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Urban Design – Part 1

On Tuesday, Jan. 24, SPACE Gallery will host a screening of the documentary film, Urbanized, which delves into the design of cities and features some of the world’s foremost architects, planners, policymakers, builders, and thinkers.

The film, the third in Gary Hustwit’s design film trilogy (joining Helvetica and Objectified) will be followed by a conversation with Noah Chasin, assistant professor of art and architectural history at Bard College, and Mitchell Rasor of MRLD Landscape Architecture + Design. The event is co-sponsored by AIGA Maine and MRLD.

To kick off the conversation we thought we’d enlist Mitchell Rasor to collect musings about how our city is evolving from Portland-area urban planners, designers, professionals and all-around thinkers. We’ll be posting his collected responses throughout the next few days and we hope you’ll chime in. You can also become part of the conversation tomorrow at our screening of Urbanized.

PART 1: Mitchell (MR) spoke to Markos Miller (MM), Citizen Planner and Founder of Franklin Reclamation Authority.

MR: You have been actively involved with a number of grassroots level planning efforts. In your bid for Mayor you advocated for an inclusionary process. I have seen you in action in terms of inclusionary planning, transparency and professionalism, specifically on Reclaiming Franklin Street. Some might say that Portland is too inclusionary and this slows down or even thwarts economic development. What is your take on this?

MM: A poorly developed and implemented public involvement process will slow down or thwart economic development. Unfortunately, few governmental officials or professionals in the development field have the necessary skills to design and facilitate at the level of public engagement that can add value to a project and increase public support for the project. Furthermore, our current planning review paradigm dates back to an era when public involvement was almost unheard of; gradual efforts to engage the public have been add-ons to the development process, creating extra layers of process, as opposed to fundamentally realigning the planning process.

The public is always going to have its say on a development project, the question is when in the process the public plays a meaningful role and how that role can be constructively integrated into the development process. At its worst, there is no public input until all decisions have been made or a project is completed. Then the public is rightfully angry and resentful, breeding a culture of contempt for public servants and elected officials. The earlier that public involvement takes place in the planning process, the greater the opportunity to establish an understanding of the goals of the developer, the users of a project, and the community that will provide a home for the development.

Meaningful public involvement is an issue of quality, not quantity. Having lots of meetings and long meetings does not add up to a meaningful inclusionary process. Power points and talking to the public do not equate meaningful public involvement. A meaningful inclusionary planning process must be based on a culture that values the knowledge and insights of the local community, the willingness to educate and be educated, and the skills needed to facilitate a public dialogue. Professional staff play a key role in educating the public and policy makers so that informed decisions can be made.

When there is little consensus on the goals of a community this process may require considerable investment. Building agreement and establishing trust between the public, the private sector, and local officials takes time, requiring multiple feedback loops so that the learning and agreements can be documented and tested. This may involve gathering a wide data collection from the public, emphasizing inclusive visioning strategies. With the Franklin Street process this was necessary because the original plans for Franklin Street were rejected by the community (because the public had not been involved).

However, once there is agreement on the goals of a community, and a there is a culture of trust between government officials and the public, the need for such a wide reaching inclusionary process is diminished. Community stakeholders are an important part of this process, provided that their role is that of a steward of the community vision. When neighborhood and civic leaders, as well as government officials, demonstrate their understanding and support for community goals, and this is reflected in the outcomes of the planning process there is little need for greater public involvement. This also provides the community support that professional staff need in order to be professionals, using their skills and knowledge to ensure that the expressed community goals are best realized.

The Franklin Street Redesign process has attempted to follow such a process: establishing a vision that is strongly supported by the community, articulating the values expressed in vision through performance criteria, and presenting design alternatives based on what has achieved similar goals in other projects or communities. Form-Based Codes are another interesting example of realigning the planning paradigm so that community values play an early, informative role instead of a late, reactive role. Form-Based Codes call upon a community to envision what it wants to loo like, documenting this in a largely visual manner, and then ideally offer a permitting process that ideally facilitates the realization of the community vision.

These are fundamental issues of power. If the paradigm is based on a recognition that the public grants power to officials, then a public inclusion becomes the foundation of community planning, and empowers decision makers and professionals to lead as public stewards. However, if power is seen as something that is wielded over the public, then public inclusion will always be perceived as an additional burden, or even a threat to ‘getting the job done’.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

More to come from:
Christian MilNeil, Blogger and Man about Town (Rights of Way: A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine).
Bruce Hyman, City of Portland Bicycle-Pedestrian Coordinator
Roger Conover, Executive Editor, The MIT Press
Charles Colgan, Chair/Professor, Community Planning & Development Program/Public Policy Policy and Management – Muskie School of Government
Hilary Bassett, Executive Director of Portland Landmarks

Mitchell Rasor is a musician, writer, and artist. He is also the Principal and founder of MRLD Landscape Architecture + Urbanism, an interdisciplinary design studio. Mitchell holds degrees from Oberlin College and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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