Some concluding thoughts
The title of this manual includes the words, “field notes,” which are, by their very nature, incomplete. While I am fully confident that the model and framework I have introduced here is broadly applicable to other locales and to other types of projects, it will require interpretation and adaptation to be of use to other practitioners. Further, there are several topics that I have not covered enough here but that I think need to be recognized and studied further. Below are some summary comments to the text and a few thoughts on subjects that warrant future consideration.
How you finish has to do with how you start:
For those interested in the successful implementation of a public realm project, the most import thing you can do is to “plan the work and work the plan,” every single day, from the very beginning of a project’s inception through completion, start-up, and ongoing use. Every day you will get a new piece of information that will affect the budget, the schedule, or relationships between stakeholders. You must constantly add those little pieces to your plan, revise, tinker, and change course. You may go three degrees left or two degrees right, but you have to keep moving forward while adapting to new forces and information: Always forward, never straight. Your plan is a work in progress that will change every day, if you are paying attention.
Project planning as a collaborative effort:
Project planning and implementation should be treated like an internal form of community engagement for the project team. You must demonstrate to your team members, partners, and stakeholders how you plan to implement the project. Then you must seek and incorporate their feedback, and continue to communicate with them along the way. Involve everyone in your planning, and give everyone ownership of the plan. This also makes it harder for people to say, “I told them it would never work.” The best situation is for the entire project leadership team to own the project plan – that increases the chance that everyone sill stick together when the going gets tough, rather than fragmenting and blaming one another. As Ben Franklin said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Woody Allen once said, “just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean everybody’s not out to get me.” A successful project manager is a paranoid project manager. You have to try every day to see around the corners, anticipate problems, and resolve them before they get too big. You will still have blow-ups that you did not anticipate and that will be hard to control, but if you anticipate and tamp down most of them before they happen, you will still have the energy to deal with the few that do grow into larger issues. If everything becomes a problem, you will always be distracted and exhausted and confidence in the project will shrivel up.
Know where you are going:
I understand that when learning to ride a motorcycle, one of the first things you are taught is to look in the direction that you want to go, because that is where you will go. So always be looking down the road and toward the goal (not to the right and off the edge of the cliff).
Consensus over Genius:
There is a long tradition of the “solitary genius” model of design, where a single, brilliant, highly talented designer develops a vision for a place with little or no input from the client or users. This model is flawed in almost all cases and it certainly does not work with public projects, where the expectations for genuine engagement are so high. Indeed, design and many other processes and products are almost always improved through collaboration and the contributions of many people and perspectives. Numerous research studies have shown that groups making consensus decisions outperformed their most proficient group member in almost all cases of decision making. Consensus is the best approach for design and particularly for design of the public realm, but it is also important for the design of all of the plans and processes, ranging from schedule and work plan to planning for communications with the media.
The Cultures of the Professions:
As groups, the various design professions that create our public realm have distinctly different cultures. The lead designer of a public realm project might be an architect for a building, a landscape architect for a park, or an engineer for a street, but on some projects, two or three may play key roles in the design. The style of the lead designer, however, will be based on their training and experience and on the ethos of their individual profession. What follows are some personal observations on how the design professions differ, distilled into simple stereotypes.
Architects are concerned with form, style, composition, materials, and program, as well as use and budget. High Design architects are interested in seeing their individual creative visions realized and are often less open to client or user feedback. Service oriented architects are lower ego and focused more on solving the client’s problem by using feedback from many people to understand and improve upon the design. Architects who typically do private sector projects sometimes find that public work (like public realm projects) presents new challenges in terms of the sheer volume of meetings, the politics, the complexity and uncertainty of the stakeholder engagement process, and how many different opinions must be genuinely heard, acknowledged, and integrated into the design.
Landscape architects are trained to think in terms of systems – soils, water, landform, vegetation, materials – and many of them consider people, users, and clients to be another, equally important system that must be analyzed and understood. Some landscape architects focus on private or institutional work but others focus on public work because public projects are often large, important, prominent, interesting, challenging, and they command larger fees. LA’s who have done a lot of public work understand public process, politics, PPPs, project funding and fundraising, and can be good partners on public realm projects. Like architects, some landscape architects are High Design types but even they understand that the project must work for the users and the client.
Engineers are typically dispassionate, low-ego problem solvers who see much of their work as using their expertise to provide technical solutions to technical problems. There is more art and judgement in engineering than others may realize and high-level engineers are often balancing subjective matters, funding, politics and stakeholder concerns. Public works engineers must often make difficult decisions with high cost impacts in real time, sometimes in response to a failure or an emergency. Still, many engineers are just as happy answering a question with a number that is the product of a calculation.
Where will the money come from?:
The condition and quality of the urban public realm hinges on money. There are several obstacles to the creation of an equitable, complete, and connected public realm, the first of which is the general lack of funding that is due largely to the long-running era of “no new taxes” that began with California’s Prop 13 in 1978. Lower taxes means reduced public spending, and for public realm projects, an increased reliance on public-private partnerships, which leads to three related challenges.
