Monday, May 31, 2010

NYC v. Medellin; Entering the Squared Circle

A week ago here in New York, the Architecture League hosted two interesting panel discussions offering insight into different models that cities are using to engage and employ design as a means of city building.  The first centered around New York City's Design Excellence Program.  The other highlighted the work done in Medellin, Colombia over the last decade, highlighted so briefly and sweetly by Christopher Hawthorne of the LA Times a few weeks ago.  We thought it would be informative to briefly summarize and compare the two.  And even if not, it might be interesting to see pretty pictures of cool things built in Colombia.
[a rendering showing Plan B's proposal for the 2010 South American Games 
Coliseum in Medellin]

[the now-built stadium in Medellin, the trusses give a dynamic and ethereal 
quality to the cavernous space]

[the roof panels each extend out into the landscape, engaging with surrounding
trees and groundplane in different ways]

The NYC Design Excellence Program was put in place by Mayor Bloomberg through the Department of Design and Construction in 2004 with the goal of pursuing an "innovative and ambitious public works program in partnership with the most creative and experienced professionals in the world" as an alternative to public low-bid design contracts.  Essentially the program serves as a mechanism for "awarding public projects to a relatively small shortlist of the usual globe-trotting suspects" and places a heavy premium on experience and reputation, tending to result in high-quality, predictable public spaces.  While this approach does limit possibilities and codify the method for commissioning public works, the program also acts as an effective regulation on the market for the design of public spaces and creates accountability for the creation of public works in the City.

Many of these practitioners have decades of experience working in the public realm and have been around long enough to have an established project emphasis and style and make political connections within the DDC and Department of Parks and Recreation.  This program has resulted in many fine places in the city such as Columbus Circle and The Bronx Museum of the Arts and will provide the commission for the new Times Square design.  Though the selected professionals change yearly, it features a roster that reads like the New York Yankees of architecture: TEN Arquitectos, Snohetta, Thomas Phifer, Asymptote, and Architecture Research Office, among others.

[one of the DDC's construction excellence practitioners will be responsible for 
the permanent redesign of Times Square.  There is an excellent chance it will
be worse than the ad-hoc but intelligent temporary makeover by the DOT]

On Saturday, May 22nd, the Colombians came to town.  Introduced by Matilda McQuaid, curator of the Why Design Now exhibit at Cooper Hewitt, and moderated by Mark Robbins of Syracuse, the panel included Mauricio Valencia, Planning Director of Medellin, Federico Restrepo, civil engineer, CEO of Empresas Publicas Medellin and former Planning Director, and Camillo Restrepo, architect and co-designer of the Orquideorama that we love so dearly here at FASLANYC, and co-editor of the blog ATLAS (agencies translatina de arquitecturas).

The following is an edited version of my feverish notes, with specific points attributed to certain speakers by their initials in parentheses.  One important note; the Arch League would not have been able to host this event if these three guys had not taken the time to learn English (to varying degrees).  The single most critical step that North American designers must take in the next five years is to learn basic Spanish (and/or Portuguese) to a level that enables the communication of practical academic ideas.  It is not only absurd and ethnocentric to expect others to learn English, it is also a relinquishing of power and an abdication of responsibility, one we are beginning to pay for.

In the introduction by Mrs. McQuaid, all of the work was immediately placed in a socio-political context:  Medellin had historically been the violent crime and drug capital of the world, a trend that began to change with Pablo Escobar's death in 1993.  The city was not particularly poor but had a huge income disparity and distrust of elected officials and tax evasion were common, especially among the poor (FR).  

In a turn of events that smacks of Jamie Lerner's 1988 coup in Curitiba, Sergio Fajardo was elected mayor of Medellin in 2003.  As the figurehead of a group of young, invested professional citizens including social workers, planners, architects, and engineers, he instituted a new program of "Social Urbanism".  Emblematic of this approach was the decree that "We must build our best buildings in the poorest areas".  These projects were to be public; schools, libraries, museums, bridges, botanical gardens and sports recreation facilities.  These new icons help residents to construct new mythologies about their city and its public life.

