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Designing Public Consensus--it takes a lot more meetings

So, the public really should be heard, right? That's the message of an article in the September issue of Metropolis, headlined Secretary to the Mob, and summarized as "Public-outreach specialist Barbara Faga really can’t complain about the growing democratization of design."

And the takeaway is that a good process would involve a lot more meetings than those leading to the approval of the Atlantic Yards plan. (That also suggests that the new UNITY plan is a start, not a conclusion.)

Jeff Speck's article notes:
Since Jane Jacobs demonstrated that citizens can be smarter than experts, planners have been increasingly required to design publicly, to complete their projects in open-door workshops, and to seek not just public approval but also public direction in their schemes. This approach always made sense in the case of community visioning and plans for neighborhood revitalization, but it is now equally mandated in projects for private property of any significant size. If the public is affected, the public will participate—either as a partner in the design process, a witness at a public hearing, or finally, a litigant in a class-action lawsuit. Most developers have come to understand that of those three roles, the first has the least potential for killing a project.

Until recently, the art of managing the public design process has not been taught in planning schools. Now there is an established organization, the National Charrette Institute—its Charrette Handbook is the last word on how to design publicly—and a larger literature on the subject is beginning to develop. Probably the most comprehensive such book is Designing Public Consensus (Wiley), by Barbara Faga of the planning and landscape juggernaut EDAW.

150 meetings

Faga's firm worked on Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway, the new surface over the Big Dig, and bore the brunt of a lot of community frustration. The ultimate vision, she says, didn't emerge from one meeting but 150 meetings. (There was no such sequence of public meetings regarding Atlantic Yards, though developer Forest City Ratner claims it held numerous meetings.)

Speck asks if the trend toward public involvement has gone too far, and whether it's reversible. Faga responds:
I do suppose the genie is out of the bottle, and probably for the better. When I started the book, I was of the opinion that design is in some ways homogenized by public input. But the more I got into it, the more convinced I became that public participation does make for better parks and places.

On Ground Zero & urbanism

Faga praises the “Listening to the City” process for Ground Zero--though others have disagreed-- pointing out that the public (apparently having absorbed Jacobsian commonplaces) wanted retail and street life rather than towers with blank walls.

Speck challenges her, arguing that the first six schemes for Ground Zero were better designs than those that came after, "but they showed massing when people needed architecture." He suggests that Daniel Libeskind's selection was "no more than dressed-up massing since it was an urban design that had no control over the final architectural result."

Faga responds:
Well, yes, but it is incumbent upon the designer to portray urbanism convincingly. Even if the client asks just for massing models, that’s not going to cut it with the public. That’s one thing that was confounding to me in Boston. Because the public there is so sophisticated, we had started out using a lot of computer modeling. It was all very nicely done, but they just didn’t get it. We had to drop back to watercolors. Watercolors people get.

How convincing are the decontextualized Atlantic Yards towers and decontextualized Atlantic Yards open space, when they're not combined? (Above and below, from the latest flier.)

Keeping people honest

Speck asks:
Wouldn’t you say that public participation is necessary because it keeps the politicians honest? When I’m not sure that the leadership will come to bat for good design, I work extra hard to empower the citizens.

Faga responds:
I do believe that in the end you have to win the public over because they’re in place longer than the politicians. The public can pretty much overturn anything, or drag it out in court as long as they want.

In Brooklyn, that remains to be seen.


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