Challenges with the PPP Model:
The first challenge is that there is only so much private sector capacity to fill gaps previously filled by government, so projects will compete with one another for scarce public and private dollars and some will simply go unfunded and will not be completed. More important, need and fairness may not be the deciding factors in which projects are completed. A second and related problem is that PPP projects tend to be concentrated in downtowns and wealthier urban and suburban centers where there are motivated business leaders and wealthy private individuals who can bring funds to projects they are interested in seeing implemented. This means uneven funding of the public realm across the metropolitan region. Third, public-private partnerships inherently grant significant discretion in the decision-making processes related to projects to a few private business leaders and funders.
Fairness and Equity in the Provision of Public Realm:
Despite what you think about big government and high taxes, when taxes are low and PPP becomes the only way to provide goods and service above a very basic level, that means a small group of private individuals and business leaders may end up playing an outsized role in deciding where spending will occur and what the projects will look like. This raises questions about the equitable distribution of resources throughout the community and about the function of democracy itself. There is a longstanding idea that, in America, business and government are each too weak alone to be effective and therefore need one another: Government wants business to invest, while business wants government to offer a favorable regulatory and tax regime. The question of how much government must rely on business – and who leads major initiatives – is like a pendulum that swings back and forth based on tax levels: High taxes and resources gives government more say; low taxes gives business more say. In our current low tax/high-PPP environment, private sector business leaders and individuals have significant influence over what the urban public realm looks like.
An ongoing struggle for planners and designers who hope to complete public realm projects is: How to get all different types of community members engaged in the process? If a park is meant to serve all city residents, how do you get input from low income community members who live farther away and are too busy with work and child-rearing responsibilities to be able to attend a community meeting? Technology has made it a lot easier to use on-line surveys and advertising in small community newspapers and media outlets may draw a few people to a meeting but the challenge remains. Different projects require engagement from different types of stakeholders but when it is important to hear from the community members and residents, you must figure out how to meet people at a time that is convenient to them, on their ground, and on their own terms. One engagement expert with experience in lower income communities recommends holding meetings in churches, when people will be there for services, and bringing food.
Increasingly sophisticated activist community members:
One of the most interesting challenges facing urban public realm projects is the growing sophistication of the public and their rapidly increasing expectations for a larger and deeper role in engagement. One planner recently described a situation where a neighborhood group insisted on being allowed to actively participate in the drafting of design guidelines for a development project, despite this being a very technical task traditionally completed by planning and design professionals. The planner’s concern was that there is potential risk to all parties when members of the public attempt to play a leading role in a type of work that requires genuine training, knowledge, and expertise that they lack. This story highlights another larger problem, which is the ever-growing lack of confidence in “expertise” generally in society and particularly with government employees and civil servants. Sometimes people just don’t trust government and don’t believe that government employees actually know what they are doing, are acting in the community’s best interests, and have critical skills that the average interested citizen lacks. More so than ever before, the engagement process is dominated by increasingly interested and confident citizens who distrust experts and overestimate or overvalue their own knowledge, skills, and expertise.
A related challenge is the role that the media and social media play in publicizing, promoting, criticizing and otherwise influencing projects. Motivated individuals and interest groups have become increasingly sophisticated at using social media to shape and in sometimes distort discussions around projects. The news media publishes or broadcasts dramatic stories that sell advertising space but that may not accurately represent the situation. These types of stories often require the project team members to scramble in response and attempt to get the facts straight even after the story has already gone viral and the critical comments have started to pile up. Worse are the comments people leave at the bottom of online news articles. Planners and developers know not to even read the comments after a particularly negative story.
The tyranny of the minority:
While some people may be genuinely interested in helping improve a project by suggesting alternatives that may improve the design or mitigate historic, environmental, traffic, and other concerns, some people who oppose a project completely may use those types of arguments as a “Trojan Horse” with the hopes of killing a project and avoiding change altogether. In these cases, a single individual or a small group may attempt to stop a good project that would provide benefits to the entire community. Social media has enhanced the power of the tyranny of the minority. One planner coined the term “weaponized historic preservation” in response to a situation where an interest group sought to kill a project with a weak but vocal appeal to a historic preservation argument.
Fatigue and burnout for planners and staff:
Last but not least, a growing challenge is staff and project team member fatigue. Some planners have even started to talk about the emotional abuse they suffer as a group.  Many planners grow used to taking criticism in public and community meetings and are good at compartmentalizing it, but some meetings are worse than others, people can become very uncivil, and planners often bear the brunt of the public’s anger and fear. The risk is not just to the mental health of individual planners but also to our government institutions that rely on talented staff with years of experience. If turnover in planning agencies were to increase, cities could lose their ability to provide the very best service to the public. The same situation applies to all city, state, and federal level government agencies and the stability of our governmental institutions.
These are my thoughts on implementing urban public realm projects. Please let me know what you think generally, and what you think is unclear, missing, or just plain wrong. Send your comments to email@example.com. Thank you.
- See for example, Elkins, Stephen L., City and Regime in the American Republic, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. ↵
- See for example, “Let’s talk about the emotional abuse of planners,” Lisa Schweitzer, posted 7/31/2018. Accessed June 23, 2019. https://lisaschweitzer.com/2018/07/31/lets-talk-about-the-emotional-abuse-of-planners/. ↵