But the projects were more than symbols; they were to meet the needs of quotidian life in Medellin through specific and layered programming.  The libraries are the best known example of this focus: 40% of the programming was given over to books and media, 60% to public services including job training, computer access, and micro-credit lending centers.  Each library would also include a public garden and open space, and the new projects would connect to remade streets that provide necessary amenities- seating, planting, bus shelters, and newly prioritized public transit gondolas and bus lanes.
[Parque Biblioteca San Javier in Medellin by Javier Vera Arquitectos]

[the Biblioteca Belen; the libraries serve as media and educational centers and provide facilities for social services for the surrounding neighborhoods]

[Parque Biblioteca Espana, designed by Giancarlo Mazzanti.  It is that awesome]

This Social Urbanism (MV) initiative was conceived of as a catalyst to break the vicious cycle of disinvestment and disenfranchisement in poor neighborhoods.  In Medellin the areas with the strongest voter representation received the most public investment, yet the poor areas in greatest need were under-represented because of the distrust of government in those areas (FR).  Community involvement in identifying needs as well as programming and design was considered critical, the "software of each project" (FR).  

Each of the projects was commissioned through an open national competition juried by prominent designers, engineers, and bureaucrats.  These competitions functioned as a mechanism for dialogue and discourse within the local design community.  Anecdotes about the collaborations between the various design offices seemed to bear this out (for instance, the collaborations between Camillo Restreppo and Massif, Camilo Ramirez, and Tres Arquitectura on the Biblioteca San Cristobal and Biblioteca 12 de Octubre).  

On the theme of openness in architecture, Camillo made one of the most eloquent and impassioned statements (paraphrased):  

The small construction budgets and distance from centers of learning and commerce- it is a landlocked city at high altitude- means that Medellin designers have a certain amount of freedom and autonomy.  They do not have to pander to stylistic vogues and indeed this is often impossible because of complicated fabrication techniques and material requirements.  There is an emphasis on lo-tech/hi-concept design in Medellin, and the exploration that this requires is possible because their is no heavy legacy of former architecture masters in the city.  And there never will be!  Architecture in Medellin is the antithesis of the heroic individual making his mark on the world.  Rather, it is a potent social weapon, one that must be aimed directly at the situation.  Here, we are trying to rebuild the city as an open university where everything is a learning opportunity and public life is varied, rich social interaction (CR).

However, this open process which encourages exploration and is not dominated by bureaucratic politics and foreign influence also leaves a messy and difficult process (MV).  The constant recreating of program, aesthetics, and methods of intervention- the "hardware and software" of each building- is arduous and at times contentious.
[Camilo Restrepo's entry to Parque Biblioteca 12 de Octubre, shown here just for its boldness and beauty]

[the commission for the new library park was awarded to a team led by
Diego Lopez Charlaca]

The difference in the models for commissioning public architecture in New York City and Medellin is striking and is an excellent chance to contrast two opposite approaches as cities try to rebuild in the wake of the crises and plan for future growth, resource scarcity, and climate change.  Both models work relatively well for their respective cities.  In NYC, one of the richest and most well-connected of the world's "network" cities, creating a list of some of the most prominent and accomplished architects in the world and keeping them "on-call" for requests-for-proposals for the city's public architecture is an effective way of ensuring a level of quality and international notoriety for the various works and an orderly process.

The codification of the commission process does stultify some of the design impulses in the city, driving it underground.  More sinister, this embarrassment of Design riches and the bureaucratic processes behind it serve to harness design as a "method of exclusion".  Most damning, much of the work is just not that interesting.  As many of the practitioners are old with established methods and approaches, and commissions favor those with significant track records, some of the projects are just expensive stylistic masturbation, equal parts ego and political hubris; not rooted in any particular mythos of the site or city but rather a copy of the memes making the rounds in the world of star designers.

In Medellin, the Social Urbanism seems to be working.  Not only are the individual projects worth lusting over from afar at a computer in New York City, but there is evidence that communities are being knit back together and public life is reviving.  The design community in Medellin includes practitioners and academics from a range of ages and backgrounds, and there seems to be a real optimism about the future of the city and its public works.

