In general my writing is the furthest thing from cryptic, with perhaps too much invective directed at individuals and responsible parties; but I am not a journalist by trade. I write what I write because I think it needs to be read by people with an interest in making our places better for the people who live in them. Only rarely do I find it difficult to speak as clearly as I might about my experiences because, to be honest, I fear the consequences of my speech. I find myself in such a place right now.
What I will say is that my darkest suspicions have been confirmed regarding so called bottom-up processes; as Jim Kunstler once observed about American flags, the appearance of having used a bottom-up process is used primarily to give cover to the organization or department executing whatever plan was foreordained. Like most of us I had experienced this type of sham in the workplace; as a typical contrarian I would occasionally sense the fact that the fix was in for something or other and offer that we simply not do “X” or “Y” at all, but tackle some issue, or ignore it, by some other means. The facilitators veto would make all present aware that the fix was in. Which is fine. When I’m paid to be there and I’m not in charge. I’d prefer a good old fashioned “because I’m the boss and I say so” when that is, in fact, why we’re doing something.
Of course that would mean that the people at the top would have to acknowledge their total responsibility for the course of action.
What has shocked me is that in my recent experiences, and if your memory of my writings and your interest in my thoughts is greater than my own you might be able to discern of what and whom I speak, I have discovered that arguably the most prominent and perhaps the oldest name in the realm of creating bottom-up engagement for improving public spaces runs as top-down a process as any old school American corporation or bureaucracy. In retrospect I get it. People are idiots. Roughly half are of below average intelligence and, if you’ve ever been to a public meeting, even smart people can’t stick to the task at hand or understand, for example, that a discussion about planting flowers by a neighborhood group isn’t going to culminate in a more equitable dispersion of education funds by the state; true story. (“Why are we wasting money on beautification when kids in schools don’t have enough books!”)
A language teacher friend of mine once observed that he was asked why he didn’t just have his French language learners just “speak French?” You know, day one, French I:
“Bonjour, les enfants: l’environnement. Allez!”
It’s all Duning-Kruger, it’s all “Flowers for Algernon” and everyone is too stupid to know that they’re stupid. I get it.
But this was the one organization that was different, I mean this is all they did. In theory their expertise wasn’t in designing places, it was in focusing neighborhood participation in order to create the design. Except. Nope. The public is Millie Vanilli.
It’s actually more like the monkey randomly typing Hamlet: They get enough people in a room shouting out ideas and writing them on giant Post-it Notes and they’ll have something close to whatever it was they were going to do anyway.
Regarding a different project I overheard a conversation yesterday where a friend was told that a process involving a public hearing at the “25%” point to completion was really at the “90%” point. The idea that even the last 10% will be overly influenced by public input is Pollyannish at best. The damage here is that I think people may really believe that we can show up at a public meeting or write a few letters and create change. Change is happening, but it’s happening on the inside. Here in Springfield the most important decision makers have gone from a 50’s mentality regarding people and automobiles to a 90’s mentality. In its own way it’s pretty impressive; 40 years of progress in 10 years! But still 30 years behind.
In the first case, the I think the experts will do an incredible job, the space will be better than it has ever been, and they will graciously thank us, the members of the public “who envisioned the whole thing”. Then they’ll take the pictures of the walk-arounds and the charrettes and go on to the next River City:
“Play for me, Linus.”
“That’s my Davey!”
With respect to the 90% project; the day the project is finished people will notice that it is an improvement on what was there before. And a few months later people will realize how insufficient to our needs the changes are. I’m not a believer in process. Traditional, people oriented design is the only option we have to create resilient places. I don’t care how we get there. Faux populism will probably do a great job in some cases, that’s cool. Just ticking the boxes of public input for a street redesign won’t; we’ll need to storm the Bastille.
I think it’s interesting that just maybe, a redesign in a nearby poorer neighborhood, which services a smaller percentage of wealthy commuters, is much more avant garde. I’ve read that planners and engineers have always been much more willing to experiment on minorities and the poor. I do think we’re headed back in the right direction after all. Imagine if the experiments actually work this time!
Some people think that setting up the right process will eliminate the risk that comes with the consequences of human frailty. It’s logical that would be the response to a generation of horrendous decision making by fallible humans, but I’m afraid the places best suited to survive whatever comes next will be those which go boldly in the direction of making every place a people centered place, and a beautiful place worthy of human affection by any means possible whether it’s top down or bottom up. Those which don’t will be ghost towns worthy only of being the salvage yards of the future.
My street is a traffic sewer with beautiful homes on it. Here’s hoping Springfield has advanced to at least the 2010’s by the time anyone gets around to messing with it.