Placemaking and Aging Harley Riders

As a baby boomer with parents in their late 70s, their living situation is a growing concern for me. My folks are still ok driving, they maintain the yard and house, and they are physically active. But we all see a day coming when they will not be as self-sufficient and active as they are now.

As their likely caregiver, their location dictates where I spend a lot of my vacation time in the next few years. Happily for me, that’s Skidaway Island in Savannah, Georgia (pictured above. Thanks Mom and Dad!). The island has 10,000 residents, about as many as Cadillac. There is a good grocery store, library, health club, a restaurant, a couple of churches, and a pharmacy accessible by road as well as a walking/golf cart path, but doctors and other stores are off the island and require a car – there’s no public transportation. I’d like to see them stay in their house if that’s what they want, but clearly they will need some help as they become less mobile.

They may also find that their social opportunities diminish with their transportation options. Mom’s book club and bridge group are on the island but not walkable. Dad’s social circle is his golf group, which plays off the island. A criticism of the “aging in place” model – put some grab bars in the bathtub and you’re good to stay – is that, sure, you can stay in your house, but unless you can still drive, you can’t actually leave your house. In some residential situations, people who age in place may become more isolated than if they were in an institution. New York Times columnist Jane Brody wrote this column a few weeks ago about aging in place - from the perspective of a woman in her 70s. It's worth a read if you're interested in the topic. 

The World Health Organization has identified eight factors that contribute to age-friendly communities: community services and health care; transportation; housing; social participation opportunities; outdoor spaces; respect and social inclusion; opportunities for civic participation and work; and communications and information. The AARP has livability fact sheets for community planners that cite bicycling as a transportation option, dense, walkable neighborhoods, trees, and traffic calm as assets to make “great places for people of all ages.” Hmmmm, sound familiar? These have a lot in common with that list of placemaking characteristics I included in a previous post (see below). If we’re going to do placemaking, it should be for EVERYONE. Not just hipsters, not just artists, not just bloggers.

12 Steps to a Great Public Space

  1. Protection from traffic
  2. Protection from crime
  3. Protection from the elements
  4. A place to walk
  5. A place to stop and stand
  6. A place to sit
  7. Things to see
  8. Opportunities for conversations
  9. Opportunities for play
  10. Human-scale
  11. Opportunities to enjoy good weather
  12. Aesthetic quality

To which I would add:
Opportunities for active engagement and participation
Opportunities for quiet and reflection
Places to get food and drinks

Ideally, elders wouldn’t be segregated unless they wanted to be. A well-designed and executed community wouldn’t need special housing or amenities for the elderly and/or disabled, because health care, transportation, opportunities for civic participation, and outdoor spaces would be there for the hipsters, artists and bloggers already. Communities that are walkable with nearby services allow people who don’t drive to maintain all or most of their activities as they age. Walking creates all kinds of benefits – health, social, local economy, and environmental. Amenities for pedestrians usually translate pretty well to people on wheels – wheelchairs and walkers as well as bicycles and strollers.

This ad is from 1962. Lawn bowling! Archery! Shuffleboard!

This ad is from 1962. Lawn bowling! Archery! Shuffleboard!

There is a range of housing options targeted to aging people. And the concept of placemaking, no surprise, is influencing developments for older adults.

Age-restricted communities were hatched in the 1960s – gigantic suburban-type developments for people over 50 with onsite activities like golf and shuffleboard (Sun City, in the ad above, was one of the first). Contemporary aging boomers are more interested in bike trails than shuffleboard, and many of us will be working until we drop, so more age-limited communities are being built near cities where residents can keep working, ride the trails, and have diverse opportunities for social and civic engagement, rather than be isolated in the middle of the desert.

Elders who don’t necessarily want to be segregated, but may be by circumstance, are influencing nursing home development too. Nursing homes are not really “places” in the sense that we use the term, but this article describes an alternative to traditional / institutional nursing homes that incorporates placemaking concepts. The Green House model described is based on 10-person units where private rooms are built around a living room where residents can socialize. Each unit has a kitchen, and residents and staff work together to plan meals and activities. Green Houses’ smaller scale facilitates interaction between residents which include mixed populations (not all elderly people)… all placemaking concepts that make these less institutional facilities and more desirable living communities. Other nursing homes are facilitating social interaction between elders and youth, from preschoolers to college students.