New York has more influence over the traditional (English-speaking) media and as mammoth has previously noted, some version of their model is what currently predominates when commissioning public work in the US.  We will see if the Medellin message gets out.  Hawthorne and McQuaid are trying to do their part.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

War With the Newts or, the Makers of Margins Will Rule

This post is part of the collective reading of The Infrastructural City hosted by mammoth and is about the fourth chapter titled "Margins in Our Midst" by Matthew Coolidge, of the excellent Center for Land Use Interpretation.  It concerns the Catholic Church, Newts, and the possibilities inherent in the investment/extraction binary.  If you feel up to it, check out mammoth's earlier piece on the topic.  

The most striking passage of "Margins in Our Midst" is the last:

"California is the leading consumer- as well as producer- of aggregate in the nation.  These holes may be owned by Vulcan, Hanson, United Rock, or the Catholic Church, but they are holes we all dug together.  For every pile there is a pit, for every pit a pile."
[the bizarre and subtle cover of Karel Capek's book]

This phrase is eerily reminiscent of that fantastic dystopian sci-fi satire The War with the Newts, a book whose wonderful, dark, and clever story I will now reduce to two lines:  Humans find the next perfect technological solution to their terraforming needs- Newts!  whom they immediately master, putting them to work as slave labor.  It opens up a golden age of industry and commerce until the newts turn the humans' strategies against them, methodically carving up the land for their own purposes, playing different nationalities and ethnicities off of one another, before eventually subjugating the humans and their lovely dry land.  On page 234, as the newts are making their way in from the coast lines and beginning their inevitable assault on the inland territories, a conversation takes place between two characters, after one has spotted a newt in the Vltava River in the heart of the Prague:

'So men will serve the Newts.'

'That's right, if you want to call it that.  They'll simply work in their factories as they are doing now.  They'll just have different masters.  When all's said and done, it mightn't be all that different...'

'And you're not sorry for mankind?'

'For God's sake leave me alone!  What can I do?  It's what people wanted; they all wanted to have Newts, commerce wanted them, and industry and engineering, the statesmen wanted them and the military gentlemen did.  Even young Povondra said so:  we are all responsible for it.  Of course, I am sorry for mankind!  But I was most sorry for it when I watch it rushing headlong to its own ruin.'

And yet, perhaps that's a bit bombastic taken out of context.  Prior to the last statement, "Margins" gives an interesting if somewhat inchoate survey of the different mining pits of and operations of Irwindale and the social and ecological dynamics they render on the landscape.  Mammoth previously noted that these landscapes of extraction are fundamental to contemporary society.  In fact, they have been always been a fact of urbanization.  These landscapes are typically found at the edges of cities, or cities are founded at their edges.  Their exploitation- the extraction of their resources- allows for investment at the margins of these gravel mines, rivers, forests:  constructing buildings, irrigating farms, building roads.  
[urban center in the kingdom of kush; the associated pit is
somewhere around here...]

[the pyramid of the sun in teotichlan, Mexico
along the Way of The Dead]

In Irwindale, as Matthew Coolidge notes, both municipalities, non-profits, and business enterprises are having difficulty figuring out what to do with these left-behind pits.  In part, they don't immediately lend themselves to contemporary uses and patterns.  Yet, their privileged location at the periphery of the city, in this case Los Angeles, and the fact that they demand innovative uses if they are to be used at all promises the chance to invert the extraction/investment binary.  

Thinking about the city as a human and capital resource to be exploited or extracted and possible new uses as the unique attractor for the capital, can Irwindale reinvent itself, creating a more complex and diverse relationship with the city?  Can the quarries allow the city to create a system of huge lakes, creating a water storage system and bourgeoisie recreation area for LA’s rednecks?  Maybe a series of industrial grade orquidearama’s could be built for the world’s albinos?  Maybe Irwindale can grow down the side of the pits; the cliffs become apartment armatures and ant farm-style office buildings?
[who wouldn't want to live under one of these?]

