A Placemaking Journal

Smart Design = Smart Policy:
Eezy-Peezy? Not so fast

See if this sounds familiar:

The city planning staff, maybe working with an expert team of design consultants, comes up with what they think is a no-brainer solution to a high-profile problem. Say, a proposal for much-needed multifamily development to address workforce housing demand. Or a plan to fix a blighted block with a mixed-use project that checks all the Smart Growth boxes. Or perhaps a senior-friendly cottage court adjacent to an existing single-family neighborhood of larger lots and homes.

Let’s say the proposal earns staff support and gets planning and zoning commission okays for whatever changes are required in local codes. It heads to city council for final approval, where everything hits the fan.

Citizens come out of the woodwork to protest the betrayal of community character, the lack of green/open space, the prospect of more traffic, the threat of gentrification, and a litany of other reasons why the proposed development shouldn’t go forward. Some of those using their allotted three minutes of public response time present sketches they’ve made to show how developers might redesign the project to accommodate their objections — or more likely, where, far away from their neighborhoods, the project would find a better home.

Elected officials, whose tenure depends on offending as few constituents as possible, get nervous. Discussion is sent back to staff for “more study” or tabled for a mandated community engagement process that gives everybody a chance to weigh in and promises a lengthy delay in reconsidering the proposal.

So who wins and who loses in this kind of scenario?

Those opposed to the project win and gain confidence for more battles, including the ones downloaded into the mandated community engagement ritual. Property owners and developers lose, since their proposal goes from no-brainer to no way, at least in the short term.

City staffers lose, as well, along with the citizen boards that studied and approved the proposed plan. Their credibility is undermined, which will give them pause when they’re next asked to review a similar project. The broader community might lose, too, if the proposed project really was the sort of thing that would add to the quality of life and expand the range of social and economic choices available to citizens.

Not every project is a good one, of course. A proposal deserves to be trashed or delayed if it fails to measure up to widely agreed-upon standards outlined in a comprehensive plan or in some other long-range planning document explicit about goals and strategies. The lessons learned by staff and review board members under those circumstances can make the process a better one. And developers get the message they have to up their games to achieve the entitlements they want.

Deciding whether or not the process is fair and that delayed approval actually improves the chances of getting something good built depends upon the clarity of community goals, the ones laid out in those long-range planning documents and consistently adhered to when proposals make their way through an approval process. When the standards are clear, so are the questions that need to be asked. They should be about the degree to which the proposal addresses the rules and the likelihood it will deliver results in line with expectations. When all those things align, magical stuff happens. Communities blossom. Most folks are confident in the fairness of the process, if not overjoyed at every outcome.

Now, let’s pause here for a reality check. Can we agree the conditions and processes described in the two paragraphs above mostly apply in the unicorn garden?

If it address meaningful community needs, the process of planning and implementing plans is inevitably political. And politics, depending as it does on getting most folks to at least allow stuff to happen by default — by, for instance, not caring enough to participate in the political process — is vulnerable to vetoes by those who take the trouble to show up.


Two Ways of ‘Seeing’

Politicians and political activists understand this and are often rewarded, at least in the short term, for their wisdom. Planners and designers, especially those who work in the private sector, seem confused that politics contorts a process that should recognize the value of their work and speed plans from design to implementation. And they suffer mightily for those assumptions, especially in the short term.

Those who default to design as a problem-solving strategy have no trouble “seeing” plans and drawings transposed from the page or computer programs to real places. They imagine issues — affordable housing, say, or mobility challenges — as resolvable by good design. Their default assumption is that the changes they advocate in the look and feel of a place enable positive social — and even economic — outcomes, even if that’s not always the case.

Those who frame problems and solutions as power struggles tend to evaluate change in physical environments differently. Their predispositions make them suspicious of professional elites in league with economic and political power players, especially when projects touch spaces in which they’re personally invested. Their default perspective is one of wariness, even when evidence suggests a design approach might actually advance the principles they espouse.