And then there are theme retirement communities. Born to be wild? Harley riders, feel confident there is a place for you and your people even as you age. Some college campuses, including University of Michigan, have affiliated retirement communities with classes available to residents.

Born to be wild in a retirement community for Harley owners. Are those golf clubs on the back of Fonda's bike??

Born to be wild in a retirement community for Harley owners. Are those golf clubs on the back of Fonda's bike??

As with anything else, it’s all about having options. My parents like their suburban setting and I’m happy to visit them there. If we can figure out their transportation off the island, aging in place may be a great option for them. My grandmother relocated from Royal Oak to an age-restricted independent living apartment in Florida to be near her five cousins, transitioning over time to assisted living. My favorite neighbor (who’s 86) wants to move into town where he can walk to meet his buddies for breakfast and to the bank to flirt with the tellers.

The AARP says that one in three Americans is over 50 years old, making us demanding boomers a pretty substantial force for retirement housing choices and associated amenities that meet our needs and innermost desires. Oh the places we’ll go!

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!
― Dr. SeussOh, The Places You'll Go!

Bonus material!

The Times published several articles a while back describing issues that affect elders even in walkable, densely-developed cities: where can older people congregate within a walkable distance for them, socialize, but not be isolated with only other older people? Here is the first article in the series about police evicting loitering 80-year-olds from a Flushing, NY McDonald’s, followed by responses to it, then this editorial.  This last article describes McDonald’s as a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community – the places that people gather because of convenience and amenities.

And the last word on the subject of aging boomers…

As always, thanks for reading. I welcome your comments, ideas, suggestions, and innermost desires for your own retirement situation, either through the comments section here, by email at ordinaryvirtues@gmail.com, or at www.linkedin.com/susanwenzlick.

#ordinaryvirtues

Places With Potentially Unwelcome Intrusions

Arts and culture is one of the Sacred Pillars of Placemaking (along with walkability and coffee shops). The arts make our communities more desirable places to live or visit. From street art to opera, communities are trying to be more relevant by making the arts available (accessible is another discussion). Public art is a brick in this Sacred Pillar.

But as always there is the ancient debate over what constitutes art, with the contemporary twist of where it belongs. Over the summer, there was a debate in the New York Times over “whether public art is a welcome cultural amenity or an unwelcome intrusion in our parks and plazas.” And so today we ponder: does art belong in public places?

Public art can start a conversation (or a debate), make a boring spot more interesting and appealing, add color and character, contribute to a neighborhood’s identity, and enhance the experience of being in a park or other public space. It can complement a city’s identity – think ArtPrize, the big jellybean at Millennium Park in Chicago, Philadelphia’s LOVE sculpture.

Public art may be on private property, but visible to the public, or it may be at public spaces like parks, downtowns, or city offices. When art is on private property (at an office building, for example), people don’t seem to get too cranky. It’s when public funds and parks are used for art, or when someone is inconvenienced by it, or when it doesn’t meet their definition of “art” that their britches get in a bunch.

Years ago, there was a wonderful installation called The Gates in Central Park (photos below) by Christo and Jeanne Claude (first name only artists). A documentary was made about the project because it took from 1979 to 2005 to secure approval from the city for the temporary installation. And look how cool it is!

The Gates, Central Park, New York

The Gates, Central Park, New York

The Gates, Central Park, New York City

The Gates, Central Park, New York City

There is a distinction between temporary public art (like The Gates and some of the other examples in the Links section below) and permanent installations. Temporary art is here and gone. Because it’s not going to be around forever, it’s more of an event, a destination. It shouldn’t take 26 years to get a permit for an art project that’s only up for a few weeks.

