The headline in the Wall Street Journal read, “Enough with Jane Jacobs Already” – above an essay decrying the extensive public process that projects in our cities must go through today. George Thrush, chairman of the School of Architecture at Northeastern University, could sympathize. For him, public participation in the development process has become more of an airing of grievances than an opportunity to rationalize projects in a larger, regional context – how they might impact commuting patterns, for example, or carbon emissions, or energy use. He developed the Urban Gauge (in beta) , to try to organize these kinds of measures so they might be considered alongside whether a new tower might block someone else’s view.
An important question -- how did we get here? – was posed in a conference Thrush organized last week: The Process: Public Participation and Design in Contested Cities Since the 1960s. Massachusetts State Representative Byron Rushing helped explain that in the days before Jane Jacobs, and particularly for under-represented constituencies, there was no public involvement in urban neighborhoods subjected to the policies of urban renewal and highways through cities. The tradition of giving the community a voice and a role in development decisions was established – and often, understandably, with a raw and emotional subtext. The machinery of the public hearing, litigation on an environmental basis, protests, and experts for hire, followed.
As more major infill redevelopment projects are turned over to the private sector, government has become a kind of referee, in increasingly contentious discussions, said Matthew Kiefer, an attorney at Goulston & Storrs. There are citizens advisory committees, civic design commissions, mayor’s advisory commissions, and the kabuki theater of the public hearing, which, Kiefer said, might be defined as “a place where nobody listens.” Most developers start out by meeting with neighborhood residents well ahead of time, with no drawings but rather a concept plan, to be shaped by community input. “You have to just stick your head into the lion’s mouth,” said Kiefer.
Yet stalemates are common. Anthony Pangaro, principal in Millennium Development Associates, recalled with some amazement how there was no consensus following dozens of meetings on the rehabilitation and redesign of the Longfellow Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge – marked by not only clashes between bicyclists and pedestrian groups, but between two bicyclists groups. Established residents are concerned about density, congestion, parking, schools, and increased fees for burdened services like water and sewer. “How can this not be a fight?” said Curtis Kemeny of the Boston Residential Group.
Looking ahead, Lincoln Institute senior fellow Armando Carbonell suggested that technology and open-source planning software tools could help facilitate more meaningful citizen engagement – seen in the scenario planning that helped refresh frames of reference in Kona, Hawaii. “We can model a variety of futures,” he said. MIT’s Eran Ben-Joseph was also hopeful that technology will facilitate better understanding of the city, collaboration, and creativity. Digital information-sharing is inherently horizontal, versus “experts” sitting up front and addressing an audience.
For many, the public process is a negotiation, said Tim Love, professor at the school of architecture at Northeastern and principal at Utile, “but we also have responsibility to use technology to convert it and make it more of a discourse.”
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