The ‘Doom Loop’ of Cynicism

What serves the veto seekers and frustrates everybody else is process paralysis. Which is the usual outcome when the goals and strategies of the politically savvy and elite-warry clash with those of politically naïve design pros.

While delays, from city staff and elected officials’ points of view, may be the products of earnest efforts to get the process right, what citizens see is incompetence. Which inspires cynicism. Which makes them less likely to invest trust in the process. Which makes them grumpy about more “visioning.” Which makes consensus harder to achieve. Which makes it even less likely stuff will get done.

It’s a doom loop.

The Vision-to-Action Disconnect

When community design processes go off the rails, there’s understandably a yearning for a group hug: Let’s take a pause and give everybody a chance to vent. Time for a “listening campaign.”

But listening is only part of the problem. It’s the doing part that’s lacking. In fact, in an environment of mistrust, the only way you can prove you’re listening is to respond to what you hear. Just recording their gripes isn’t enough. Something tangible has to emerge from the conversation that addresses the issues people are concerned about. Failing to face that reality and to act on it is where a lot of communities dig even deeper holes for themselves.

An industry is emerging to provide short cuts for documenting the listening tasks of community engagement, including social media strategies and online software for comments and polling. Not a terrible idea, unless the new tools are imagined as substitutes for the hard work of not only recording diverging opinions, but also for resolving the contradictions.

Left on their own, the design pros will ignore the consensus-building tasks required for a political process, and the political activists will leap to assumptions about potential design solutions.

How to get everybody moving in the same direction?

Reaffirming the Power of a Charrette

Here’s my suggestion, building on the points my PlaceMakers partner, Hazel Borys, introduced here: From the earliest days of their professional training, designers have turned to one tool that’s helpful for fast-tracking the tasks of idea testing and refinement: the charrette. And the method has been adapted with success for community design efforts that are complicated by politics.

Best practices for planning and managing community charrettes have been developed and taught by the National Charrette Institute. And even in the current political environment for planning, with a multitude of voices raised in opposition to just about anything, I’m convinced the charrette is the best method for successfully navigating the intersection of design and policy-making. But a charrette’s success is highly dependent upon sticking close to the tried-and-true methods the NCI advocates.

First of all, inclusiveness is paramount. To figure out where the friction points are, you have to get everybody to the table, including the folks most opposed to what they’ve heard so far and those committed to advancing what’s already on the table. The advocates for constructive listening are right about the value of just hearing folks out.

The trick, though, is to commit to a process that goes beyond just idea input. It must acknowledge potentially competing ideas, test them against their likelihood of achieving agreed-upon community goals, then refine and integrate them into implementable strategies. Working with citizens and policymakers, designers draw versions of the ideas at each stage, helping participants understand what proposed strategies might look like in a real place in their community. By continually refining the drawings based on community responses, the designers can cut through cynicism and build confidence that something good — even inspiring — can emerge.

Even in the compact process necessary for building that confidence quickly, there’s a minimum amount of time required to move through the steps. The NCI preaches three feedback loops of summing up ideas, then publically critiquing and refining them until there’s an emerging strategy that has built consensus that the path forward is ambitious enough to address challenges and practical enough to be implemented.

That three-step cycle takes time. So no one-day charrettes, please. You can have a one-day workshop. But you can’t move complex ideas through a charrette in fewer than four days. And that’s not the only time issue. The concentrated idea-testing that takes place in those four or four-plus days is the centerpiece of a three-phase process that begins months before the charrette with rounding up data and assuring there’s at least rough agreement on the broad goals against which to test ideas and strategies.

The charrette must also have among its goals the creation of a core group of champions pledged to take plans forward on a timetable that rewards everyone for their participation. Those champions will be essential as a plan moves through the approval process and ultimately before elected officials. Advocates have to be in that Council meeting when the inevitable happens, when individuals or groups show up to insist the process was hasty and unfair.

Done this way, charrettes can have a near-miraculous effect on divisions in a community that seem irreconcilable. All of us who’ve been involved in community planning exercises have seen what can happen when leaders commit to a process that is not only this inclusive but is also organized to achieve the ultimate goal of getting really good stuff done.

Ben Brown

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