The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities has embarked on a new and worthwhile program to try to influence the course of design in city neighborhoods. About 150 residents gathered last Saturday at the Takoma Elementary School in the first such brainstorming session aimed at preserving D.C. neighborhoods and enhancing the architectural quality of new development.

Cosponsoring and guiding the day's program -- a series of simultaneous workshops and speeches -- were representatives of city and federal agencies, university architectural and planning schools, the American Institute of Architects, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the American Planning Association and the federal Commission of Fine Arts.

Independent architects, planners, graphic designers, developers and community-based nonprofit organizations also participated. And people from design, development and arts agencies in other states -- Massachusetts, Illinois, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania -- shared their insights and experiences.

As a "DESIGN DC" poster explained, this was "the first special project of the Design Arts Program" intended "to enable citizens to participate in the planning, enhancement and preservation of their neighborhoods" and to "establish a dialogue between laymen and design professionals."

Certainly a dialogue was established. For no one would have devoted an entire mid-July Saturday, sitting in the Takoma School's auditorium and classrooms, unless he or she had questions to ask, comments to make or ideas to advocate.

The morning was spent "defining leadership roles in design" -- who makes decisions affecting the design of buildings, streets and neighborhoods? How are decisions made and how can citizens mobilize to affect those decisions?

I participated in a workshop focused on "new development," and some of the discussion was pointedly critical.

City government is too prodevelopment, too driven by economics, some citizens charged; developers, while responding to market opportunities, don't really know or care about the desires of existing neighborhoods, a charge likewise aimed at the city government; zoning doesn't conform to planning; most citizens are indifferent about design, and the few who care seem to react only negatively, and often too late, upon learning that something is about to happen in their neighborhood.

Conferees noted that many citizens feel ignored, uninformed and impotent. How can they compete with, or even engage, the forces of development, on whose side appear to reside all the professional experts -- lawyers, architects, engineers, economists -- and the city government, along with big capital and, most significantly, the impetus of law?

Not surprisingly, what emerged was a consensus that the processes of design and development, along with public attitudes, are flawed. Why, participants wondered, can't there be more organized and fruitful collaboration among citizens, behaving proactively, government agencies, elected officials, business interests, developers and designers?

Throughout the day, concerns were split. Some were preoccupied with facilitating communication and citizen participation in neighborhood design -- how to organize, how to assess needs and identify tasks, where to find expertise and resources and whom to approach.

But others wanted to look more closely at characteristics, problems and design opportunities in specific city wards.

For example, in analyzing Anacostia, suggestions for its revitalization were considered -- developing or upgrading existing commercial streets, creating an ethnically based shopping and cultural area akin to Los Angeles' Japanese Village, designing or preserving meaningful landmarks and gateways to signal neighborhood identity and points of arrival, better utilizing the Anacostia River and associated parkland to build linkages instead of boundaries.

Everyone agreed that people in neighborhoods must become more design-conscious and more willing to take initiatives on their own to influence design. Indeed, the premise underlying this event, the rationale for involvement of the Arts and Humanities Commission, is that the design of cities is an "every-day" art, the most public art.

In fact, part of the commission's purpose is to inform the public that it has money to give away. It can make grants directly to grass-roots community groups to support initiatives related to neighborhood-based projects. It wants to know what the city's neighborhoods believe to be their needs and aspirations related to urban, architectural and graphic design.

Unlike many communities, Washington is a tough city in which to mobilize citizen initiative. There seems to be a prevailing "filter-down" mentality at work, the result of hierarchical, bureaucratic styles of management and decision-making pervading this center of government, politics and power.

Many Washingtonians are inclined to rely on officialdom, on things structured, legally mandated, handed down from the top. Thus most residents passively wait while unseen government officials quietly make plans. Even as ward plans evolve, most citizens remain unaware and uninvolved.

One of the highlights of DESIGN DC was the rousing, effervescent speech of Shari Wagner, daughter of a circuit minister who traveled the hills of Arkansas. She came close to whipping the crowd into a frenzy with her anecdotal tale about a handful of ordinary people changing the face of an American city.

A community planner and public educator who now lives in Texas, Wagner described the transformation of San Antonio and its river, once seen primarily as a drainage ditch. The famous "river walk" has put the city on the map and attracted millions of tourists (who now have generated the city's second largest industry).

Politicians, government agencies and outside experts once wanted to put the San Antonio River, a chronic flood control problem, in an underground pipe. But a few local citizens saw the river as a potentially beautiful, natural amenity worthy of preservation. They didn't know exactly how, but they were certain, as a matter of intuition and faith, that the riverscape some day could be made attractive, safe and perhaps even profitable for the community. Against all odds, they finally convinced the city fathers of the aesthetic merits of their vision, and they were eventually proved right.

Wagner spiced up her story by poking fun at experts, bureaucrats, politicians and high-brow culture as she reminded the audience that San Antonio's population was mostly poor, uneducated and Spanish-speaking. Of course, her resonant theme was that all citizens should care about good design, are entitled to good design and should demand and get good design.

DESIGN DC conveyed the message that grass-roots education, organization and action can be effective. It suggested that policies and proposals, the setting of design goals and standards, potentially can trickle up and across as well as down. Collaboration can replace confrontation.

It's reassuring to know that at least one public agency, no matter how modest its authority and funds, is trying to change positively the way the design and development game is played.

NEXT: The challenge of affordable housing. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.