The author alludes to the deviant/creative activities that occur in the recreation zone alongside the Santa Fe Dam.  Could landscape architecture, or design, lend some purpose or structure for the creative repurposing of these zones reversing the extraction/investment binary?  Perhaps the newts could live there?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Landscape Ruralism

Recently Urban Tick ran an ecotastic review of the Ecological Urbanism book that recently came out.  Much of the content is available for free through the dowloadable webcasts, but if you'd like to pay money for it and you love neologisms, it's interesting.  At about that same time, we here at FASLANYC were busy listening to podcasts that middle-aged white people listen to:  NPR.  A few weeks ago Energy Secretary Steven Chu appeared in On Point With Tom Ashbrook.  It wasn't that interesting but at about the 40-minute mark, a farmer (Bob from Wisconsin) called in with a question for the Secretary, which I will now quote verbatim:

"I'm a farmer and would like to get off the public grid but it's very exorbitant to do that now.  So, I'm suggesting that the government at least give us very low-interest or no-interest loans where we can pay them back with the surplus energy we produce.  But there's no reason why every farm in the US can't produce its own energy plus surplus energy to use in the neighborhood."

Instead of reading about Harvard's symposium like good urbanists/urbanites should, we found ourselves taken with Bob's idea (certainly not a new one, but still so good): farms not merely producing food, but also producing power by farming wind and solar energy.  And of course there are serious issues to confront, some technical, some cultural and environmental, and also some serious benefits.  But that is not the point we hope to discuss today.  Rather, it is the tendency in the contemporary discourse to discuss the entire landscape, especially the rural areas, in terms of the city that we want to pick on.  The rural should not be sublimated to the urban.

[the Parque del Lago- another beautiful rendered whatever in the name of 
landscape urbanism]

[yes, yes, yes]

Many of the tenets of landscape urbanism (its focus on the region, systems and patterns, landscape ecology) would seem to lend themselves directly to the study of agricultural and energy farms-productive systems- in the hinterlands.  Of course, this would exclude the phenomenological or embodied experience of the rural- that is not covered in the LU manual.  In fact, the Ecological Urbanism book/conference/webcast series has some projects that deal directly with the productive systems of rural areas (see the OMA proposal for Zeekracht, recently highlighted by F.A.D.) and yet it is always framed in terms of the urban.  A quote from Urban Tick's introductory post on the book is illuminating:

"The key to address the conundrum [of fast urban growth with "destroying" the earth] seems to be "density", since it relates and affects each and every subject within the book.  Density is the factor that puts in relation humans to city scale, therefore reflecting the soul of both.  Density might be the only factor that can have a remarkable impact on sustainability both on a large and small scale.  Can we define a socially and morphologically "right density"?  What kind of urban visions would that bring?"

Granted, more people live in cities now than in the country, a historical first; so the hysteria is understandable.  And cities do tend to be less environmentally damaging than subsistence farming (not a given though.  Those United Nations numbers showing an urbanized world include the suburbs, which are environmentally catastrophic in per capita terms).  But it is unfortunate and limiting to the practice of landscape design that still we fetishize urban environments to the detriment of the rural landscape.  Now, at a unique moment in our culture and profession we should be expanding our skills and purview to honestly deal with the entire landscape.  

Much of the conceptual justification for the landscape approach to urbanism finds firm footing in current climate change and ecology science (apologies for the orgy of alliteration) and the discussion of crisis.  Yale 360 (and Seed Magazine) just recently published a great article which brings in to focus a bit the other crisis facing our world- providing food for 2 billion more people while simultaneously phasing out destructive agricultural practices and dealing with the nasty legacy we created for ourselves in the last 50 years of industrial agriculture.  Landscape architects can help here, too.  Instead of wasting our best years begging for the scraps from the big boys' table (which are primarily just the scraps from developers' and politicians' tables anyway), another possibility is to fan out and fight guerilla-style against all of these nasty problems that landscape architects can help with.  Instead of clambering over one another for the next glamorous commission we can put that same effort into a group that is organized and ready to mobilize and just needs vision or technical expertise (both of which landscape architects can provide)- farmers are one group.  We need more guerrilla landscape architecture, more landscape ruralism, more embodied urbanism, more landscape ecology.  We need more everything.  We cannot be dogmatic about landscape, which is why landscape urbanism, despite its broad conceptual ambition (grounded a bit by this excellent essay), and its bias towards urban spaces must be noted.