I am particularly a fan of temporary public art, for many reasons. Why not change it up? Temporary works can be more daring (permanent public pieces are frequently so safe or even cloying they could be on the wall of a Holiday Inn). Community members see a wider variety of art. Permanent pieces become invisible and irrelevant after a time (or worse; lots of Confederate war memorials are coming down since the shootings in Charleston in June).  When a permanent work becomes dated, it’s a lot harder to make it go away than one you only have for a month or two. They are less maintenance.

Earlier I referenced the New York Times debate over “whether public art is a welcome cultural amenity or an unwelcome intrusion in our parks and plazas.” Obviously, my answer is welcome cultural amenity. If you read the Times piece, you’ll find a couple of commenters who are grumpy because their access to Central Park was limited during installation of The Gates, or one who thinks we should stick to memorials, fountains, and statutes (which are not public art because…??). This is one reason I like temporary works. You don’t like it, wait a month and it’ll be gone.

Some public art is crap, but I’d rather have crap that makes people look and think – make a judgment – than nothing at all. Museums are frequently built to intimidate people, or the art itself is intimidating, or people don’t think they’ll get it. The more art we can put into a comfortable setting, and the more fun it is, the less intimidating art is over time. Something like The Gates or Toledo’s red ball (below) is fun, interactive, and attracts people to a location. Not many people worry that they don’t “get” the big red ball. There will always be dissent. And because we live in a democracy, we all get to have an opinion, say it loud and proud, and either take action or move on.

Links

Toledo hosted a giant red ball this past summer. The ball moved all around the city over a couple of weeks as part of a summer-long Playtime exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. People – especially adults – were invited to interact with playful and whimsical art.  Placemaking? Heck yeah. If you want to attract people to a place and make them smile, put a giant red ball there.

Red Ball, Toledo

Red Ball, Toledo

The installation below – the house with roots hanging from a crane – is a riff on the construction site. Intended to abate the eyesore that comes with construction, the roots suggest that the house was “violently yanked from the land” for the construction project.

Although I gave opera a shout out in the first paragraph, when I speak of public art in this email, I’m referring primarily to visual art. Music is certainly a form of public art / culture. One of my very favorite public arts initiatives was Random Acts of Culture, funded by the Knight Foundation, and other examples of flash mob arts. This one is my favorite. There are lots more on YouTube.

Taxi drivers in Mumbai are decorating their cabs with some fabulous art.

This two-minute video about an Indianapolis art center ties arts (including visual and music), neighborhood revitalization, economic development, and placemaking together.

Street art is getting more recognition as a legitimate art form. While insiders are giving it art world credibility, street art remains outside curators’ control.  The artists control the process from creation to exhibit. It’s not made for longevity – it is temporary by design. Viewers have to decide whether they like it without the blessing of an art bureaucracy. The art is seen in context. All of which I like. Here is an article about one community that embraces its street art, and has made it part of the city’s identity.

As always, you can sign up at www.ordinaryvirtues.com to receive posts by email (signup is at the bottom of each page). Thanks for reading, and a happy and peaceful new year!

The Sum of its Tchotchkes

Have you noticed that wayfinding is becoming A Thing? Wayfinding is a planner buzzword that really just means signs to help you find your way around. In the placemaking context, it serves two purposes: it helps establish a community identity, because the signs’ design and graphics establish or contribute to a theme or brand – like the signs pictured below. And, of course, it helps people find a place they’re looking for or maybe discover a place they didn’t know existed.

The signs above all use words to tell you where you are or which way to go. What if you’re not an English-speaker and you're looking for, say, a place to go kayaking? This one helps, kind of… at least you can narrow kayaking down to either right or left.

It’s interesting that the rise in signage has coincided with widespread access to directions by GPS and smartphones. It is almost certainly about establishing a brand or identity for a community as much as providing directions. Even directions can serve a marketing purpose. If you are not familiar with, say, Spring Lake (Ottawa County, near Grand Haven) and didn’t know there was a good place to kayak, the sign above could bring you back there with your boat for another visit. 

