THE ART OF TRANSPORTATION (AND URBAN) PLANNING: Going Beyond the Technical Specs

It is through our built environment that we shape ourselves and the world.  Living, working, and moving around in dysfunctional, cramped, unsafe, polluted, or just ugly places not only affects our mood and health but also our relations with those around us and the natural environment.   The need to maximize the positive impact of our buildings, transportation systems, and even our usually hidden infrastructures will continue to grow as the weather gets weirder, resources get more expensive, and cities get more crowded.

The foundational level for doing this is complying with the lengthening checklist of technical requirements for safety, energy and material usage, density, and accessibility.  Having (and enforcing) standards for the work of planners and implementers is one way to prevent flagrantly incompetent work.  It is also a vital barrier to the inescapable “race to the bottom” temptation of cutting corners, or even producing dangerously defective products and services, and then passing on the externalized hidden costs to those who come later, or to nature.

But is the foundational level of basically acceptable and reliably functional enough?  Don’t we want – need – to go beyond merely competent work?  Even putting aside for a moment the ethical issue of what kinds of projects a professional should refuse to do*, wouldn’t it be better – perhaps increasingly necessary – for our buildings, parks, and transportation facilities to be “great,” “inspirational,” or even “socially transformational”?   It’s a lofty and perhaps vague goal.  It raises the question of what are the characteristics of the built environment that causes it to make (or at least raises the odds that it can make) a positive contribution to the social wealth and health of its immediate neighborhood and larger society?   And can we even hope for, perhaps demand, such an impact?

I used to say that we, as citizens and human beings, need to demand that our city planners, landscape and building architects, transportation engineers, and contractors use both their heads and their hearts.   They need to more deeply think and feel their way through the core questions:  who will use the facilities and space, for what purposes, and what do we want the experience to be like?

However, “head and hearts” may not be the best description of what is needed.  I recently heard a 2014 Loeb Fellow from Australia, Helen Lochhead, say that once a project meets all the required technical specs what distinguishes great projects is ”design and social inclusion.”  After studying projects around the world, she found that these qualities are what unleash creativity and turn the adequate into the wonderful.  But what does that mean, and how can it be operationalized?

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DESIGN AND DEMOCRACY

Design is one of those magic words beloved by architects, landscapers, and product developers but rather nebulous to the rest of us.  Even designers don’t agree about the meaning of the term.  (My personal favorite is “design is art that makes itself useful,” although I am sympathetic to the counter argument that design is supposed to solve problems while art’s responsibility is to raise questions.)

For the rest of us, we know it when we see it; feel it when we’re in the midst of it; notice its absence when it goes away.  But other than knowing that good design involves more than efficient functionality we’re often unable to describe or evaluate it – much less ask for or even require it.  And yet we need to do exactly that.

In the private sector, wealthy individuals and corporations have the resources to demand that things built for their own use are artfully and pleasingly designed; corner-cutting more typically occurs in commercial efforts intended for others’ use, particularly if it’s a mass-market customer.

In the public sector, the combination of fewer resources, less in-house expertise, the difficulty of supervising complex projects or demanding that outside vendors do more than adhere to contractual specs, the vulnerability of the chosen aesthetics to veto by a huge variety of citizens groups, and the fact that most public sector work is – by definition – being created for use by others all tends to reduce the ability to demand top-level design.   In addition, the requirement that everything be done according to law-suit-defendable procedures can create endless paperwork and bureaucratic frustrations, thereby discouraging the most innovative designers.   This tendency is reinforced because avoiding blame is the prime directive of political survival making leadership sometimes overly risk aversive.  Writing about the disappointing results of endless fights over what would replace the collapsed World Trade Towers in New York, Elizabeth Greenspan, who just published Battle for Ground Zerostates, “It doesn’t seem like the most creative, imaginative solution, but it’s good enough. What I’ve learned about the democratic process is: if you end up with something that is good enough, in our system, that’s actually not so bad.”

