To what end “Vision?”

Continuing yesterday’s commentary:

One of the complaints that design-oriented planners and urban designers sometimes raise is that planners are too process and legal-administration focused.  I documented a particularly strong case of that in this essay reflecting on the 2014 Congress for the New Urbanism, when the awards committee decided not to give an award in one category because none of the submissions were “visionary enough” (they also gave an award to a student “plan” that wiped out a large section of the Chicago Loop, which I suppose tells you the kind of “visionary” they were looking for…)

My concern is not that we are teaching planners (and ourselves) not to be visionaries — often we don’t live up to that, but the number of grand unbuilt designs that show up on old plan document shelves and archives all over the country would seem to indicate that the ability to create grand visions is not particularly lacking.  If we were truly spending too much time designing pablum, those shelves and files would be a lot thinner. 

My big concern is that we create visions based on the way we think people *should* behave, *should* react, *should* live.  And not enough based on understanding what people actually want, seek, prioritize, do.

If we’re honest, we have to admit that sometimes we don’t want to know what the public thinks or how the economic part of the situation works. The fact that the numbers don’t work or that people might have different ideas threatens makes it messy, uncomfortable.  Our visions might be opposed. And, to be very frank, we too often tell ourselves that the public or the money people don’t know  anything constructive to contribute — probably because we’ve had such lousy experience with the kinds of public meetings that, by their fundamental design, force people into a confrontational environment. 

My biggest concern these days isn’t that planners are going to be processors. My biggest concern is that the planning profession is going to repeat the damages of the 50s and 60s — instigating big projects on the basis of some idealized view of the world, while over-simplifying or ignoring what the people who live and work in a community know and understand. 

If I were to advise urban design professors, I would recommend that they spend some time analyzing the urban renewal projects of that era — not just the design and how it works or does not work, but also the process that led to that design. I wrote in detail about what I learned from just one such situation here.

Once you’ve done that, I don’t think you can approach physical planning with the same hubris. The eeriness of the similarities will get to you.

Design won’t fix it alone

Reprinted from the Wise Economy Workshop:
I like designers — urban designers, architects, landscape architect, even database and user experience designers.  I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and being befriended by and working with a whole lot of people who have that eye, that sense, that skill for making things look good and function.  As a very non-design-skilled person, I like to watch designers work: it’s a fascinating, mysterious thing to me, to create an image or a model of something out of thin air.  I can write all day, but I cannot do that.
But because I have spent so much of my life working with and watching design solutions unfold, I have reached a point where I can’t avoid saying this any longer:
Ladies and gentlemen, please stop thinking that you’re creating the Magic Solution to complex problems.  I’m especially looking at you, architects and urban designers and impassioned urbanist types.  Good design can help solve problems, but it does not do it alone.  And when you believe that — and worse yet, mislead the public into thinking your design solution will Fix That For Them– then you make it all the harder for all of us to actually solve the deeper issues: the ones that we cannot simply build our way out of.
Some of the designers that I have most admired are the people who work for a handful of downtown revitalization organizations across the country.  They get no CNU awards, they often don’t have letters after their names, and very few of them write books stuffed with glossy photos.
A lot of their job consists of drawing or Photoshopping a historically-correct facade onto an old building that has been altered – usually in ways that look awful, and are now decreasing the building’s value and that of those around them.  Their renderings are lovely, but they’re not High Art, or even particularly innovative.  Since they’re trying to return the building to something near its original character, there’s not a lot of room for out-of-the-box thinking.  Typically, their renderings are given to the owner of the building as a means of encouraging him or her to improve their property.
Here’s the important part: these designers don’t just draw something, dump it on the community or property owner, and expect Magic To Happen. The rendering is a door-opener for the conversation, the exploration of new possibilities, the collaboration. When this process works, it’s because the property owner comes to realize that there are options available to them beyond what they previously knew.  The drawing helps, but the drawing does not make that happen.

