Designing in the public interest is often challenging–and controversial. How do you know when to do public interest work and when pro-bono efforts are going towards greater good? In our office with the recent launch of our pro-bono Social Impact Design Initiative and partnership with the 1% Program at Public Architecture, we continue to learn from our work… Read more »
Posts Tagged: social infrastructure
I am intrigued by the human resilience angle in the case for better urban design implied by Eric Klinenberg in his article in the New Yorker. In the article ‘Adaptation: How can cities be “climate-proofed?”’, Klinenberg discusses disaster preparedness in general and describes several large scale engineering solutions to climate change, solutions that are of… Read more »
I am intrigued by the human resilience angle in the case for better urban design implied by Eric Klinenberg in his article in the New Yorker. In the article ‘Adaptation: How can cities be “climate-proofed?”’, Klinenberg discusses disaster preparedness in general and describes several large scale engineering solutions to climate change, solutions that are of necessity government backed, but he also writes about the role of resilient civil society can play in increasing an individual’s chance of survival in a disaster. Klinenberg, a Professor of Sociology, Public Policy, and Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University, writes, “Whether they come from governments or from civil society, the best techniques for safeguarding our cities don’t just mitigate disaster damage; they also strengthen the networks that promote health and prosperity during ordinary times.” He writes of Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard University, who “has been measuring the strength of social ties, mutual assistance, and nonprofit organizations in Chicago communities for nearly two decades. He has found that the benefits of living in a neighborhood with a robust social infrastructure are significant during ordinary times as well as during disasters.”
“Alonzo Plough, the director of emergency preparedness and response for the County of Los Angeles, says, ’But it’s not just engineering that matters. It’s social capital. And what this movement is bringing to the fore is that the social infrastructure matters, too.’”
Enter the urban designer and landscape architect. How social infrastructures are enhanced by landscape infrastructure and open space is the focus of various studies by the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, and the subject of an earlier Social Impact Design blog post. We have an opportunity here step up to the plate and play an important role in enhancing and creating that social capital that makes our communities and our society resilient. While I love and value aesthetics and believe fervently that beauty matters, our work as urban designers and landscape architects is more than a matter of creating artful places, we can and should learn to design to increase social connectedness. What would that look like?
For me, but perhaps not obviously, this brings me to questions of morality, and of shared societal values. Shared societal values are one of the ways that a group of people create cohesion and a sense of mutual responsibility. The lack of a shared moral system tears down the sense of social connectedness. In the entry on morality in Wikipedia it says,“The phenomenon of ‘reciprocity‘ in nature is seen by evolutionary biologists as one way to begin to understand human morality.” Reciprocity, as in the Golden Rule. Remember that quaint idea?
I was bowled over by movie critic Mick LaSalle’s mentioning of morality in his recent piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, ‘Violent Media Poisoning Nation’s Soul’. He derides the violent movies that the Hollywood industry makes so much money from and argues that violence should be rated at least as stringently at sex. He also calls on critics when reviewing ‘cruel and nilihistic’ movies to say as much. He imagines a movies critic’s inner dialogue when confronted with a ‘soul-crushing’, ‘antilife’ movie, writing, ”Yes, it’s sick, but isn’t that a moral judgment? And is it my place to comment on morality and decency?” I know the feeling of wondering if I have a right, or if its my place, but when did we cede the right to comment on morality and decency? When did we cede our right to act morally by acting in the best interests of our community by calling a sickening movie, sick?
Did it start in the sixties, when youth culture rebelled against the hypocrisy of the dominant morality of the time? And now, given that legacy and in our age of multi-culturalism, how could we arrive at an all encompassing moral code? We could start by agreeing on human ‘virtues’. Again from Wikipedia on morality: “certain virtues have prevailed in all cultures …examined. The major virtues …identified include wisdom / knowledge; courage; humanity; justice; temperance; and transcendence. Each of these includes several divisions. For instance humanity includes love, kindness, and social intelligence.” Social intelligence, temperance, wisdom, humanity, kindness: does this sound like a lot of movies you’ve seen lately?
