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4 Things Anyone Can Learn From The Messy Process Of Making Public Spaces

It’s fiercely debated, wildly long-term, and incredibly complex.

4 Things Anyone Can Learn From The Messy Process Of Making Public Spaces
[Photo: Melissa Golden]

The traffic-choked streets in Times Square. The abandoned remains of a trolley terminal under lower Manhattan. The concrete-encrusted streets and river of Los Angeles. These decaying fragments of space were once pure infrastructure, engineered to get water, cars, and trains through super-dense cities. Today, they’re the sites of huge revitalization efforts that aim to build upon the premise that aging infrastructure can make an excellent bedrock for thriving public spaces.

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But the process of designing these public spaces is uniquely challenging. It involves hundreds of stakeholders with fierce opinions, and it has to be managed across decades. This week at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, the minds involved with these efforts–Rios Clementi Hale Studios partner Mark Motonaga, Snøhetta founding partner Craig Dykers, and Lowline executive director Dan Barasch–came together to talk about what they’ve learned in the process, in a conversation led by Co.Design‘s Diana Budds.

[Photo: Melissa Golden]

Yes, Your Work Is Political

“There are more politics defining space than objects,” says Motonaga. “There are so many agendas, and we never talk about them in design.” Understanding the agenda of every group involved in planning a particular project–from the granular, local level to the city and even national stage–is only part of the work. Creating a dialogue between those agendas, an inherently political task, is the real crux of great space-making. “It falls in the lap of the designer to understand that–because you get an earful from all sides,” Motonaga adds later. You’re one of the few people that actually get that.”

[Photo: Melissa Golden]

It Isn’t About The First Meeting (Or The Tenth)

To Barasch, the long and sometimes vulnerable process of building trust with the community often gets overlooked. If you simply show up with a beautiful design “you miss a chance to connect with the way people are really thinking.” It can be frustrating, but the complex process of engaging with the community is where great place-making happens. “It isn’t one meeting. It isn’t that first meeting. You have that meeting, and you’re going to have a ton of meetings where there is a lot of adversarial energy,” he says. But over time, people will slowly realize that “Okay, I get it, these guys aren’t that bad. They’re not trying to destroy our community. This is a real chance to do great stuff for people that we care about.”

[Photo: Melissa Golden]

Explain The Unseen Benefits Of Equity

Making space more equitable–whether that means making it more walkable for pedestrians, more accessible to an entire city–isn’t just a matter of getting the community on board. It sometimes means pitching nearby businesses, too, as Dykers pointed out. “Commerce fears equity, traditionally–commerce fears the interaction of too many people, because it can’t control it and can’t sell to people they can’t control,” he says. “So what you need to do is reverse that, and say actually, equity, generosity, can give you revenue.” For instance, he points out that when Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House opened its roof to the public, ticket sales increased. Likewise, when the firm closed off portions of Times Square to cars as part of its planning project, retail revenues and rents went up. “So if you can show that to commercial interests, it helps pave the way,” he adds.

[Photo: Melissa Golden]

You Can’t Engineer Society

The way we talk about designing public space says a lot about the way we understand human nature. As Dykers points out, there’s been a shift in the vernacular of how designers talk about their own work:

You can’t engineer society. We used to think that the public realm could be engineered–that if you make a little amphitheater here, people will be cultural, and if you made a bench over there, they’d sit and relax. And you engineered these places. Now we see that doesn’t always work because people like to make up their own minds  about what they want to do and when they want to do it. So instead, we nudge people in different directions so they can make up their own minds about how they wish to use that space–so that they feel they own it.

At the same time, Dykers adds, that process requires an engaged architect–not a silent sponge. “We do have a challenge these days, in that we as designers are told, ‘You have to be good listeners. And that’s all that you do, is listen. If all we did was listen, then I don’t know where we would be. You need to participate, and finding the right language to participate is important. But I also think educating people to the fact that you aren’t just a sponge that never lets anything out is valuable.” Otherwise it can be incredibly easy for designers to be seen as outsiders. “Hey, I’m part of the public, too!” Dykers jokes. “I’m not an alien!”

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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