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.


  1. Although, this particular case in in NC this example (as well as examples such as the community design process involved in shaping the LA River masterplan we spoke of last week) it is exactly these sorts of developments which lead me to disagree with Varnelis's more (as i read it) pessimistic perspective on the future of urban development and cities abilities to tackle big problems.
    Yes, NIMBYism etc are problems but there are solutions. Including this sort of community driven design and the mythology/myth making component (that we have been discussing the last few weeks).
    But then again this is coming from the mouth of someone who just joined his second community advisory baord..

  2. i agree. the landscape is so big, with so much "operating space" (apologies to Deleuze) that it leaves room for optimism in discerning new methods of intervention.

    NIMBY-ism, the loud minority, insolvent governments, environmental degradation- this are all serious issues. But there are still ways to do work, to make things. This is one way.

    I understand Varnelis to be optimistic in another way, advocating for "networks" as the way to understand spaces, though this approach is perhaps more nihilistic than optimistic, offering no discernible methods or models for intervention.

    Not sure about that, though. But there is a way forward, if only because the environment will be fine. Whether or not we will be able to exist within it and still maintain values is a different story, I suppose.

    I do love that Varnelis takes direct aim at some of the basic assumptions underlying our historical and contemporary approaches and attitudes...

    I'll have a follow up- the other side of the coin- to this post next week. I would love to hear your take.