We need to stop with the violence. For those of us who believe that art is part of architecture can we aspire, to paraphrase author David Foster Wallace who was writing about fiction, to create landscapes and builds that are “passionately moral, and morally passionate”,that help all of us to “become less alone inside”? We need to start creating an environment where we and our fellow citizens are empowered to act in their own and their communities best interests. It’s shocking to me that the one of the solution proposed for gun violence is armed guards. Really? It’s depressing to think that the solution to too many guns is more guns. Instead those of us who are still committed to finding real and lasting solutions to societies problems,
We optimists, need to get serious about putting our creativity and intelligence, our wisdom, to work to learn how to create art (places, communities, environments) that support each of us in our individual efforts to be humane, kind, and just. We designers need to learn how to design places, objects and tools that foster civil society: we need to build resilience. At the risk of alienating everyone, I would call that a moral imperative.
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Traffic calming can give pedestrians a leg up in the car-centric city – and driving should be actively discouraged. This is part of a series about the importance of small urban elements that can have an outsized impact, enhancing people’s lives or modifying users’ behavior in surprising ways. The new husband of one of my… Read more »
Traffic calming can give pedestrians a leg up in the car-centric city – and driving should be actively discouraged. This is part of a series about the importance of small urban elements that can have an outsized impact, enhancing people’s lives or modifying users’ behavior in surprising ways.
The new husband of one of my best friends recently told me that he jogs across every crosswalk. If he walks across, he says, a car will have to wait up to fifteen seconds, whereas the car would take only a couple of seconds to cross. He believes that it’s unfair to make the car wait for so long while he crosses the street, and apparently often pulls my friend along with him as he charges across to cut down on wait time for any cars in the vicinity.
This disturbed me on a number of levels. First, why did Beth marry such a lunatic?
Second, pedestrians are looked down on by almost everyone– drivers, cyclists, traffic engineers, most of the country’s planners. The very word “pedestrian” is derogatory, meaning commonplace and unimaginative. But walking is basically the best thing ever: walking is the easiest and most accessible exercise; pedestrians make places safer (Jane Jacobs’ concept of “eyes on the street”); pedestrians bring more people outside (“life attracts life”) and make streets livelier and more interesting; pedestrians promote economic development in a more meaningful way than drivers in a compact city, as it’s much easier for them to pop into stores spontaneously; and walking is by far the most environmentally-friendly form of transportation (all you need to walk is a pair of shoes–even cycling requires far more carbon-intensive equipment, including the bike, tires, lights, and all the other little pets cyclists like to buy). Now that we all agree that walking is the best thing ever, I think we can agree that pedestrians deserve a little more respect than they’re accustomed to. And rushing across the street because you don’t think you deserve to take your whole fifteen seconds is not very respectful of yourself.
Third, and most important to me: when John makes driving easier and faster, he is helping to create more traffic and encourages more people to drive. Numerous examples have shown that it’s only by making it harder to drive that cities can cut down on driving. “Without restricting auto use, policies to encourage walking, bicycling, and taking transit would have been far less effective…. the combination of the carrot-and-stick approach has produced very impressive results in German cities.” (Pucher, “Bicycling Boom in Germany: A Revival Engineered by Public Policy”) And in Copenhagen, it’s been shown that the reason that 36% of residents cycle to work is because it’s the easiest and fastest way to get anywhere. Everyone around the world is lazy, but for people in Copenhagen, it’s lazier to easily ride a bike than to deal with all the annoyances and time delays of driving. So if John stays a little longer in the crosswalk, maybe a few people will abandon their cars the next day and walk, bike, or take a train to their destination.
Why abandon cars? The environmental problems with cars are clear, in terms of their emissions, and the carbon and toxins implicit in their manufacturing process. But their impact on the built environment is just as problematic and far-reaching. There are up to eight parking spaces for every car in the US– that’s about eight 9′x18′ pieces of asphalt, leaching toxins into the soil, space that is not trees or pedestrian plaza, an area that rain runs off of, picking up oils and carcinogens. Each space is a heat island that effectively spreads out the city more and more, and makes it less and less practical for people to walk. And when cars become more necessary, the poor, elderly, young and handicapped become more and more disadvantaged. Every non-driver effectively becomes a second class citizen in that kind of environment. In all the Houstons and Sacramentos and post-war suburban cities where the sentence “I don’t have a car” produces shocked and horrified faces, a two-teir social structure sits firmly in place.
