Bring on the joy
Civic engagement strategies in the age of Twitter
In New England, changing zoning is more difficult than sending someone to the moon. In the spring of 2015, Dan Bacon, planning director for Scarborough, Maine, asked for help implementing a better zoning code for Higgins Beach, a picturesque community of largely seasonal residents. Outdated regulations were putting its historic character in jeopardy. Different tactics were needed to successfully change the zoning before the next season of construction.
The hard task was helping the residents understand that they controlled future development with their own regulations. Change like this takes trust, and my team did not have months to build that trust. The best tactic? Become locals. We decided to live in the neighborhood, and in June of 2015, we rented a cottage with a large living room to host a multiday planning charette. Every meeting, presentation, and workshop was held in that cottage.
With our open-door policy, it was not uncommon to come downstairs in the morning to find the dining-room table already filled with residents talking about the future of their neighborhood over breakfast. This all-access approach allowed us to educate in a much more meaningful way than a typical public meeting held on a Thursday evening in a school cafeteria. We could take impromptu walking tours to help neighbors see their community with new eyes. Late into the evening, we would talk on the porch with people who were curious as to what was going on. It didn’t take long before we were welcomed into the fold with sandwiches and blueberry pies.
Higgins Beach planning charette. Photo: Russell Preston
What does it really mean to engage the public? Engagement has become so much more than just a required step to a planning process. When engagement is actually the process, one asks different questions, solves problems more collaboratively, and starts a genuine dialogue with the community—letting plans emerge that previously might never have been possible.
Crucial to this process in the Higgins Beach experience was allowing the community to criticize what they saw being drawn. These “pin-up” sessions, similar to a design school critique, were essentially listening labs, after which we would make changes, present refinements, and repeatedly alter the proposal. We held the final “pin-up” on the front lawn of the cottage on a Sunday morning, complete with fresh local donuts. On December 2, 2015, six months from the start of the process, the new zoning code for the neighborhood was formally adopted.
For a project in Maine, the author lived in the neighborhood and held charettes, presentations, and workshops in his cottage. Illustration: Adapted by Stoltze Design from a drawing by Russell Preston
This approach to planning is happening all over the country. The Tennessee Brewery, a significant historical complex in Memphis, ceased operations in 1954. In the spring of 2014, when the then owners announced their desire to demolish it, a team of eight local “tacticians” mobilized to save the building. Naming the effort “Tennessee Brewery Untapped,” they envisioned a pop-up restaurant, a bar, a game room, a beer garden, and an event courtyard for the space; for six weeks during the summer—for the first time in a generation—people were able to drink beer there again.
More than 25,000 people came through the doors to experience this pop-up. The community was asked to help with cleanup, building furniture and fixtures for the space, an effort organized through its Facebook page. Reaching thousands of “likes” within hours earned media coverage and a clever social media presence that used a witty approach with such lines as “We haven’t sent beer out of here since 1954.” Twitter and Instagram posts featured familiar graffiti art found on the brewery as imagery in the marketing. The “Untapped” event accomplished what had not been possible for decades: It brought new life to this once-forgotten place.
Tennessee Brewery Untapped. Photo: courtesy of Tennessee Brewery
“Untapped” became a platform where a broad range of community discussion occurred, including how to save the building. Tommy Pacello, then a member of Memphis’ Mayor’s Institute for Excellence in Government, says “Art and music played a key role in programming the event space. We also were deliberate about mixing in lectures and meet-ups as a way to capture the creativity of Memphians in making the space vibrant.” “Untapped” was so successful that an unsanctioned pop-up trolley stop was installed by the team, including a station stop with signage adorned with the quote “your designated driver,” hinting at the importance of public transit in the city. The “tacticians” tracked everything—attendance, income, comments, the most photographed elements of the space—and this people-focused approach started a new conversation about historic preservation in Memphis.