There is a level of comfort that comes from signage in places where Siri doesn’t reach – like inside museums or malls, out of the way places, or densely developed locations. Some of the small towns here in northern Michigan have shops or restaurants hidden in back of buildings that you would never find without good signage. There was a great Cuban restaurant in Traverse City that I drove past three times because it was set back from the street and had bad signage. (OK, clearly I am not the best at finding things either…)

The best-planned wayfinding isn’t limited to signs. There’s basic wayfinding and branding, and there’s wayfinding that contributes to a place’s identity, its story. Wayfinding that incorporates maps, apps, web sites, video, and sometimes even live human beings to tell a story is really what creates its identity.

Imagine if Spring Lake’s web site had a map (or even a link to a map) showing kayak launch sites, routes, and places of interest along the way? Or an app that did all those things? Or a paper map? Sadly they don’t. A popular destination up north is Leland’s historic Fishtown. The marker gives you some information about its history. The Leland Chamber of Commerce has a nice web site with a few paragraphs about Fishtown and a Yahoo street map that isn’t scaled to show street names. What about a walking tour of Fishtown with audio about its history, or interactives showing Fishtown now and 100 years ago? Maybe some pictures of those primitive oak boats referenced in the historic marker sign? Ummm… nope. 

A visit to Fishtown would be a lot richer experience if there was better information available for visitors than just a historic marker. Fishtown is what makes Leland unique and not another tchotchke-filled lakeshore town. It makes Leland a destination and Leland celebrates (or capitalizes, depending on your perspective) this history; it’s Leland’s place, its identity. And like Savannah’s lost Unique Quotient, if Fishtown or Spring Lake or anywhere else just creates a brand, not a story, it’s no more interesting than the sum of its tchotchkes.

 HERE is an interesting interview with someone who spent his career designing maps and signage that relies almost exclusively on pictures, not words.

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Privately-owned public space and the Knights Who Say Ni

“First you must find... a shrubbery! Then, when you have found the shrubbery, you must place it here, beside this shrubbery, only slightly higher so you get a two-layer effect with a little path running down the middle. Then, you must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest... with... a herring!”

From, of course, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. All hail the Knights Who Say Ni, possibly the first stakeholders in a privately-owned public space project.

My day job is in state government, in a program that provides development incentives to local government and the private sector. Now and then (particularly in election years), we have a public conversation about what government’s role in the private and local realm should be. Typically government creates incentives for what we want the incented – whether private or public sector – to do. How effective are we? Is it clear to those who benefit from our incentives what we really want? (Is it clear to us?!) And what's the public good that comes from our incentives?

New York, San Francisco, and other cities reward private developers that incorporate public spaces into their projects (known as privately-owned public spaces). For example, you get a zoning variance for more floors if you have a public plaza outside or public passage inside the building. 

However, there may be no qualitative controls after the variance is granted.  Some developers see the public space as an asset to their development, while for others it’s an intrusion. They make seating uncomfortable (or don’t have any), don’t put up signs identifying public space, or just make public spaces so uninviting that the public has no reason to use them. And why not? The private sector doesn’t represent the public interest. Why should we expect them to? Unless public space clearly benefits the development, we can’t expect developers to do anything more than meet the minimum requirements.

Then there’s the problem of who maintains privately-owned public spaces. It's a lot cheaper to maintain an unused concrete patch than a landscaped park with seating and trash cans that might actually be used. Remember Zuccotti Park from Occupy Wall Street? That’s a privately-owned public space. No wonder developers want to hide their public spaces from the public.

An uninviting privately-owned public space in New York City. Spikes prevent use of the planters for loiterers. And everyone else. Spikes are now prohibited.

An uninviting privately-owned public space in New York City. Spikes prevent use of the planters for loiterers. And everyone else. Spikes are now prohibited.

Without some guidance and collaboration between all the stakeholders, you’ll end up with a smokers’ alleyway, not an attractive public asset. If developers don't benefit from the public space, they will take the path of least resistance – the cheapest or easiest option. Or the one that is unlikely to be occupied.

