Collaborating with the Public on Design

At the National Building Museum’s Intelligent Cities forum, Laura Solano, ASLA, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), explained the highly collaborative design process undertaken with local residents and the broader public in New York City to create the Brooklyn Bridge Park. In this session, there was also a broader discussion among urban planners and architects on how the public now participates in the design of buildings, parks and other public spaces, and the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in this process. Lastly, one innovative researcher explained how ICT is changing the way people use public spaces.

For Brooklyn Bridge Park, one of the major new public spaces in New York City, MVVA set up a community discussion center of sorts where designers were available every day from 2-6 in the afternoon for “one-to-one” conversations with local residents. In addition, on Saturdays, there were open sessions where people off the street could just come in. Given this park “really is a space for the local residents of the area,” the landscape architects were very concerned about gauging public response to the initial designs. In addition, a full 30-foot long model of the park was on view in Union Square so “people could walk around it and ask questions.”

The public review process led to design changes, “things we perhaps wouldn’t have thought of on our own.” Solano said “people came in with solid ideas on the activities that should be offered and safety,” and MVVA used those ideas to ensure the park “was attractive to an entire cross section of the neighborhood.” For example, the park is now “heavier on recreation.” Residents came to designers and said there was no space in the neighborhood for basketball so new courts were added. Also, some of the watefront recreation areas were expanded.

Maurice Cox, associate professor, University of Virginia School of Architecture, and former mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, said that “the public really always knows best.” And once they are explained the possibilities and have time to review them, “they will chose the best options for you.” Engaging the public in design is also crucial to ensuring there is a “constituency for certain features and support for the designs.” Without these constituencies, the design fails.

According to Julie Eizenberg, an architect with Konig Eizenberg, “it’s not just about using public input to meet functional goals” but creating an “environment that has value and creates a sense of community.” Community input is then key to discerning and distilling that value.

A number of examples were used to hit home the point that designs made without public input almost always have issues. Nicholas de Monchaux, assistant professor of architecture and urban design, University of California, Berkeley, said “look at every university campus. The ugliest building will always be the one for the architectural school because the designer built it for himself.” In another example, he said Google actually commissioned 7 groups of architects to create designs for its new Silicon Valley headquarters. Out of those, employees picked and chose elements they liked and created a composite plan, which was also “a disaster.” He called for a more open “adaptive design” approach to organize the complexities in the design process.

Cox said ICTs played an important role in locating opportunities for infill development in spread-out Charlottesville and convincing the community to raise the height limit from 3 to 9 stories. “We used technology to facilitate the marketing of infill development to developers. For that, we really needed GPS.” Also, technology was used to “visualize what changes in the height limit” would do to the look of the city. In the end, the community changed the rules. “They made what was previously illegal legal.”

In terms of landscapes, Solano sees limits for technology. “Technology is really for the end run of information.” She said landscape are living systems and it’s difficult to get communities to grasp that. “Landscapes have to be constantly taken care of.” While technologies help enable water management systems, landscapes are based in biological and ecological sciences. “They are rooted in science and we need to create a place for that.” She also worried that maintenance budgets are often the first thing to be cut in broader park budgets because the public may not understand how these living systems need upkeep. Perhaps technologies can be used to better convey these ideas to the public and build support.

In a separate talk, Keith Hampton, assistant professor, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania, gave a fascinating presentation on how ICTs change how people use public spaces. His research in public spaces in New York City and Philadelphia has shown that 8 percent of park goers now use the Internet in those spaces, and these numbers are only expected to go up (given 18 percent use the Internet in cafes). Some of his main points: half of all the social benefits of technologies come using them in a certain place. For example, bloggers go to church more. As for using public spaces, 25 percent went to public spaces because there was WiFi available. Around 70 percent who previously visited a public space were more likely to visit again because of WiFi.

Book readers and laptop users are alike in that they are both “open to serendipitous interactions,” and they are much more open than mobile phone or game-using or ear-bud wearing visitors. Of the book or laptop users, 28 percent had some sort of interaction with others in public spaces. Interestingly, he found ICT users had more interactions in parks that have “fixed elements” like benches. There was less mingling for those users in parks like Bryant Park that offer movable cafe table and chairs.

Overall, Hampton found that “communities with more social interactions build on technology, and use them to become more social.” In contrast, disadvantaged communities with high levels of inequality “were less likely to have high levels local tie formation.” However, technology may be able to help remedy this. “ICTs make community possible in disadvantaged areas.” He pointed to Web site he’s been working on: iNeighbors, which now helps more than 1,000 neighborhoods better interact. Almost 10 million messages have been sent so far.

Image credit: Brooklyn Bridge Park model / NY Daily News

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