1.1 Introduction

Figure 5. Word cloud generated from early survey responses at the beginning of the Commons project.
Figure 5. Word cloud generated from early survey responses at the beginning of the Commons project.  Hargreaves Associates.

If I knew I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first six of them sharpening my axe.

– Abraham Lincoln

Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

– The “7 Ps” is an old British Army Adage

I start with Abraham Lincoln’s quote because it sums up the point of this chapter.

Public projects are really difficult. In the private sector a project is measured simply by whether or not it works economically – if it is profitable. In the public sector, however, while economics matter, a project must also help a city or government to achieve a number of other policy objectives determined by our elected representatives, based on the interests and demands of their constituents – the voters. These objectives might include designs that are iconic, user-friendly, welcoming to all, equitable, accessible, and sustainable, as well as those that protect or restore habitats and the environment, manage stormwater, provide for public art, and ensure that economically disadvantaged firms receive a fair share of contracts and minority and women workers get jobs. As compared to a private sector project, it can be more challenging to balance such objectives with costs and economic performance. This is even more difficult with public realm projects where there are many more interested stakeholders – including every member of the public.

One of the big challenges with any project and particularly this type is that it is impossible at the beginning to know how it will turn out in the end but you have to start somewhere, so the question is, when you know that you will be “building the ship while you are sailing it,” when do you know enough to get started? You can increase your chances of success with thorough project planning at the beginning and that includes trying to imagine every possible contingency and event that might happen – and how you might respond or react to it. The saying goes “plan the work and work the plan.”

Good project planning will eliminate some variables and reduce risk although unexpected things will still happen. If you have planned well, however, there will be fewer distractions, so you will have the energy and capacity left to manage the completely unexpected events, which will also happen. Another good planning axiom goes, “how you finish has to do with how you start,” which means that if you start organized, you increase your chances of successfully completing the project but if you start disorganized, you may have less control over how the project turns out.   Another, more cautionary saying is “if you don’t know which way you are going, any road will get you there.” I interpret this two ways: 1) better to know which way you are going before you set out, if possible, but 2) if you aren’t sure, it may still be better to get started than just stand still – you’ll get somewhere and some action will lead to learning and clarification of direction. A last summary approach is, “get a plan, create the vision, find the money, assemble the team, and go for it.”

In this chapter we will consider these topics:

  • Definitions: What is the “Urban Public Realm?”
  • Types of Urban Public Realm Projects
  • WWWWWH: Who, what, where, why, when, how?
  • Timing, and how does it all start?


Producing the Urban Public Realm: Field Notes on Project Implementation Copyright © by Peter Hendee Brown. All Rights Reserved.

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