We need some middle ground between a big picture outcome (Thou Shalt Make Public Space) and micromanagement (a two-layer effect with a little path). It’s not government's place to tell developers where their shrubbery should be. Government could, though, use its incentives to get the kind of process it wants used to reach desirable public space. If your privately-owned public space will be a little path, show us that you went through an inclusive public planning process or at least talked to the neighbors, or that you talked to the parks people and they want a path in that location, or why you want a piece of art instead of a shrubbery, or whatever.

 

New York City now requires signage to identify public-private spaces. The, um, shrubbery is the program logo, so it’s easy to recognize places that are open to the public.

New York City now requires signage to identify public-private spaces. The, um, shrubbery is the program logo, so it’s easy to recognize places that are open to the public.

Some places go a step further and move control away from developers to neighborhoods. In Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, zoning variances may be approved if developers contribute to a fund used for parks and infrastructure (including big 10 foot wide sidewalks) in the neighborhood. Stakeholders from the neighborhood work with city planners to ensure compatibility between development and public spaces. It's a much better system than leaving everything in the hands of developers (or government). The mandated contribution feels to me a little more like buying indulgences, but on the upside, the public amenities are more coordinated and more public good will come from a neighborhood planning process than developers who randomly create 25 little concrete plazas.

A really cool privately-owned public space in New York.

A really cool privately-owned public space in New York.

Either way, collaboration is key. Government might facilitate, but shouldn’t be the only ones at the table. Neither, though, should private developers be the only ones deciding what public space looks like. A stakeholders process is more inclusive (though some are more inclusive than others – you could, for example, only solicit input from the other Knights Who Say Ni). Government doesn’t micromanage business or neighborhoods, but the outcome may be closer to what government wants.  With luck, the resulting public space is truly public.

Links

This article is old, but talks about New York’s approvals for privately-owned public space, and the complete lack of record-keeping after approval.  There was an estimated 80 acres of privately-owned public space at the time, and someone finally compiled it in 2000. They have continued to make progress, like the signage pictured above.

This article finds more fault with New York’s (lack of) control or oversight of privately-owned public spaces in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. The author talks about spaces that are badly designed or that closed after a period of time.

Here’s a story about San Francisco’s public-private spaces. Not such a train wreck as NYC, or maybe California’s newspapers are just nicer than New York’s. 

This is a video with a more positive spin on New York’s spaces.

This web page has nicely-balanced reporting on the private-public spaces in New York.

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We're Unique, Just Like Everywhere Else

One danger of having communities across the country following the same playbook for placemaking is that we’ll still all end up looking alike. This irreverent author notes that many local officials believe “all we need is to get us some gays and artists and a bike path or two, and our problems will be solved!” Instead of a McDonalds on every corner, we’ll have a Starbucks, a brew pub, a splash pad, and some mediocre public art. 

That’s why the playbook says: focus on what makes a place unique.  Here is a short but terrific editorial about focusing on the unique aspects of a community.  The author argues that every city needs or has basics – “best practices” – like bike lanes and coffee shops, but to be interesting, we need to focus on what makes our communities different from the rest.  Even then, how much unique can there really be?

Each year I spend a week or two in Savannah, Georgia, visiting my parents. I try to find different things to do each time I’m here.  Downtown Savannah’s UQ (uniqueness quotient, and yes I did just make that up) is based on beautiful old buildings, historic squares, and Paula Deen.  Savannah heavily promotes the downtown historic district, and excludes or glosses over a lot of great restaurants, arts, and outdoor activities. It’s hard to find information about Savannah’s two-weeks-long music festival, or its crazy-good contemporary arts scene thanks to the Savannah College of Art and Design. Savannah is surrounded by water but access is limited (visually and logistically) and recreational use is not particularly promoted.

Downtown Savannah's Gap store

Downtown Savannah's Gap store

It also shares a problem with lots of popular destinations -- property (and rent) is so expensive in its downtown core that only high volume chains can afford to be there.  Savannah’s historic squares are surrounded by The Gap and Starbucks, so it’s like suburban anywhere with Spanish moss, a prepackaged HistoryWorld with Panera Bread. And it is losing its UQ. Downtown Savannah is designed for commerce, not community.  To quote Yogi Berra, nobody goes there anymore – it’s too crowded. 

