Praxis Dialogues: Designing for good

On December 1, PennPraxis and PlanPhilly will kick off Praxis Dialogues, the first in a series of public conversations about the notion of “the public good” in design practice, and how it informs and affects the design and use of spaces in the public realm. As food for thought before that conversation, we’re sharing commentaries from the panelists. So far we’ve heard from PennPraxis’ Executive Director Randy Mason, the Community Design Collaborative’s Beth Miller, and William Penn Foundation Program Officer David Gould. Today: Interface Studio principal Scott Page shares a designer’s perspective on the public good in practice.

Implicit but rarely explicit. This was my immediate first reaction to the topic of the public good. I’ll admit that in thinking about why that is, it’s left me struggling to clearly articulate an idea of public good that I can’t immediately punch a hole in. So allow me to take a step back.

My colleagues and I work with cities of all stripes but tend to concentrate on those that have faced some significant challenges. Call them post-industrial, rust belt, legacy cities or whatever the most recent moniker is. These places are often beset by high levels of poverty, vacant land, and unemployment, among many other factors. In cities where redevelopment is on the upswing after years of decline, the investment is often concentrated in distinct areas leaving the city with very different realities from one family to another. Compared to the scope of these systemic challenges, my charge as a designer sits uncomfortably between the idea that we can effect visible and meaningful change in these places while recognizing that our actions are just scratching the surface.

Can I honestly say that our work is addressing the public good if we’re not having a large enough impact?  I can readily admit that defining the public good more concretely runs the risk of making my work feel less effective than design school told me it would be. If my genuine intent is to act in the interest of a general, ill-defined public good, then in my most optimistic moments I can imagine even the smallest or temporary improvement as a positive step forward. That optimism must also be extended to the rest of our work, which can take years to realize. We act in good faith that those who drive our designs toward implementation are following the playbook we’ve outlined with the same intent and spirit in which it was created.

As urban designers and planners, our job is tactical. Narrowly speaking, our charge is to envision a better future, translate that future into specific designs, and package the work to attract support and funds for implementation. Design, of course, is far broader than the visually striking images of parks, buildings and other spaces that can capture our imagination, release our inner critics, and sometimes grace the national headlines. These images of a potential future are static. Ultimately envisioning who is maintaining and activating these spaces is the real puzzle to solve. In this sense, clean definitions of the public good are often hard to pin down.

Take the “tragedy of the commons” whereby the public good is sacrificed by the actions of people following their own individual interests. Or the phenomenon of “loving places to death” where intensive use of a space by one group can diminish its attractiveness and, thereby its use, by the public at large. One group’s public good is not necessarily another’s.

If we truly recognize this challenge, then we need to always keep in mind that who commissions or leads a planning or design strategy is just one lens on the issue at hand. In our work, the “client” is technically the agency who has hired us but, in reality, we have a responsibility to many clients. There are the City agencies responsible for different facets of the community’s infrastructure and maintenance; the community association or non-profit dedicated to making strategic, place-based investments; the developer seeking opportunities to build; the banker who has rules governing the loans she may or may not consider; the foundation program officer seeking to strategically use philanthropic dollars for meaningful change; the business owner looking for the right space to start up or grow and; of critical importance, the residents. There are many other examples, but you get the idea.

Each of these different “clients” has their own ideas based upon their mission and perspective. Sometimes they align, and other times they don’t. The best analogy I’ve found to describe how cities are built today is from a Monty Python skit – the 100-meter dash for people with no sense of direction. What you imagine happens when the race starts is exactly what happens. I often think that as designers our job is to wrangle everyone and get them running in the same direction. It’s in this messy process that a common ground is sought and established – what I might call a central feature of the public good.

Urban design as a practice needs to recognize that the design process is as, and oftentimes more, important than the end product. How do we create partnerships among leaders but also expand the process so everyone has a voice at the table?  How do we overcome the years of often poor planning policy and process that has bred mistrust among the very people we’re seeking to engage today?  And in this age where diversity, equity, and inclusion are getting much-needed and overdue attention, our plans and designs must reach further. My firm’s recent work in Grand Rapids, Michigan, originally structured as a physical plan for Downtown and the Grand River, came to include a focus on diversity, which, the public process revealed, is deeply important to the community. It’s not alright to say it’s beyond our scope or throw up our hands given the extent of the challenge. Sometimes the act of openly discussing the things that are too often overlooked is the first step forward.

To develop plans and designs with the community as opposed to for them requires not just a belief that it matters but also a wide range of tactics. Information is more available than ever before but access is not enough. We need to interpret and re-present data in ways that people, regardless of their background or exposure to planning, can understand. We need to draw and communicate in ways that tell stories about the places we’re working within and demonstrate that real on-the-ground collaboration can make a difference. It’s not just about getting people involved, but empowering them to take ownership and inspire positive change. This remains a central challenge but also an opportunity for our profession to grow.

Praxis Dialogues will begin its series on the public good with a conversation on December 1, from 6:30-8pm at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, Fine Arts Library, PennDesign, 220 S. 34th St. Free, open to the public.

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