One example of landscape ruralism is the work being done by Nelson Byrd Woltz through their "conservation agriculture" studio.  Organized as a subset within the office, the stated intent is to "tie a family of project together for the purpose of sharing information and interweaving sustainable agriculture with the best management practices for conservation of wildlife, indigenous plants, soil, and water."  The most notable of these projects is Nick's Head Station in New Zealand (see Beth Meyer's article on the project in the Harvard Design Magazine's 2nd Volume on "Sustainability and Pleasure".  Also great in that issue and available for free download is the essay "Big Beautiful Feet" by Kongjian Yu of Turenscape).  Granted, these projects smack of the "gentleman farmer" (note Mrs. Meyer's article is in not in a volume about "sustainability and productivity").  Nonetheless, the projects are interesting and instructive.
[Why, yes dear, that is a controlled burn to eliminate weeds, replenish the soil
and maintain a natural grassland.  Now run up to the house and get my
smoking jacket]

[at Nick's Head in New Zealand, plants are grown for pilot experiments for 
restoration projects on the site]

[a hillside restoration project to combat erosion and invasive pests]

This type of organization of institutional memory and progressive action toward agriculture and its processes is a great example of landscape ruralism and the added-value that landscape architects can bring to the agricultural systems and processes shaping the rural landscape.  Working closely with scientists from the School of Natural Resources at Syracuse University, they have been able to orchestrate the deployment of tactics both for controlling invasive vermin and weeds as well as maintaining natural meadows through controlled burns.  All of this is orchestrated according to strategies for maintaining productive agricultural lands, increasing biodiversity, and restoring functioning riparian and woodland ecologies.  

We should stop following our leaders so much, though I've nothing against working with them.  But if they want us to fall in line and wait our turn to do the same work, I'd just really rather not.  There's a ton of work to be done.  We should make our own work, seed some disruptive innovation, and figure out more ways of doing more things.
[let's do some design together]

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Design Dies Too

[This week is the second of a two-part post examining the construction of social capital through the community design process, focusing on two particular case studies.  Next week I'm sure we'll resume our usual semantic jibber-jabber about different "urbanisms" and the various merits of "constructed ecologies", "mycorrhizal infrastructures", "lo-fi landscapes" and other semantic masturbations.  Will also be happily chipping back in on the fun group reading of "The Infrastructural City" headed up by the good folks at mammoth.]

Last week here at FASLANYC we looked at a community design process, focusing on a small town in eastern North Carolina and the ways in which that process was able to aid the construction of social capital across generations.  One of the important benefits of the community design process is that it promises an auto-catalytic social project that enables the community to both inform the design project and to interpret and execute it long after the professionals have moved on.  To quote the Manteo Town Plan:  

The plan is intended to serve as a guide [for the Town of Manteo] to help it deal with development issues that can be expected over the coming twenty years.  It is directed toward the Board Commissioners, the Planning and Zoning Board, and the town staff, but it is also intended for residents so that they too will be fully involved in making the many decisions that determine the character of the town as it continues to develop.  It is intended to serve as a guide to further direct discussions and decisions.

But in order to utilize/implement the community design process it is important to examine this claim critically, find the weak or sore spots, and irritatingly poke one's finger into it.  Only then can we know its limitations and seek out other methods and initiatives with which to couple (or replace) it.  For that, we should go to the well-documented case of Barrio Jorge Hardoy in San Fernando, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

[The municipality of San Fernando within the conurbation of Buenos Aires]

[Barrios of San Jorge and Jorge Hardoy, villas miseries around Buenos Aires,
located between a river on the left and an irrigation ditch on the right, the
villas suffer from flooding problems]

This area has long been the focus of detailed and thoughtful study and intervention through the ngo International Institute for Environment and Development- America Latina (for a good, short interview with IIED's David Satterthwaite see Polis' recent post).  For nearly twenty years they have been working here and in the Barrio San Jorge, two of the villas miseries that dot the ring of urbanization around Buenos Aires, Argentina.  This villa, like most, is built on public land subject to flooding and has historically lacked most basic municipal services.

IIED has been working for nearly 30 years with this community on initiatives including a mother-child care center, provision of water and sanitation utilities, paving of roads, garbage collection.  Most of this work was done in collaboration with local collectives, the local church, the municipality, and international donor organizations.  

Incidentally, there are bizarre parallels between this type of effort and the South American Jesuit Reduction of the 16th and 17th's centuries.  For all of their problems and the hyperbolic claims of their opponents of the time, the Jesuit Reductions were at least a successful model in resisting the enslavement of the local population by the Spaniards and allowed the Guarani an operating space within the new colonial society; one based on prosperous and autonomous communities with the aim of Christianizing the local population.