So-called traffic-calming measures can really make quite a difference in slowing traffic and giving pedestrians a little ego-boost. There’s the easy classic, the speed bump, but we’re all familiar with the quick slow-down just before the bump and the screeching speed-up afterwards. Speed limit signs tend to be ridiculous on suburban streets built with huge curb cuts and vast lanes– people drive as fast as they’re comfortable driving.
This brings us to the Dutch concept of the woonerf. These cauliflower mazes basically put obstructions right in the middle of the road. Trees and planters fill the road so drivers have to navigate more carefully. And the whole street is designed as a place for people and a playplace- curb cuts are eliminated for driveways and small roads, so drivers are constantly aware that they are the intruders on the walkers’ space, and not the other way around, as it usually is. In the residential woonerf I visited in Delft, the roads are essentially front yards and shared patios that are also ok to drive through.
Other simple but effective traffic calming measures limiting car access altogether; reducing the width of lanes, which makes drivers more nervous and careful; eliminating parking spots to discourage driving; and eliminating curb cuts for small streets and driveways, making sidewalks continuous.
And when kids are playing in streets, when people are crossing willy-nilly, when the streets are full of life and happenings, that is my favorite traffic calming measure. Drivers move much more slowly and carefully if they think they might hurt somebody. That’s one reason that having a critical mass of cyclists is so important; that’s why cars have been shown to allow more passing room when cyclists are not wearing helmets. Drivers don’t want to hit pedestrians and bikers. Most pedestrian hits happen when drivers don’t expect people to be around, such as in this horrible case, where there were no crosswalks for miles, and presumably no one had walked on that road since cars were invented. (Why would they, unless they had no other choice?)
When lanes are narrow and crosswalks are wide, when obstacles are scattered through the street and people cross streets whenever they feel like it–or maybe don’t even cross but just hang out in the middle chatting with an old friend– then you will have no need for speed limit signs. Even little old ladies will feel safe enough to participate in the outdoors. Then you will have far less traffic and many more walkers, and everyone can take their time crossing the street.
(Bonus: Play along at home! Take your sweet time crossing the street! Cross the street wherever you feel like it! Make a major commotion when motorists don’t stop for you! You are the most effective traffic calming device. )
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“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” – The Philosophy of Andy Warhol A new generation of young adults would agree, according to the NPR’s series on the changing American Dream. A recent piece by Sam Sanders called “Globals’ Generation Focuses on Experience” suggesting that the American Dream… Read more »
“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” – The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
A new generation of young adults would agree, according to the NPR’s series on the changing American Dream. A recent piece by Sam Sanders called “Globals’ Generation Focuses on Experience” suggesting that the American Dream of many people in their twenties is not about accumulating things: houses, families, cars, etc.; but rather about gathering experiences. The piece further suggests that these ‘globals’ recognize themselves as world citizens and interested in being agents of change. “They understand this idea of a shared fate, or a linked fate. That somehow, what happens to someone in Mumbai may have an effect on me West Los Angeles,” says Franklin Gilliam, Dean of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.
When Tulane University was looking to increase enrollment after Hurricane Katrina they decided, among other things, to add community service as a requirement for graduation. Applications in 2010 were double what they were in 2004, and attracted ‘a cadre of superbly responsive students”. According to Tulane’s president, Scott Cowen, “Today’s student wants an education that makes a difference.”
If landscape architecture wants to remain relevant and to attract the best and brightest, this trend begs the question: what extent can those of us in the practice of landscape architecture facilitate change things ourselves, for the public good? In addition, as discussed in a previous blog, the social impact design model is often different from standard operating practice in most established landscape architectural firms. Identifying a potential project and developing that into a paying project is an entrepreneurial challenge. Understanding how to create societal change may start with learning how to create change within an organization, one’s own firm. Building on the existing company culture, evolving an established business model requires seeing, and learning to communicate, how the design process can be applied to a variety of problems.
