Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Incremental Urbanism, the Past and Future of Urban Planning & Development

Short on time again today, so in the mean time before I can start posting more about Spain, here is the text I wrote as part of our team's proposal for the Dallas Complete Streets plan. I teamed with the Better Block guys and our approach was to taken the incremental and adaptive approach to street redesign, instead of spending inordinant amount of money on 1) engineering plans and then 2) construction of a form of top-down design which is very much guess work and informed not locally but by general standards.

The proposal essentially turned into a critique of the public planning process as well as how transportation is designed and delivered. These are ideas that I expanded upon in three successive posts not more than a month ago: here, here, and here.

With yesterday's post about emergence being the organized (and accidental) complexity from the sum of localized actions that comprises functional cities, I thought it would be a good time to outlay this document written and submitted to the city of Dallas last November. It is also most relevant to point out that central planning is still necessary to some extent, mostly to unwind the mistakes of previous centralized planning and to ensure that further efforts at regional/global connectivity do not disrupt or disconnect local fabric but meet it tangentially.

From our experience, we've found that the public process to be largely a charade, to suggest public participation. The public enthusiasm is often high to begin the process and then they're asked questions about issues that aren't particularly relevant to their neighborhood or daily lives. They're shown pretty pictures and promises which don't get delivered because the underlying processes of cities are usually not fully understood by either client or consultant. The residents are asked to be experts on things they aren't. But not regarding aspects where they are expert, such as about their neighborhood. Their daily life. The theory is that if everybody focused on localized issues of livability, that the end result would be a collection of better neighborhoods, meaning an overall better city, ideally even leading to broader, better policy from a city-wide and regional perspective too.

We suggested putting the neighborhood to work on the places that mattered most to them. Using the budget to build mock-ups of full-scale streets. Telling engineering standards for specific road widths to screw off, while the study period is used to experiment, neighborhood-by-neighborhood to see what works best for that particular area. How to take a neighborhood spine and reposition it from negative, repulsing agent of through-traffic and replace it with a magnetic place. One where all connections have a seat at the table not just the A to B regional connection, but pedestrian access, cross-streets as well. For city networks to function, no one priority should extinguish all of those other competing ones.

Enjoy (excuse weird formatting dialogue between word and blogger):


It is our understanding that the main objective of this assignment is to provide facilitation and assistance in the development of an action plan for implementing the Complete Streets Initiative for the City of Dallas. Such a plan would be nationally recognized as a modern example of community and economic development fostered around transportation planning.

It is envisioned that this process will involve a collaboration of City of Dallas government, various transportation authorities including Dallas County, DART, MATA, OCTA, NTTA, NCTCOG, as well as business owners, key stakeholders, and local neighborhood leaders who will be interacted with to help implement Complete Streets in their specific neighborhoods.

The outcome, an action-oriented citywide strategic plan, will be to facilitate short-term construction of Complete Streets using the Better Block project to create “living charrettes,” as well as long-term citywide vision and action items to further implementation after the completion of the study. The “new” planning process should belong to the City of Dallas and each new complete street should belong to its neighborhood.

Comprehensive planning/design/implementation process will address the following specific issues and recommendations:

Unite all on-going efforts and relevant approved plans – Follow the TxDOT’s lead utilizing the Institute of Transportation Engineer’s Recommended Practices for the design of major urban thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach, but also allowing flexibility for new patterns to emerge, that might be unique to certain neighborhoods or regions of the city, or entirely new, creative models of transportation yet to be determined.

Public process – The public planning and design process is broken. Across the country, it is becoming evident that the conventional approach to public planning workshops and charrettes often fail to properly incorporate public input where it is most necessary. Too often projects start off strong with high public participation and anticipation only to see those feedback loops whither as the process moves along. The ownership is of the design consultants and city staff. Furthermore, too often we ask the public to be experts in things where they have no expertise, broad city planning issues, but then ask for no feedback where they are experts, in their own neighborhoods. Our design team proposes to improve public participation, ownership, and thereafter stewardship of the new designs by ramping up their participation in highly focused demonstration projects where local leaders, stakeholders, and residents are engaged and asked to participate directly in the transformation of their area “Better Block” into a new multi-modal center of gravity, activity, and local civic engagement.

Demonstration projects – The design team proposes rather than to create renderings of what Complete Streets might look like to build real, full-scale mockups modeled after the Better Blocks. Local residents will be engaged and inspired to participate in taking the lead in transforming their own neighborhood. These demonstration projects will be “living charrettes” where the neighborhood is involved from soup to nuts, from the planning to the implementation, and ultimately in providing feedback on the results. During a 90-day monitoring period for each initial demonstration project, the Design Team will gather data to compare before with after usage of the public realm, economic impacts, and safety perceptions. The neighborhood will be surveyed to gauge their response to the changes whether positive or negative and gather their recommendations.

Adaptive Design – The purpose of creating flexible demonstration projects is that too often cities spend inordinate amounts of money imposing designs utilizing arcane formulae without properly testing how it will work in real world conditions, without monitoring the effects on safety, land use, commerce, pedestrian activity, and quality of place. Rather than creating “fixed” designs from the start, the design team recommends temporary demonstration projects to create feedback loops between street and users. This will assure that the complete streets will be specifically calibrated to the unique character and needs of each neighborhood in Dallas.