[the Jesuit Reduction "mission" at Concepcion]

IIED's focus in all of these initiatives is the construction of social capital as opposed to the capital project (or, in the Jesuits' case, the conversion of the local population).  In 2005 a project was begun with the goal  to work with the youth of the barrio (nearly 60% of the population is under 18) to design, install, and maintain the open spaces in the barrio.  When Barrio Jorge Hardoy was being constructed because of crowding in the older San Jorge, IIED was able to work with the community and agree to designate certain spaces within the center of the community for future plazas, gardens and play areas.  In subsequent years, these areas had remained open- a major victory- but were neglected and their main use was trash dumping.  Despite this, the open spaces did attract the young people of the barrio as a place to practice soccer, play, and pass time.

The project [Movimiento de los Jovenes] would first organize and help to educate interested volunteers about what is possible in the open spaces with a focus on the youth of the neighborhood.  Then, a design process would be undertaken to suggest possible programming and form for the open spaces.  Lastly, these would be presented to the municipality along with a plan for capital construction and maintenance.  The hope was that through this process the learned knowledge among the neighbors and youth combined with professional expertise and backing from the municipal government would be enough to begin the construction and cultivation of the public open spaces, leading to improvements in sanitation, access to healthy food, youth recreation possibilities.  In addition, through the process of working together with neighbors, professionals, and local officials, it was hoped that members of the community would gain the confidence to create new initiatives pertaining to the public spaces and other needs in the barrio.

[existing open spaces with unpaved roads]

[existing equipment is run down and broken due to heavy use and lack of care]

[construction debris- or dirt- is appropriated by kids who still find ways to
play together and practice soccer or invent games]

[a typical meeting, community leaders and youth from the neighborhood
gathered to talk about possibilities, precedents, and still has homework to do]

[models created by the community process, originally they were finely 
detailed, monochromatic architectural models, but those are boring.  so they
busted out the glue gun and the cut paper to get the point across]

[presentation to the municipal officials, the "movimiento de los jovenes" is
there, but not necessarily totally interested]

After the presentation to the municipality, an agreement was reached with local officials to finish the paving of the main roads in the barrio, install public water utilities and a grant was secured to begin a locally run nursery to grow the plants to be used in the public spaces, staffed with community members, and providing supplemental food sources.  In addition, new play equipment would be constructed and installed by the neighbors (many of whom are skilled in basic construction methods due to constructing their own homes).  As this project was progressing, the Barrio was still working to confront the other social and environmental issues of the place including lack of water service, teen violence and drug use, and land rights.  

With the grant for the nursery procured by IIED, the neighbors were able to keep the project going- the first round of planting was installed in the plaza and the roads were finally paved by the municipality.  Later, the neighbors were able to install the new play equipment.  However, much of the planting has died due to lack of irrigation stemming from the water issues in the barrio and a lack of maintenance on the part of the neighbors.  In addition, the play equipment is breaking from heavy usage and lack of maintenance as before.  In the face of other problems and without the help of outside professionals, the public spaces have once again fallen into disrepair.  Sometimes design is not enough.

[the plaza with utilities, walkways, bordered by newly paved roads.
planting nurseries are going in through the efforts of IIED and the neighbors]

[neighbors working in the plaza, now overrun with weeds, but still playable,
and still green]

[shade cloth in the background protects the plants until they're installed, 
the play equipment is calling our for some new paint on the right]

Despite the apparent failure of the initial project- the plazas are now in disarray, the nursery is defunct, the play equipment is run down- there is still a case to be made for the community design process.  Though the project has suffered setbacks due to exterior factors as well as internal shortcomings (was it right to target the youth of the barrio for involvement?  Was a nursery the right strategy for a barrio without reliable water, even though it had been promised by the municipality?) the fact that the project was concerned first and foremost with the construction of social capital instead of the capital project leaves behind a legacy that can be built upon.  The neighbors have the shared common experience of once making a communal space.  In different circumstances, they can perhaps do it again.  The young kids have received some education about what is possible in their neighborhood, and what other cities do in similar situations, and they have the experience of contacting local officials.  What's more, the responsibility for the project was not totally contingent on government, a fact which helps to undermine the paternalistic attitude which can develop between communities and local government officials.

