Secretary to the Mob

Rare is the urban designer who does not secretly long for the days of Napoleon III, when planners like Baron Haussmann could put pen to paper with utter confidence that their will would be made flesh once they had satisfied their patron, their public of one. Now, in America at least, the public is vast, ill-defined, self-selected, and insistent on full participation in the design process.
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. Contributing editor and city planner Jeff Speck caught up with Faga in her Atlanta office to share war stories of design democracy in action.

You describe the public process as being analogous to soap opera, Kabuki theater, and a three-ring circus. Care to elaborate?
People who do this for a living have to understand that it’s entertaining and it’s entertainment. You have to keep the public interested for an hour or two or four. An audience can tell at once if you’re just going through the motions.

What’s the most outrageous or disturbing public encounter you’ve had in one of these meetings?
I was just involved in a meeting outside the United States—I’d rather not say where. Happily, I wasn’t the facilitator. In the middle of the meeting, a bunch of protestors ran up the steps screaming—in a language I didn’t understand. Quite disturbing. The group that burst in sounded like twenty-five people, but in actuality it might have been eight or nine. It was like the movie Chicago. But the facilitator was brilliant. Once we figured out that they weren’t armed, he said, “This is my meeting. I am running it. I will give you ten minutes with the microphone to tell us what your issues are, and you will let me get back to my meeting.”

You say you often have to console your younger staff on how they’re treated by the public.
They’re sort of amazed that people aren’t polite. Isn’t that interesting?

You worked on Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway, capping the Big Dig, and you speak very disarmingly about EDAW getting blasted in the press. Was this just about being from out of town, or were there deeper issues?
Well, there was a lot of pent-up demand for what these parks would be. People had been designing them in their heads for twenty years; there were twenty or thirty plans out there already. What I found is that people always come into these meetings each with a different vision, and combining that pile of visions into one doesn’t happen in one meeting. In that case it took a hundred meetings.

Actually a hundred?
It was probably a hundred and fifty meetings by the time we were all done. But I did have something happen that I’ve rarely seen. In a public meeting before an oversight board, another designer stood up and was espousing how he would’ve done it, and he came up to the front with presentation boards and the whole deal.

Has the trend toward involving the public in design gone too far? Is it reversible?
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.

Do you believe in handing over the pencils at the tables, or should only designers be drawing?
No, no, I love handing over pencils, Magic Markers, blocks, Legos, whatever. We were working on the Atlanta Beltline with a large group of citizens, trying to sell them on density. We brought out the Legos. And it was fascinating: the people who were fighting us, who said that they couldn’t stand density, were building the tallest with the Legos.

Point towers or slabs?
They were building 39-story towers. “This is what we real­ly want, and we want retail on the ground floor.”

You spent a lot of time studying the “Listening to the City” process for Ground Zero. You describe 500 tables of ten people each, with polling devices, like in American Idol. Everyone talks glowingly of that event. Why?
It was a watershed moment in the history of the public process. I remember Katie Couric interviewing people who had participated in the panels. They were reacting to a white model of the design, and they said, “We don’t want buildings that look blank. We want buildings with retail and street life.” I thought, “Wow, this is really amazing.”

Agreed, but that was just a massing model. I have always felt that the first six schemes for Ground Zero—the Peterson/Littenberg proposals so ceremon­ially rejected by the public—were superior to most everything subsequent, but they showed massing when people needed architecture.
Right, exactly.

And later Libeskind won with architecture that was in fact no more than dressed-up massing since it was an urban design that had no control over the final architectural result. The public needed the pretty pictures and overlooked the urbanism for the articulation.
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.

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.
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.

They’re especially good at stopping stupid highways.
Yes, thank goodness. That’s where Freedom Park came from in Atlanta.

Was there a secret to the public’s success in stopping that highway, or was it ill-fated to begin with?
They would have built it in a minute if people hadn’t stepped up against it.

Have you ever been on the other side of the public design process as a citizen?
Yes, and recently. I’m in a community that is having so-called public meetings that the neighborhood association organized, but they were completely scripted around the association’s agenda, and nobody else got to speak. Quite interesting. It was my first opportunity to be booed in a public meeting, in my own neighborhood in Atlanta. I was booed loudly! And I said, “No, no, this is wrong. You can’t run a public meeting this way.”

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