Context sensitive – Following the lead of TxDOT in adopting the ITE Context Sensitive Design Manual, the Dallas Complete Streets initiative must understand the dual role of public streets as both “LINK” and “PLACE.” Some streets may even be both. The design team envisions creating a matrix identifying segments of Complete Streets throughout Dallas by their context-appropriate role of LINK and/or PLACE. This step is critical in reestablishing the seeds of complete 20-minute neighborhoods where everything including access to public transit is available to all Dallas citizens within a 20-minute walk or bike ride.

Cost Sensitive - The conventional wisdom of economic development has for too long assumed that if we as the public spend money on road construction, that private investment will automatically follow. Furthermore, often public dollars are spent without the tax base existing and the designs are inappropriate in stimulating new, long-term, meaningful investment. We propose a new approach where energy is stimulated through the “living charrette” process and as new private investment locates around newly created or revitalized centers of gravity, then public spending matches this rise, providing new amenity and a higher level of design, aesthetics, and permanence.

Economic and community development merged – Another systemic problem common in city building is the divergent goals of economic development from community development. They do not have to and should not be mutually exclusive. Cities worry about building the long distance connections rather than focusing on the short commutes, the every day connections possible in fully complete neighborhoods where all of your daily needs are met nearby, including recreation and public gathering. The Better Block projects have proven when executed properly and proficiently, they jumpstart existing businesses, stimulate new local entrepreneurism, and bring the neighborhood together around new walkable centers of gravity. The design team proposes bringing their learned expertise from years of experience professionally and in the execution of the recent Better Blocks around the Metroplex, quickly spreading across the country as a new model of grassroots community AND economic development.

New metrics – As part of the living laboratory approach, the design team believes that new metrics can be created and monitored as performance-based feedback system. This data would then be open and available to the public as part of Government 2.0 initiatives. These efforts have proven to stimulate the local creative economy in the form of new smartphone applications that begin to bridge the gap between digital and physical geographies, locating such things as walkable places, transit stops, types of businesses nearby, etc. These new metrics are intended to measure a quality of place from the human experience, including such questions as:

§ how many people hang out in a place above those that have to be there?

§ How many outdoor cafĂ© seats exist?

§ How many pedestrians are in the street during a given time of day?

§ Can a diversity of local businesses indicator be created and monitored?


No great place happens overnight. All the great streets and public places around the world have evolved over the course of time as incremental adjustments are made to continually update the way we interact with our environments to adapt to our needs and wants.

Our team feels it is necessary to establish a framework for positive, incremental change. However, incremental change does not have to wait decades to be smart, if we monitor it correctly. Rather than design occurring over night or evolving over decades of trial and error, we should arrive at and adopt a smart design system operated by a rapid feedback system.

To do improve the planning and design process, we must overhaul our public design process. This entails a public engagement and outreach effort that is more suited to the public’s strengths and calibrated to build ownership and eventual stewardship rather than let it wane like too many public processes.

Primary Goals

The primary goals to be accomplished are as listed in the city issued RFQ (the design team has recommended including numbers 4 and 5):

1) Development a citywide Complete Streets Vision Map – identifying all – along with gradient of potential

a. Include analysis of potential leveraged economic development and new development scenarios based on chosen typical contexts found throughout the city.

2) Publish a Comprehensive Complete Streets Design Manual –

a. That is context-sensitive

b. Is flexible enough to allow for future patterns based on feedback of local “living charrettes”

3) Implementation Plan

a. Short-term action plan – catalyst sites, which will be implemented, catalogued, reviewed, with recommendations for long-term engineering and construction based on data gathering and feedback

b. Long-term action plan with necessary ingredients? For future staging – the required deployment strategies which must be undertaken to attain the recommended critical success factors

4) Revised public participation process – to ensure increased ownership, appropriate use of local knowledge and expertise

a. Early stages – public surveys

b. Middle stages – Better Blocks - local stakeholder engagement at designated demonstration zones, “living charrettes”

c. Long-term - Recommendations for business improvement districts and storefront revitalization steps

5) New direction for monitoring & data collection responsive to government 2.0 and open source…

a. Early stages – new forms of public surveys and data collection – aid in creation of dynamic walkable places

b. Middle stages - Development of critical success metrics

c. Long-term - Open source framework and strategy/platform

The comprehensive planning process should incorporate:

achievement of the highest standards of design quality;

preserving and enhancing residential and historic areas into interconnected complete 20-minute neighborhoods;

encouraging a mix of development and business types which will create a range of job opportunities in the area revitalizing commercial areas as multi-modal, walkable centers of gravity;

identifying a planning framework that allows logical expansion and project phasing and individual entrepreneurial development activity by both small and large end users;

leveraging interest in demonstration areas through increased exposure, media attention, possible re-branding, and foot traffic to promote economic development by utilizing public projects to leverage private sector investment;

· leverage private sector investment in the form of increased tax base of areas thereby allowing increased public expenditures and improved, more permanent design features and enhancements that coincide with neighborhood development; and

developing a consensus during the course of the process to create a sense of "ownership" of the plan on the part of both the stakeholders and the community at large.