At the recent Congress for the New Urbanism, Ian Wolfe Ross, of City Design Collective, delivered a presentation called “Code for the People.” The talk was a rallying cry for the younger generation of New Urbanists, and a reminder that to achieve goals like restructuring corridors and revitalizing districts, planners need to focus on the design of the public realm – and involve the community in the visioning process. As Ross put, “Developers are not your clients, nor are council members or any other interest group. Your clients are the people, period.” After the talk, I sat down with Ross to discuss things further.
Q: You spoke during the NextGen part of the conference and you even quoted the Beastie Boys. What do you think are the most important issues facing young planners today?
Ross: The way things get done has changed. More than any time in a generation, the realization of a vision is going to be incremental and happen over time. So we have to know how to set things up for successful incremental change. This doesn’t mean thinking small, though. It just means recognizing that the economy and political climate don’t allow for everything to happen at once.
Q: How do you make those incremental changes add up?
Ross: To get anything done, you need to know the key deciders – basically the policy makers and staff. You have to get their confidence to implement a long-term vision. Part of that includes education. Educate the staff, the stakeholders, the decision makers about the real tradeoffs inherent in changing your city. And then you craft a vision that’s in tune with investor preferences and consumer preferences.
Q: How do you keep the public involved in this process?
Ross: I’ll explain the way CDC works. First, we do a thorough context evaluation. This starts with a two-day dialogue, which we’ve found is the most affordable, effective, and efficient process. On the first day, our team takes out a room at city hall or wherever the mayor or manager works. We meet with the heads of all the major departments –public works, parks, and so on – and find out what their issues and priorities are. Then we meet with the staff who are actually in the field doing that work. This way we get a comprehensive picture about how the city works from the inside – not just how it should work, based on the rules and regulations, but how things get done in reality, what happens on the streets. On the second day, we meet with important stakeholders in the morning – business people, but also neighborhood leaders, non-profit leaders. In the afternoon, we have an open visioning session where we try to bring together residents of all ages and demographics for input. This is pretty open-ended.
The second phase is a sort of charrette. This is a much more deliberate process than the community visioning session. You must know what you want. But because we’ve had those meetings with the people who run the city, we know what’s realistic.
Q: Can you describe an example of this visioning and charrette process?
Ross: Well, let me tell you what we did for the City of Alameda [California]. They had had 15 years of planning with no actionable results. We got together with staff and spent six weeks consolidating the old plans and drawing out the best concepts. Then for the charrette, we had people sit down at tables, each table with a different theme. We gave them workbooks with the best concepts from the prior plans, but with a lot of blanks for people to fill in – the districts were the same, but people got to fill in the land uses.
Q: Is that dramatically different from a standard charrette?
Ross: Yes, and I’ll tell you why. First, we make sure the charrette process is focused on achievement-oriented topics; it’s not a completely open “wish list” kind of thing. The more important part – and this is related to what I talked about earlier with making sure you’re serving the people, not some other interest group – is that we put the whole workbook online. For a couple weeks, anyone could log on and complete the workbook on their own time. We went from the input of a couple dozen people during the charrette to literally hundreds. This is the real promise of new technologies, and, I think, an example of how they can best be leveraged. You get information from experts, you use that to create a structure for meaningful public input – in this case, the workbook – and then you use the web to distribute that and get creative input from a much bigger audience than you ever could before.