The apparent demise of any particular effort is lamentable.  However, the promise of a initiative focused on the construction of social capital as opposed to the capital project, the design project can still give birth to a later iteration, building on lessons learned and the new skills and relationships within the community.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Generational Iterations- Constructing Social Capital through Community Design

A generation ago the town of Manteo, North Carolina was disintegrating.  Formerly a fishing and port town, the highways built in the 1950's had relegated the town to a regional backwater.  By the 1980's the primary model for an economically solvent town in eastern North Carolina was to develop its seasonal tourism industry, a model that often has adverse social impacts due to the allocation of prime real estate and resources to seasonal visitors.
[North Carolina's Outer Banks, Blackbeard's old stomping
grounds, Graveyard of the Atlantic, first line of hurricane
defense for the eastern seaboard; Manteo is just south 

In 1983 then-North Carolina State University professor Randy Hester and students produced a plan that identified ways the town could develop without losing its particular character and social cohesion.  For months the students and Professor Hester undertook a nuanced study of Manteo- living in the town for stretches, talking with residents and identifying the physical places that made Manteo unique.  Some were landmarks and some were everyday places; the key was that they were all meaningful; critical to the psychological health as well as physical structure of the community (a fact reflected in the baroque title of the article published in Places in 1984- “Subconscious Landscapes of the Heart”).

Community design is a pathway fraught with potential landmines as the process can be easily dominated by the "loud minority" while those that are disenfranchised or simply disinterested remain on the sidelines.  In 1983, the process undertaken by the town of Manteo was less about the design of their physical community and more about the knitting together of their local myths into a common folklore.  By identifying the places that were the generators of meaningful social interactions the townsfolk created a map of the "sacred places" in their quotidian lives.  The project was the construction of social capital which would generate the political will needed over the coming years to implement the plan while simultaneously providing specific site strategies.

By 2002, Manteo had become more attractive with lower property taxes, more cultural amenities and a cohesive social fabric.  However, partly because of the successful plan and the development it spurred, the town was now facing "threats to the quaint character of the town from large-scale development, traffic and parking problems, and questions about future expansion of municipal services."  While the fate of becoming a tacky tourist town had been avoided, much of the new economic activity had come from the construction of second homes and the number of part-time residents threatened to eclipse full-time residents.  Additionally, commercial development along Highway 64 had come to dominate the gateway to the town and a major new gated community was proposed for downtown.  This new, uncontrolled development threatened the character of the town which had been so painstakingly reclaimed in the 20 years prior.

These new challenges brought on by the revival of the last 20 years were layered on top of a legacy of problems endemic to towns in eastern North Carolina, namely an aging population and racial inequalities regarding housing and employment.  In addition, the effects of climate change on the low-lying island had coupled with the demands of additional population to leave the town with serious water issues.  The water quality of the Shallowbag Bay had become a concern and an extensive environmental study undertaken in 2000 had revealed non-point source pollution, primarily stormwater runoff, as the primary factor.

In 2003 at the behest of the City Council a contingent of students was marshaled from NC State through the Department of Landscape Architecture and the Community Outreach Initiative, led by the husband-wife team of Achva Benzinberg Stein and David Stein, respectively.  Many of the townspeople still remembered the work done in 1982 and had seen the vision implemented during the following decades.  This type of social capital, where people have worked alongside one another to accomplish a communal goal, was evident to the designers from the start.  David Stein noted "There has always been a strong awareness of the plan. When Hester’s plan was adopted, the various projects from it were laid out on a huge chart that covered the wall of the Town Council meeting room, and the projects were ticked off one by one over the course of the 20 years. They actually implemented all but one! The plan had rescued the town from oblivion and financial ruin, giving it a focus and a means to organize itself around commercial revitalization along the water front."  It was in this context that the second iteration of community-involved design and planning was begun.