When talking about change one can quickly become overwhelmed. The established order has so much inertia. The complexity of our world is daunting. Where does one start to unravel the mess? What will really make a difference? If we look at the question more generally by focusing on goals: “what changes are needed to move us to a more just, equitable, sustainable, peaceful world?” it becomes more manageable in a right brain kind of way. It is more manageable in that one can start anywhere. I would argue that a healthier and happier society, is made up of a more resilient, less frightened populace. A more resilient less frightened populace is one more ready to make intelligent choices and embrace beneficial change.
For the landscape architecture profession the question then is: what goals and what changes can the landscape reasonably expect to facilitate? And what tools do we have that can be applied to task of achieving those societal goals?
Creating opportunities for health and happiness are naturally the realm of landscape and the garden, but we can do much more by making these conscious goals, and by applying the lessons of biophilia, attention restoration theory, many public health professionals, nature deficit disorder theory, to name a few, to our designs and master plans.
The sustainability tent is getting bigger and the discussion is broadening beyond issues of resource conservation to include goals of equity, inclusivity, and habitat creation, as well as health and happiness. Landscape architects can welcome this evolution of the field by increasing our understanding of issues usually outside of pure landscape architecture. This is not the time to keep tilling the well-tilled furrow that is our comfort zone. We need to be curious and look well beyond our field, extending the inclusivity of our design vocabulary.
As landscape architects we can facilitate a greater sense of rootedness and resilience in the communities we work through preservation and/or imaginative reuse of existing conditions. This is more obvious if there is some evident historical significance to interpret, but is equally if not more important if the existing elements simply suggest a historic pattern of use in a particular landscape. Rather than wipe the slate clean, what happens if we acknowledge and give a nod to the use patterns, wisdom, and embedded creativity of what came before.
Jonah Lehrer in his book ‘Imagine’ argues that we all have the potential to be creative. (The recent revelations that he was a bit too creative with supposed Bob Dylan quotes do not diminish the relevance of the book.) I would argue that manifesting creativity is a deeply satisfying human experience, and one that is catching. Any of us that can put design ingenuity to work in the public realm not only improves the quality of public space, but beyond that shows that more is possible, anywhere and everywhere.
Finally and most importantly, by being the change we want to see in the world we can lead the way. By being curious, by designing revelatory, resilient and evolutionary landscapes our clients and the end users will benefit.
Below is my list of goals and tools found in the landscape architect’s repertoire:
GOALS :: TOOLS
- Greater rootedness/resilience –– Preservation, imaginative reuse;
- Creativity/inspiration –– Design ingenuity;
- Health –– biking, greenery, liveliness, rejuvenation;
- Happiness –– biophilia, connections to nature, etc.;
- Inclusion/diversity –– inclusive design vocabulary;
- Sustainability –– habitat preservation and creation, sustainable materials, responsible energy and water use, energy generation, reductions in chemical reliance;
- Comfort with change and risk –– Preservation, imaginative reuse, adaptation.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” — Charles Darwin
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead.
So tell me: How can the profession of landscape architecture be more responsive to the challenge raised by the ‘global generation’? What change do you want to see? How can you do more? What have I goals or tools have I missed?
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Landscape urbanism plays an important role in the City Creek Center project in Salt Lake City. Redeveloping the aging and failing retail center into a mix of dense residential, office and retail spaces was an urban design challenge and required rescaling the super-sized blocks of Salt Lake City to be comfortable at the pedestrian scale…. Read more »
Landscape urbanism plays an important role in the City Creek Center project in Salt Lake City. Redeveloping the aging and failing retail center into a mix of dense residential, office and retail spaces was an urban design challenge and required rescaling the super-sized blocks of Salt Lake City to be comfortable at the pedestrian scale. As the first project in a city-wide revitalization effort known as Downtown Rising, our video, “Reconnecting Downtown Salt Lake City” highlights the essence of the project and process.
Perhaps the most pedestrian friendly area of the city, the adjacent headquarters of the Church of Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ and nearby convention centers attract a variety of events and people with nowhere to go up — until now.
