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Public Process for Public Space

In November of 2004, a reconstituted APA Urban Design Committee tackled the question of the intersection of Planning and Urban Design, acknowledging the artificial split that exists between the architectural design of public open space – which focuses on form – and planning of public open spaces – which focuses on policy and participation in development. I developed this project with Robert Lowe, Urban Designer for the RPA.

To get started, we sought submissions to demonstrate lessons learned and products created that link public participation and urban design on behalf of the New York Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) Urban Design Committee.

Thirty Projects were submitted by planning and architectural firms, public agencies, university-based programs, community development corporations, and civic associations in New York City, the Hudson Valley, and Long Island. The program encouraged sharing of successes and frustrations over the last decade to the present. For more detail:
See San Antonio PowerPoint Presentation (pdf) San Antonio Workshop.

The committee wanted to ensure that a planning framework for discussion would differentiate how APA would view the urban design from the AIA. In this era of a star-architecture culture and so-called signature-buildings, the tendency to celebrate bold new urban design visions has a side effect. The haunting sense that additional forms of community input were missing, and without it, a deeper understanding of the underlying political, economic, environmental, and/or technical concerns would not emerge. This lack of depth contributed to the failure of some high-profile projects in the New York Region, such as building a new Jets Stadium on the west side of Manhattan and the delay in rebuilding the World Trade Center Site. Consequently, the committee sought to recognize urban design projects in the planning realm that were sensitive to these underlying planning concerns. In addition, the task force sought to distinguish New York metro urban design initiatives from a regional perspective.

Unlike most of the country, the New York metropolitan region has a two-hundred-year physical development heritage. The redevelopment, renewal, and preservation of existing communities is the primary challenge rather than planning new development projects on expansive green fields. As a result, the literature currently describing nationally celebrated urban design projects has little relevance to the issues and concerns of communities within the New York Metro Area. The committee understood that the most exciting planning and urban design projects in the nation are taking place in the New York City-Westchester-Long Island metro area. This is a geographic area that captures an incredibly diverse range of urban and suburban landscapes. Nowhere is there as rich a tradition of civic involvement in community planning and design as here, nor as much creative professional talent. And yet, each community rarely understands what even their most proximate neighbors have accomplished, let alone the value this work would have to a national audience.

The Public Place Public Process sought answers to questions about how well the planning and design community engages the community to build a public space. The Committee’s 2005 call for submissions garnered 23 submissions. In March 2006. a full-day workshop at the Regional Plan Association’s (RPA) offices yielded unique insight into the impact of civic engagement practices on the products of planning and design. This paper reflects on these events at the close of 2006 with a summary of findings to date and an outline of plans for a workshop about launching the Committee’s next steps.

At the start of the April 2006 presentation of our findings at the APA conference, we brought a quote from the legendary New York Yankee Baseball Manager and Urban Planner, Yogi Berra, “You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.” This is not only an amusing turn of phrase; it is a timely thought for New Yorkers. Our review, comment, criticism, and contribution to the growing list of major planning and construction events in New York City are daunting. As a result, examining the quality of the public processes in defining the public space in all dimensions remains a significant interest of the APA Planning and Urban Design Committee. To date, it continues to be a viable mechanism for defining the central question. Is it possible for us to acquire some assurances in the conduct of these events that we are building better communities?

Best Practices

Community revitalization, smart growth, legacy, brownfields

The committee called for best practice case studies from around the region. Metro APA and AIA mailing/ e-mail lists and several other organizations were used for outreach efforts. The call for submissions stressed The APA is especially interested in projects that demonstrate a strong connection between a robust public process and a physical plan or design. As illustrated in plans, renderings, and models, these are projects where a specific design solution was arrived at through a public process. Submissions were composed of design presentations to communicate the consequences of the goals and policies that the stakeholders adopted to the public.

1. community revitalization
The community has a comprehensive strategy for revitalizing a neighborhood, or perhaps the commercial or cultural center of the neighborhood. For example, the design studies may illustrate how new housing is designed to reinforce existing neighborhoods, how a commercial corridor is revitalized through a streetscape or fa├žade restoration initiative, or how a new public space is landscaped and programmed.

2. brownfields or greyfield redevelopment
The community has reclaimed a strategic property that was abandoned or underutilized, perhaps a former industrial site. The design studies illustrate how environmental restoration is accomplished in finding a new use for the property.

3. smart growth initiative
The community has found a way to capture development that would otherwise have sprawled out to some undeveloped area. The design studies illustrate how new context-appropriate development completes the existing neighborhoods or town centers or how new development is oriented towards transit such as a subway or commuter rail station.

4. legacy project
The community has created a plan that celebrates the history or cultural heritage of the community. The design studies illustrate how historic buildings have been re-used or how new spaces are created around buildings, monuments, or parks that have significance for the neighborhood.

While impressed by the quality of responses, we felt compelled to put the idea of ‘best’ aside to focus on practice. Our interest in the ongoing potential of this project held higher ground, so we began to mine all of the submissions for insights regarding the meaning of the term public process as described in each submission. Participants presented the interplay between public processes and design very differently. It was used as a tool to protect, defend and inform the public, as well as a means to discover and affirm community values and culture.

We express our gratitude to the Peer Review Committee (organizations listed for affiliation only) for all of these thoughts. Thank you.

Bruce Rosen, New York City Department of City Planning
Charlie Zucker, Consultant in Urban Design
Lance Brown, City College of New York, School of Architecture
Peg Seip, Consultant Community Planning and Development
Susan Meiklejohn, Hunter College Department of Urban Affairs and Planning
Tamara Greenfield, New York City Department of Parks
Terrence O’Neal, New York State Chapter of the American Institute of Architects
Tom Lunke, Harlem Community Development Corporation
Wayne Benjamin, Harlem Community Development Corporation

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