From the outset, the community was engaged, acting as a facilitator and constituent in the dialogue between the town and the design team.  The design team employed a multi-pronged strategy to engage the institutions and citizens within the town.  Nearly 50% of the population participated in an initial survey distributed to advise the people of the project and attain insight on specific issues.  In addition to the survey, town hall and city council meetings focused on the project, and the design studios were open to the public.  In order to target those of the community that were less connected and invested, a notice also went out with the water bills as to what the designers were doing, the issues they were tackling, and how the townsfolk could contribute (a thoughtful precursor to Jane Wolff’s Delta Primer deck of cards).

The organizing strategies for the town plan were identified as:  development of affordable housing, maintaining and further strengthening town identity, encouraging responsible, diverse and long-term economic activity, responsible stewardship of natural resources, and encouraging further social and economic integration among residents of the town.  These strategies were intended to act as a connected system of both catalysts and deterrents which required a sophisticated interpretation to implement effectively.  And this is where the social capital has the most value- when the designers are gone and the community and town leaders are charged with carrying out the strategies, it helps if they understand them thoroughly and if they are emotionally invested in their successful implementation.

The 2003 planning process is now coming to fruition.  The stated intent of the community plan was "to serve as a guide for the Town of Manteo to help it deal with development issues that can be expected over the coming twenty years.  It is directed toward the Board Commissioners, the Planning and Zoning Board, and the town staff, but it is also intended for residents so that they too will be fully involved in making the many decisions that determine the character of the town as it continues to develop.  It is intended to serve as a guide to further direct discussions and decisions."  The new condominium development in downtown is in construction and has been reorganized to include new park space, affordable housing units, and businesses integrated into Manteo's existing street grid.  The College of the Albemarle has agreed to locate one of its campuses on a 12 acre site just a few blocks from downtown.
[this building evidently withstood many hurricanes.  After it was demolished,
a new wetland park was created on the now-vacant lot.  Funds from The 
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were used.]

[the building was no longer viable economically.  It was perched on the edge
of an existing brackish marsh.  The new wetland park will provide a social 
amenity and help to filter stormwater runoff to reduce pollutants in the
Shallowbag Bay.]

One of the favorite recreation activities of the younger generation in Manteo is skateboarding downtown.  This activity, despite being one of the few viable social recreational pastimes available to young people in the town, often brought them into conflict with downtown business and homeowners.  Reputation aside, skateboarders are often the most social, creative and hardy users of public spaces.  According to town planner Erin Trebisacci, the Town Council originally proposed a site on the outskirts of town for a skate park.  Others in the town pushed for the park to be more centrally located, within walking distance of the high school and middle school, and to again use an inclusive design process to create a place that skateboarders would use and protect.  They argued that a park on the outside of town would not solve the problem of skateboarding downtown because kids without cars couldn't get to it easily and there wouldn't be enough people around to put on a show for!  

The resulting park, built by skateboarder and contractor Andy Duck, is located adjacent to the future campus of the College of the Albemarle.  The skateboard park has been one of the most used and protected public places in Manteo, a place where youth can go to see and be seen and then walk or bike to school or home.  The inclusive design process has given skateboarders a stake in the park and they have taken control of the maintenance and care of the park, reducing costs to the town and conflicts with business owners downtown.
[the new skate park; the high school is in the background]

In 2003 a group of students and professors from NCSU sought to build on a legacy established a generation earlier and to help Manteo, NC negotiate the new issues arising from the successes of that earlier plan.  Instead of rebuilding what was lost, a new vision was needed for how to grow the town without forsaking that particular identity that was so integral.  Realizing the success in executing the 1983 plan was founded on the construction of social capital, the team engaged the residents of the town at every turn.  The synergy between the various areas of expertise of professors, students, and residents was used to create a plan that could then be implemented over time by the invested citizens, politicians, and developers in a way that was malleable and robust.  This implementation is precisely what is happening on the ground in Manteo, NC today.  New residences are being built according to the aesthetic and affordable housing guidelines, existing wetlands are being protected and new ones constructed as public parks for filtering stormwater runoff.  

Most charming, a new skate park was built with an inclusive design and construction process that has resulted in a park maintained by the users within walking distance of the local schools.  This particular town provides evidence that the most promising aspect of appropriate community design- the construction of social capital- is capable of building the political will and social cohesion necessary to rehabilitate crumbling infrastructure and create vital communities that are economically and ecologically viable over long temporal scales- across generations.