But “good enough” should not be good enough.  Design is vital.  Good design provides a sense of beauty and appropriateness to a building, space, or facility.  However, it goes beyond aesthetics.  On one side it shades into the excited superficiality of fashion; on another side into the pleasure of structurally-communicated ease of use.  It is, as we used to say in the software industry, the “look and feel” of the thing or the system – part technical skill, part cultural sensitivity, part art, part luck.  The goal of design is that the structure, space, product, or service invites you in, makes you feel comfortable, even happy, and serves your needs – even the ones you weren’t aware of you had — no matter who you are!

SOCIAL INCLUSION

“No matter who you are” — of the two qualities needed for greatness, Social Inclusion is both the easier to define and the harder to accomplish.   It means involving all potential users in the planning and creating something that makes all users feel as though it works for them.  But who are “all potential users?”

Because of the legal pressure of the Americans With Disabilities (ADA) laws, planners (usually) assume they include both able-bodied and the handicapped.  In architecture the concept is sometimes expanded to also mean the short and the tall (whose accommodations can also be enforced through ADA regulation) and the old and young (who are increasingly important market segments).  In transportation the scope of concern is starting to include pedestrians and cyclists as well as car drivers.

Still too often left out are the non-English speaking, the illiterate, the poor, and those who are unable to get away from their second (or third) jobs or their children to attend public meetings.   Including them is not merely a step towards equity,

OPENING THE DOORS

As brilliant and well-meaning as a planner may be, creating something that works well – that works wonderfully – for all people cannot be an inside job.  It requires finding ways to include the entire range of potential users (and stakeholders) in the planning process.  The collapse of MassDOT’s Route 28 Bus Rapid Transit proposal in Boston was caused more by the lack of community input and ownership as by any inherent and unfixable technical weaknesses in the plan.

But inclusion requires doing more than opening your door and waiting for people to come in and talk, or to provide “feedback” to a largely finished design.  Providing translators is only the beginning.  People need to be invited in.  It is a planner’s (or the proposing agency’s) responsibility to reach out into the appropriate community, using people who are known and trusted by that community, to interact with individuals and groups in a manner that meets them on their own terms.  This might require using photographs or drawings instead of schematic plans.  It might include having prepaid postcards for people to fill out.  It might require standing on the sidewalk to talk to people passing by.  It certainly will mean listening to long tirades and tangential comments that appear to have little relevance – except for the fact that someone who might be impacted by the project is saying it.  As good public workers already know, soliciting public input is a complicated sometimes frustrating and always exhausting process.

But if it increases the odds not only of getting the project done but also of having it be great (and appreciated) rather than ordinary and merely tolerated, then it is worth the investment.

LEADERSHIP AND VISION

The possibility for a building, or place, or transportation system to be transformational – to help inspire people, to bring them together, to make their lives a little better – depends not just on the professionals and staff but, even more, on the vision and energy and leadership of those in charge.  Ultimately, they are what makes it possible for everyone else to be better than “good enough.”  This doesn’t let everyone else off the hook – every one of us is either part of the solution or part of the problem – but it does provide a starting point for understanding the challenge.

Welcomed rather than simply used.  Great rather than acceptable.  Transformative rather than merely functional.  Why not?

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*In architecture, a national push for progressive ethical standards comes from Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility.  I am unaware of anything similar for traffic engineers or transportation planners.

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Some related previous posts include:

INTERGRATING VISION INTO OPERATIONS: Balancing Front-Line Empowerment With Organizational Priorities at MassDOT

PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS: The Priority Must Be Enhancing Public Value

IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?

GOOD GOALS: From Effort To Results

REDEFINING TRANSPORTATON: from Moving Vehicles to Place-Making

WAYFINDING THROUGH POLITICAL DEBATE: Accidents Waiting To Happen

GUNS, TAXES, TRANSPORTATION, AND THE MEANING OF LIFE: Why Government Is A Precondition for Livability

 

 

 

 

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