While many may have looked at the large 660ft superblocks or the 120ft street right of ways as large obstacles to overcome, our design team and the ownership believed the blocks held great opportunity. By bisecting the blocks and filling in with this urban landscape, there was a tremendous opportunity to insert a pedestrian layer that complements existing transit flows of automobiles, mass transit, and light rail. The existing urban fabric did not have to completely change and go away but rather this new pedestrian layer could be inserted into the old and a new scale, a new texture, and a new sense of urbanism could come into Salt Lake City.
Aside from retail success, a recreation of the real City Creek on the site was of utmost importance to the client and owner groups. With landscape as the thread that ties the project together, the project accomplished both.
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My first exposure to the community of social impact design was the Public Architecture sponsored Design Access Summit. The summit gathered a group of articulate people with depth in the diverse range of assets required for success in this work. A range of the topics was explored both in short presentations and in very active… Read more »
My first exposure to the community of social impact design was the Public Architecture sponsored Design Access Summit. The summit gathered a group of articulate people with depth in the diverse range of assets required for success in this work. A range of the topics was explored both in short presentations and in very active small group discussions.
My first take away was that social impact design calls for a much more entrepreneurial skill set than the usual architectural firm ‘waiting for client to come up with a project’ model. Working actively in this realm often requires, or provides, an opportunity, for a designer to identify an problem or issue and then go out and identify stakeholders, partners and funding sources. Or a potential client has identified a need but needs the project to be defined and articulated in order to pursue funding, whether grants or donations. As in regular practice having a good team of collaborators is an asset, but for social impact design projects a more diverse group of resources is required. A successful project is predicated on a rich social asset resource base.
A few highlights of the two days:
Perhaps due to the lack of specificity there was a lot of talk about the need for specificity. Roman Mars, creator of the 99% Invisible radio show, addressed the subject of the story suggesting the motto ‘Specificity is the soul of the narrative’ and demonstrating the same brilliantly in a piece about the Plimsoll line in the style of NPR’s ‘This American Life’ or ‘Radiolab’. In a breakout session Roman also said that in order to motivate one’s social assets you need to have a good story, specific ‘asks’, and a common (specific) language or clear goal. Stated another way Lakshmi Ramarajan from the Organizational Behavior Unit at the Harvard Business school outlined, in a session called Rethinking Service Delivery, the steps for changing external structures as 1)Framing the issue, 2)Mobilizing others, and 3)Engaging the rule makers.
The idea of pro bono itself was batted about. Brian Healy, a design principal at Perkins + Will’s Boston office, wondered, in another breakout session, if we didn’t devalue our skills by giving them away, a problem acknowledged even by John Peterson of Public Architecture regarding the internal debate at Public over the name of their new book ‘The Power of Pro Bono’. (Then the graphics designer pointed out all the ‘0’s in the title.) Ideally people want to do work that matters, is good and pays. Ideally we want to put our talents and skills to work for clients who share our values.
The question of metrics kept popping up: Would we be more successful in securing work in line with our ideals if we could better articulate/measure the difference design can make? Or maybe more clearly stated: Are metrics a valuable tool for better articulating the design’s value? Can the therapeutic value of design be better demonstrated? Measurement was seen by some as a tool for justifying an approach and facilitating collaboration. I continue to be surprised by the way the discussion of metrics with regard to design generates a response that is, by all appearances, is defensive. I still don’t understand the dichotomy between inspiration and metrics, especially in a field as practical and concrete at architecture.
Julie Eizenberg, of Koning Eizenberg Architects, in her talk in the session entitled “Overcoming Barriers: Successes and Failures”, made an elegant and inspiring case for having every project add joy and knowledge about the world to our community fund of good. She said that “philanthropists like projects that inspire”. I would extend that: philanthropists are not the only ones. The public in general doesn’t know what the design process can offer. While designers are taught to cast a wide net around a problem, as Julie pointed out, the public isn’t even expecting inspiration, thinking that smaller is better.
If we subscribe to the ethical and political activism of adding ‘joy and knowledge of the world’ to our public dialogue through design we can no longer limit our practice to benefitting only those with adequate means. The best summation, at present, of my ongoing trip through the public good or purposeful design community, is that we as designers have a valuable skill that could serve the greater good in broad, far-reaching ways, ways that most of us, practicing traditional design in the traditional delivery method, are only just beginning to grasp.