Side note and future post topic: what if the thing that makes us unique isn't a positive? I pondered owning our history, good or bad, as I spent the day walking among beautiful historic buildings constructed by slaves. Let me know if you have thoughts on this.

Is the problem that we don't know how to do anything other than commerce?  Bill Stumpf, who wrote a great book called The Ice Palace the Melted Away, argues that American cities are built for making things, not doing things.  Rome, London and Paris are cultural centers, while our cities are productive.  Detroit = cars.  Silicon Valley = tech.  New York = money.  Grand Rapids = furniture.  Savannah’s downtown waterfront was built for commerce, not pleasure. As manufacturing has moved outside the US, Stumpf says, “Cities like Pittsburgh, once proud to be known as the Iron City, now profess cultural diversity as their commerce.  American cities are striving hard to shed their exclusively utilitarian images in favor of broad cultural centers complete with art museums, symphonies, and major league sports.” Cultural diversity as commerce.  Are we so uncomfortable with ordinary virtues like civility, pleasure, culture, goodwill, and community that we have to make them productive?  

Here is a story about downtown Pittsburgh’s renaissance.  Contributing factors include public-private collaboration, support for change, and quality of life improvements… that all sound like everyone else’s.  Eds and meds?  Check.  Museums and an arts district?  Check.  Sports teams, farmer’s markets, and the film industry?  Check.  Wait, isn’t that Grand Rapids?  Pittsburgh has very successfully capitalized on its rivers, as GR aspires to do.  And they have Andy Warhol, but we have ArtPrize.

Savannah's Starland neighborhood

Savannah's Starland neighborhood

Savannah's Starland neighborhood

Savannah's Starland neighborhood

And Savannah? Its focus on the city’s gracious, historic downtown was so successful that its UQ is threatened. And in the way of the natural evolution of cities, the funky, unique startup businesses that can’t afford downtown rents are colonizing the Starland neighborhood. It’s full of cool old buildings, a memorial marker on the former soda shop ("Paul's Soda Shop / 1930-1955"), a nationally-recognized bakery, great restaurants and cafes, and cheap housing for the art students who help make the neighborhood vibrant. It’s still in transition; Paul's Soda Shop is now the rescue mission.  It is a neighborhood, not so much a tourist attraction. It is a community of ordinary virtues.

Starland Cafe

Starland Cafe

Outside Foxy Loxy, home of the Bourbon Cinnamon Sugar Cookie

Outside Foxy Loxy, home of the Bourbon Cinnamon Sugar Cookie

Map geek bonus: this is a very short but interesting article about how Sanborn insurance company and its maps documented development (and in a sense, placemaking) through recent history.  (Which reminds me of one of my very favorite short stories, The Mappist by Barry Lopez.  Highly recommended.)

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Let's Do the Time Warp Again

I read a lot about how civilization is coming to an end because we all sit at home with our computers, and downtowns are dying because we shop on line instead of in our communities.  But I never see any real analysis about why.

Here’s my theory.  As I said below, cities need relevant amenities to attract contemporary consumers if they want to be viable.  We just need something to do.  That’s really all placemaking is.  Dated downtowns are like avocado green refrigerators (note the resemblance between downtown Cadillac and the kitchen below).  Obsolete.  Maybe that’s why we sit at home and shop on line.  It’s true in my small town for sure – see how there are more people in that kitchen than in my downtown?  The reality is that a lot of our communities are stuck in circa 1972 and aren’t relevant to people today.  And if you’re not relevant, you’re toast.

Downtown Cadillac, Michigan

Downtown Cadillac, Michigan

Groovy kitchen

Groovy kitchen

If you took downtown Cadillac’s most popular restaurant, Clam Lake Beer Company (below), and put it in the building above – same food, same beer, one block away – would it have as much traffic, or does its building (its curb appeal) contribute to its busy-ness?  The exterior of the dated building says “come in for a nice fondue.” Not “we have fantastic goat cheese pizza to complement your microbrew.” (Poetry completely unintentional.)  The updated Clam Lake building and vibe are part of its brand, and make it relevant.  The interior is contemporary, but has the building’s original brick walls and tin ceilings, and black and white metal prints from Cadillac’s past, honoring the building’s and the town’s history. So placemaking (to stay with the kitchen analogy) is like new cabinets, a stainless steel fridge, and granite counters for your downtown.  