Before the pop-up closed, a local developer stepped forward to explore redevelopment. By November of 2014, he had purchased the property, saving the building from demolition. Even more amazing: The $25,000 used to produce the event created a 290 percent return on that investment; then, in August of 2015, plans were unveiled for a $27.5 million redevelopment of the complex.
To help people create authentic places, put them at the center of the process. To facilitate a deeper dialogue between the community and professionals on a project—whether it’s a new public plaza or a citywide plan—take the role of the urbanist, and work at the intersection of planning, placemaking, design, and real estate development. Forget the neighborhood meeting in the church basement at 7 p.m. on a school night.
Converting an existing parking lot to a public plaza seems like a no-brainer in a transit-served neighborhood such as Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. Yet when city officials first presented the idea to a group of stakeholders, it was rejected. Why?
Davis Square pop-up plaza. Photo: Russell Preston
Concept design for the conversion of 12 parking spaces into a new public plaza in Davis Square, Somerville, Massachusetts. Illustration: David Carrico
It is human nature to fear the unknown. Even no-brainer ideas can be dismissed. When the city asked for help with a new neighborhood plan, my team built the plaza as a demonstration and then asked the public what they thought about it. During the design charette’s three days, the pop-up plaza was programmed with food, music, comfy seating, and carnival acrobats. We tested how well the parking lot performed as a plaza by programming it intensely.
Tactical urbanism is not about creating a spectacle. The planning team camped out in the plaza and engaged in conversations—with moms with their kids, older folks, professionals on their lunch breaks. And with that relaxed setting as the backdrop, residents visited the design studio set up in the vacant storefront next to the plaza. We made it fun. In turn, people who usually never participate in planning gave us valuable input on their neighborhood.
Urban design in progress at the public charette for Davis Square.
Photo: Dan Bartman
Why can’t planning the future of our neighborhoods actually be a pleasant experience? Most public meetings are organized in a fashion that fosters confrontation. Brad Rawson, now the director of transportation and infrastructure for Somerville, brought his band to the pop-up plaza and played music. The lesson here: Be creative, involve your assets in a genuine way, help people feel comfortable, and show them a possible future. Bring on the joy.
Tactical urbanism shows stakeholders how transformative change can be and provides planners critical feedback on how proposals can be made better. When the Davis Square community saw a rendering of what it had already experienced, it wasn’t a stretch to then think about having new development around the plaza and activities in the space, instead of parking. Davis Square’s Farmers Market wanted a more prominent location in the neighborhood to help increase vendor sales. What better place to suggest they move than to the new plaza? Change can be accepted if approached with the right tactics. With an iterative process, it’s possible to discover more opportunities to solve a community’s complex problems. The plaza is now becoming a reality.
Developing a plan for converting existing surface parking lots into new public space in Davis Square. Illustration: David Carrico
The pop-up plaza is just one example of how Somerville is reinventing neighborhood planning. George Proakis, its planning director, realized that all too often planners host a public process whose outcome they’ve already decided; they go on to present that outcome and naturally find themselves on the defensive. Proakis and his staff have created an alternative method; Somerville by Design is an approach that incorporates close coordination with the community, sincere discussions, contextual design solutions, and plans that lead to implementation. It has four phases: First, we plan the actual planning together with the community through crowdsourcing. Second, we help the community establish a vision for its future using methods identified during the crowdsourcing. Third, we host a multiday design charette in the neighborhood, the key being to bring the designers to the community by setting up a temporary studio where we receive real-time feedback from stakeholders. The final stage is to capture the community’s excitement by implementing the plan document and testing improvements through short-term installations. Things don’t always go as expected when you take a more iterative, tactical approach to planning. Enlightened public officials who want sincere improvements and are prepared to adapt along the way are key to success. If we guide it correctly, meaningful change begins before the final report is even published. Which brings us back to engagement. When you create a truly engaging process in which joy and authenticity are paramount, the report is not the product. Community-led planning by design is the route to real-world improvements that benefit the lives of people. ■