Watch out for this planning pitfall at the start

So let’s assume that we have a receptive Village Administration (!) and enough interest in the community that we’re going to tackle a project of benefit to us. We can have bucketfulls of enthusiasm and volunteers with extensive “project management” experience, and STILL end up with something which looks good on paper but just doesn’t work. (Like the many failed “Pedestrian Plazas” in downtowns all over the country.)

How can this happen? Simple… by not utilizing people who are trained, experienced, and qualified in civic design, with understanding of the myriad processes and functions which go into design well-functioning “places”.

This is similar to utilizing an architect to help design a home as opposed to selecting a house design from a book full of hundreds. The services of an architect will typically add 3% – 5% to the cost of the home, but the end product will be a much better fit to the needs of the occupants. Hiring a design firm with extensive experience in building typical commercial projects, but not possessing the correct mindset to design and build for the “long-run” results in yet another project which has everyone asking themselves afterwards “Where are all the people who were supposed to be here?”. [The “7P Rule” applies here!]

Simple project planning asks:

“What would you like to see here?”

And there it is. Perhaps the most inane question ever posed in the course of a public design process. And posed it is, constantly.

“We’re doing a master plan for downtown. What would you like to see here?”

It’s crazy. In one sweeping question, practitioners not only set the stage for unmet expectations, they devalue the art and craft of urban design at the same time.

We need to do better. We need to more effectively play the role of psychoanalyst, drilling down to information that’s actually useful: What kinds of things would residents like to be able to do? What problems would they like mitigated? What potential byproducts of change are they afraid of? How can your city better serve you?

Are they using a “cookie-cutter” approach to deciding what-goes-where, or are they actually “planning”?

Are they using a “cookie-cutter” approach to deciding what-goes-where, or are they actually “planning”?

Instead of asking for specifics, like a bookstore, coffeeshop, park, etc., designers work with residents and local officials to examine what is working and what isn’t in the local dynamics, then even deeper to determine WHY? A well-meaning 1970’s solution to provide local retail opportunities and contribute to the tax-base could have in itself created multiple problems down-the-road.

When we seriously get going in RLB to build a Village identity, some sort of workable civic “place” with useable, desireable public space which serves a wide variety of users, let’s make sure we do so with someone who isn’t just hyping quick-to-build, low return-on-investment schlock, or a bunch of specific businesses and building types which don’t work together or address our real needs.

When we ask, “What would you like to see here?”, we suggest that all ideas have comparable merit… that they’re all equally worthy of implementation, even though we know that’s not the case.

We lead people to believe that if they ask for a library, there will be a library, regardless of whether or not one’s needed. Or budgeted. Or carries with it the necessary political will to become real. We draw the requested coffee shop or grocery store, with no consideration of market demand or the fact that the city plays no role in leasing decisions.

Most people are not experts in design. But they are experts in their own lives. Understanding their wants, needs and concerns, and then addressing them through responsive, reality-based design, is ultimately what the public process should be set up to do.

Full article: Public Process and the Perils of Dismissive Engagement

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