For Milenko Matanovic, garnering community input for the design of something as mundane as a bus waiting shelter can be a key to knitting diverse peoples together.
He puts this belief into practice as executive director of the Pomegranate Center, based in Issaquah, Wash., east of Seattle.
The name is apropos to the work the nonprofit organization does, which is to create community gathering places of hope and abundant possibilities, as symbolized by the pomegranate's numerous seeds.
The key to making this happen, says Mr. Matanovic, is "industrial-strength listening" to ordinary citizens - especially those Pomegranate seeks to serve in affordable housing developments, disadvantaged rural communities, and high-density urban neighborhoods.
Pomegranate often works with government agencies that promote affordable housing.
"We're saying, 'Look, you're investing millions of dollars in new houses, but the space between the houses is where community life will be revitalized and energized,' " Matanovic says.
The spaces between dwellings are often left to landscapers to fill with greenery. Matanovic believes there's another "layer" of design that can make all the difference: that which takes the community dynamic and identity into consideration. This looks at how people bump into each other on their daily rounds and the artistic yearnings of the locality.
Mr. Matanovic grew up in Slovenia, where he studied art and was an artist before moving to the United States in 1973.
"Art," he says, "must be in the service of something, and for me, that something is community. We at Pomegranate take this very seriously. We are community builders first, and artist-designers second."
Matanovic and his staff go to the people, not only for artistic and conceptual ideas but also for direct involvement in realizing them through physical labor.
The value of this two-pronged participation is that it fosters a sense of stewardship, which translates into more-cared-for, less-vandalized parks, plazas, and playgrounds, which incur lower maintenance costs.
Typical of the kinds of structures that result is the Salishan Gathering Place in Tacoma, Wash., built by residents of the Salishan housing development, where 23 languages are spoken. Three overlapping, open-air shelters sit at the entrance to a small paved plaza.
Debbi Greenwood, president of the Tacoma Arts Commission at the time, says there was a shift of thought among residents who participated in the project. "They realized there's a larger community out there that does think about them."
Like many Pomegranate projects, the Salishan Gathering Place looks deceivingly simple at first glance. Closer examination, however, reveals details that give the site a distinctive character: The supporting posts are inlaid with copper from the recycled roof of nearby Union Station. The cobblestones, bricks, and granite are reclaimed from Tacoma's historic streets.
Custom-decorated poles crop up in a number of Pomegranate projects, including a large new suburban development in Issaquah, where a tall, colorful wooden pole is a landmark.
"I like vertical elements," Matanovic says. "Visually, they send the message that something important is happening here. It's place-making."
In the East, Matanovic says, church steeples serve the same purpose. Often these soar over town commons, which he calls metaphors for community life.
"Over time, we believe that encounters develop a sense of community, which translates into tangible feelings of trust, safety, home, and so forth," he says.
In this context, well-designed benches can play a significant role in facilitating interaction. Matanovic says they represent "hellos" and "goodbyes."
Increasing social interaction also has another benefit for the residents of public housing, especially recent immigrants: It helps in the networking so critical to upward mobility.
With that in mind, Pomegranate works to create attractive central mailbox shelters. These serve as the modern equivalent of the village well.
Pomegranate also focuses on simple street amenities, such as shelters, lightposts, and benches.
In an increasingly prefabricated world, buying manufactured street furniture strikes Matanovic as a missed artistic opportunity.
"We say, 'Wait a minute. Let's make something different,' " he explains. "Instead of splitting function and art - buying lightposts from a catalog and putting in a sculpture later - we say, 'Turn the lightposts, the sidewalks, the bus shelters into artwork.' That way you'll get something unique. We believe in that kind of specificity and celebration of local identity."
Art in the service of people is evident in the work the Pomegranate Center coordinated at the Esperanza housing project in eastern Washington, where Latino migrant workers and their families live.
It's a stark setting, made even less inviting by intense summer heat and high winds. To put a friendlier face on the surroundings, straw-bale windbreaks that double as benches were turned into a simple gathering place.
The housing units were made less barracks-like by painting birds-in-flight murals on one end. These designs, which suggest the migration of both birds and people, make for a friendlier environment, especially for young children.
"If we can design well for children, we also will design well for the community at large," Mata-novic says.
Terry Kinzel, who runs a family-assistance program for area residents, says Pomegranate's efforts to include art and aesthetically pleasing common areas at Esperanza was done because the developers felt it was important, not because anybody would see it.
"It's 60 miles from any other community, and nobody drives by," she says.
During the past five years, the area's population has soared. Ms. Kinzel thinks the attention to visual detail has made a difference. "The art brought into the community at this stage is going to influence the growth of the community for its entire life," she predicts.
Dedicated listening to design input from community members is the key, Matanovic says, yet he acknowledges it is challenging .
The community, in a sense, helps identify the ingredients, which Pomegranate turns into a memorable "local dish."
"It's like a good chef," he explains. "Your calories come in many different ways, but a good chef will arrange something that is pleasing and professional."