Thursday, May 5, 2011

Less "Plans," More Actions

I posted this to the professional urbanist listserv, but since my posts get less attention on there than when Andres Duany's pocket emails:
I dunno. Perhaps they don't care to have their profession criticized/critiqued. Maybe it is just another case of generations and their particular outlook bumping into each other. But, I think it's worth posting here as I think it encapsulates much of the cynicism that bubbles up in any of the non-cheerleading message boards towards anything and everything design related. Particularly towards the fees paid by cities across the country and what are they really buying.

All too often it is just another set of plans on the shelves. The citizenry is tired of these plans. They're tired of seeing $10 million for redesign "cuz the city does it big!" True, we do some things big. The inconsequential. Gussying up mistakes. Et cetera. They're tired of "xyz consulting firm is flew in from Boston and boy are their arms tired." They want less plans and more actions. Except, the only way to get those actions was to do it themselves. Vigilante-style.

Slowly but surely we seem to be getting it. Don't bother reading all of Richard Florida's Rise of the Creative class, because Maaann is it dry. Instead focus on the point, the first chapter, which illuminates that the future of innovation, and of cities, will be unleashing the creative power of ALL of us. And the future of planning has to empower people to help guide their neighborhoods. With that said, it also has to maintain a measure of top down. But not to impose things, but to remove impositions, ie the over-reliance and over-spending on cars and highways, which stifle connectivity more than they create or allow it.

We're already creative. Perhaps we don't know it. We design our lives each day. We decorate our homes, our offices, our desks, everything around us. As we externalize some of our private lives outward, to be shared amongst the community; as our living room becomes our neighborhood; and as our dining room becomes the restaurants of our neighborhoods, and we no longer need three extra guest rooms, a study, 4 1/2 baths, a game room, a great room, a home theater, etc., we can begin designing that world too. With our neighbors, with our friends, and with our soon-to-be friends.

Keep in mind that I wasn't addressing this to Dallas so much, but everybody else. The response was triggered by a city council person from Albuquerque (I believe) that expressed his exasperation at another new focus of planning. My retort:
John H's cynicism about plans is not unfounded. How many city's across the country have plans upon plans sitting on shelves waiting to be executed. In fact, it seems so common that it could be deemed a regularity. This was the basis for our proposal for the Dallas Complete Streets plan, which I teamed with the guys behind the Better Block. We suggested that planning (particularly the public charade, I mean charrette) was indeed a relic of the 20th century. Modernism with supposedly a happier, nicer face. Not in form, but in process. We ask the public questions about big picture issues of which they aren't experts and phrase the questions in ways that we're sure what the response will be. What happens is that the public interest wanes as the consultant or the city's vision begins to become less the public's and more top down. Then since nobody is excited, nothing happens. Momentum is lost. Where they ARE experts is in their own neighborhood, the majority of which (in the SunBelt) lack discernible/functional centers of gravity.
(hopefully this can be deciphered post-embiggening)

The Complete Streets RFQ budgeted about 750,000 just for the study. Forgive me for saying this fellow consultants, but that number is absurd. And we suggested as such chasing the project. A book of typical complete street sections could be designed and assembled in a few weeks for a tenth of that number. We suggested taking much of that budget and using it to: 1) pay for materials (paint, street furniture, potted plants/trees, etc.) to mock up full scale Complete Streets for 30-, 60-, or 90-day trial periods and 2) potentially even pay the neighborhoods for their labor in helping to construct what effectively were better blocks. Except these would be part of public policy rather than a form of vigilantism. New York has a bigger, more proactive planning department for erecting Sadik-Khan's ideas than does Dallas which relies more on private consulting. Why not rely on private labor? Particularly in South Dallas where unemployment is high, mis/distrust of government intervention is equally high as they have been subjected to too many faulty "economic development" such as big roads, suburb-style schools, community centers, libraries, etc. Nothing that provided a center of gravity. A sense of community that brings people together, forming enough critical mass to condemn the criminal element that forces everybody out of the public realm. Retreating into barred up homes and businesses.

These trial periods then become learning curves, for the city and for neighborhoods that might not be quite sure how to navigate a complete street. Data can be collected. The designs can be tweaked (since they're not permanent) as necessary. With each of the Better Blocks that were done well (and in each case this meant brazenness that the city lacked, slowing/narrowing of primary streets), the community came out in droves, focusing energy, and providing more business for the businesses that were already there as well as impetus for new businesses to "pop up." It was community development and economic development in one (too often at odds). Furthermore, it keeps the city council from debating every piece of minutiae down to how wide should sidewalks be in each street and what should street spacing be. Let the community figure it out with the guidance of experts and the resources of the city. After the trial period, once it starts to catalyze investment, the city can begin making design changes more permanent, when the spending is justified. Rather than dropping finished designs in from outer space.

Point being, no more plans, no more "action plans," and more actions.

The public will be less distrustful of an empowered self and less cynical of master planner with obscene fees (that are becoming a story here in Dallas) from whatever city up on high coming in to show another series of pretty pictures. Yes. Your presentation is no different than anybody else's. The NEW planning is about unleashing the creativity of the entire citizenry, where their neighborhood is their canvas.