What we often fail to do in urban design and planning in involve the people who should and need to be engaged in a collaborative search for the best solutions.  We hold meetings, even charrettes, but too often, we simply give them a presentation, let them ask questions, or even ask them what they want, like we would ask a kid what they want for their birthday.
We do that because we assume that they don’t want to do any more, or that they can’t contribute at any higher level than we would ask of a first grader.  And both of those assumptions are wrong.
Here is my increasingly big concern: that we blame the failure of planning or transportation improvements on short-sighted local government executives, or greedy developers, or NIMBYs.  We do that without ever turning the thought process around, and exploring how changing the way we engage people might change the rest of the equation.
My personal hypothesis: we don’t do that, and as a result we default to If You Build It They Will Come, because we don’t know how to design or manage a constructive collaborative process, rather than a lecture, a hearing, or a “what do you want for your birthday?” initiative.
And we don’t do that because no one ever taught us to.
We need to start learning from the extension agents, the dialogue and deliberation experts, even good school teachers, to fundamentally rework the role of community members in planning and governance. Planning and architecture and landscape architects – anyone who designs for civic or public use – should be learning how to do constructive public engagement activities, crowdsourced collaboration, more transparent work, how to pull the public into the process as their own type of subject matter experts on their own communities, similar to the way that we include economists or zoning specialists or other related professionals.
And this needs to be a central part, not only of undergraduate and graduate training, but continuing education as well.  We require professionals to learn law and ethics; should we not also require them to know how to work with the public constructively?
That’s not some Polyanna sentiment, based on an idealized belief that everyone is important.  It’s a very practical sentiment, based on experience:
When I have built collaboration with the community into the planning and design projects that I myself have managed over the years, tensions have dissipated and misunderstandings had faded, and plans that no one ever thought would get approved have had unanimous adoptions.
That’s happened more times than I can count.
And it’s not that the plans themselves were better, or the designs more innvative, or the pictures prettier, than the ones on the project that fell apart in a cloud of fear and anger.
It’s been because the community helped build the plan, which means that they owned and championed it..  And because they were embedded, we found solutions to problems that a team of blue ribbon outsiders would have missed. And we found those before the draft plan was printed.
Those plans succeeded because we recognized that the people of the community are experts on their own community, and we because we knew that we needed to employ their expertise, just as we employed our own.
So my challenge to my design friends is this, borrowing a bit from the inestimable LaurenEllen McCann:
Design with, not for. 
When you do that, you’ll get closer to designing real solutions.

Is the problem with public engagement…boredom?

 Here’s a recent comment from a colleague on a LinkedIn group:

Is “Boring!” the reason so many community engagement projects fail?

I’ve noticed that, when it comes to inviting a community to engage in plan-making, either almost everyone wants to come (because they are outraged about the plan) or almost no one wants to come – because sitting around in a council hall is the LAST thing they want to do with their precious evenings.

So…what are some engagement ideas that people might really break their schedules for? Or is “1 minute engagement”, via the internet, the answer?

I think we throw ourselves a red herring when we assume that we have to design and market public engagement as “fun” or “easy” or “quick” to get people to participate. The people we want to show up are not lacking for entertaiment options – most of us today carry constant access to games, music, things to read and watch and more on little screens in our pockets.  True, “fun” beats “miserable” or “painful,” and “easy” beats “a great way to  waste your evening,” but the experience we can offer hardly equals Game of Thrones or Call of Duty or cat videos.

I suspect that in most cases the competition we face is too pervasive to be solved by offering fun, let alone by promising a relatively low level of pain.  The people we are trying to engage face a ton of demands on their attention, both fun and not-fun, and they have too often concluded that the return on investment for their participation is not good enough. If you don’t legitimately believe that your participation will make a real difference in making a place you care about better (and it only takes a couple of lousy experiences to teach that lesson), then it’s not going to be worth whatever time and attention you’re asked to expend. If the public engagement activity is “fun,” you might get a second look and maybe a little dabbling just for sake of novelty, but novelty wears off far too fast to make a real difference

Instead of trying to make it “fun” or “easy,” we need to focus on making whatever involvement we are asking for, big or small, meaningful — real, constructive, concrete, producing something that they can see and understand will directly feed into future decision-making that will make their community better.

We need to do much more than amuse them or minimally-distract them: we need to give them a level of ownership, give them a meaningful opportunity to be part of the solution. When you do that, and you clearly communicate that this is the intent and follow up on overturning their negative expectations, then it’s amazing how much time and effort people you thought just didn’t care will actually invest. And how truly helpful, and insightful, and bettering, the particpation you get can be.
Additionally, there’s certainly no reason why “public engagement” should be limited to sitting around in a council chambers.  Teachers who do nothing but lecture have lousy student outcomes, no matter what the grade level — the ones that use projects and small group peer learning and role playing and the whole range of methods available are the ones that get better quality results.
We have got to learn to engage with — to leverage, really —  the whole range of ways that people learn and think and discover, so that not only do we get happier and more satisfied participants, but we get better quality information that makes communities and their decisions better.