaned children. The village needed to provide schools, parks, homes, water systems, and other necessary features. During the summer of 2015, the students helped develop a plan for a primary school in the village. The plan contained different designs for various possible sites. In 2016, the students developed another plan for a high school.

During 2017, the community opened a primary school based on the OU team’s design. In October of 2018, Boeck and Lê returned to Zambia to see how well the school met the community’s needs. They interviewed students, teachers and administrators from both the OU-designed school, named Chainda, and another nearby school, named Bauleni.

Boeck and Lê found that Chainda had far fewer issues with layout and facilities than Bauleni. They credit this success to the OU team’s use of photovoice and focus groups.

“If all users are not allowed to participate,” says Boeck, “the design process is truncated, which means more chances to design a building that doesn’t function properly.” Furthermore, he says, “Photovoice and focus groups help design a space that works… For architectural programming to be better, it needs to include additional forms of information gathering.”

Boeck shares that OU students benefited from working with homeless children and with the income inequality of the community. The experience made students more aware of how these issues relate to the design process. Additionally, the process of programming—identifying the needs and issues of a space and organizing solutions—helped students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Helping students develop these skills is a key part of the GCA’s mission.