There is a connection between relevance and credibility as well.  It’s probably a little less important for a restaurant than, say, a marketing or tech business, but it also is a consideration in the public sector.  If your product, process, or outcome isn’t relevant, how can you have credibility?

So how do you use a credible process to make a community relevant?  Give a voice to stakeholders.  More and more, placemaking includes non-planners in the planning process.  People expect to have a voice; their opportunity for meaningful engagement adds both relevance and credibility to a plan.

A charrette (a French word meaning “a ridiculously long meeting“) is a way for the public to have meaningful engagement in the planning process.  Members of the public are invited to help plan improvements in their communities. Charrettes may be up to several days long, and people can really have a say in the planning process. But using a charrette or other public meeting as the only opportunity for input can limit participation:

  • A true multi-day charrette is a time commitment that can discourage participation.
  • They could be held at a time that’s only convenient for certain people – daytime meetings exclude some working people, evening meetings exclude others.
  • They could be not truly public – I’ve been to a number of meetings that were really for invited stakeholders like the local Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Development Authority, parks director, council members, etc.  People who, by virtue of their position, do represent certain community interests, but are not really the public.  And they are the ones who have been shaping the community all along, so there aren’t any different voices in the room.
  • People with child care issues, transportation issues, language barriers, disabilities, or who are uncomfortable in that type of setting have a harder time participating in even short, one-time meetings.

There are ways to participate that don’t involve meetings, like phone and on line surveys. Shorter meetings with different levels of input or participation don’t require a major time commitment.  Or instead of having a formal meeting, set up a table at a crowded event and invite people in to talk.  The best process includes multiple ways to be engaged, so that the collaborators choose how much or how little to contribute.

Because those talented workers we’re trying to attract with placemaking are still in Seattle or Ann Arbor or wherever, they don’t have a voice in Cadillac’s planning process.  The participants in the meetings are the ones who already live here and so we’re providing input on what WE really want, and that’s ok.  It’s our place too.  Retention is important.  Otherwise people and their dollars will keep going to dinner in Traverse City instead of Cadillac, or we’ll stay home.  If Cadillac wants to keep the people who live here now, or at least keep their dollars, we need places to go that are an improvement on a laptop and a Lean Cuisine.

What do you think?  Please leave a comment below.

Links

HERE is an article about a Bay Area community that has been experimenting with a concept called Participatory Budgeting. A percentage of the city budget was allocated for projects selected by voters.  Winners included potholes to scholarships (but look for the proposals that didn’t get on the ballot – those are way more fun).  Collaborators self-selected (anyone could come up with a project, anyone over 16 could vote on up to six proposals).

Because I can’t help myself, here’s one more seriously groovy kitchen from the 70s.

Just... wow.

Just... wow.

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Ordinary Virtues?

The concept of ordinary virtues goes back to Plato and Socrates, through time to Primo Levi and probably more contemporary philosophers I haven’t yet read.  Ordinary has a bad rep in our culture.  How many would proudly proclaim our ordinaryness? For me, ordinary virtue is simple civility. Respect.  Courtesy.  Gratitude.  Attentiveness.  Dialogue.  Perspective.  Responsibility.  Ordinary virtues build civilized communities.  And I will take that kind of ordinary every day of the week.

The focus of the blog will generally be on community.  In a physical community, planning and development decisions are made to move cars or segregate residences from industrial parks or, as is now in vogue, to attract skilled or talented workers and the economic benefits they bring.  Planning for this group has become known as placemaking (formerly known as new urbanism, sense of place, cool cities, and a few other tags).  Sometimes the blog will be about the physical attributes that are believed to contribute to placemaking – which is really just creating the infrastructure that makes a location a desirable place to live.

Where I think placemaking falls short is that physical assets alone, no matter how people-friendly the design, don’t make a desirable place.  People are the heart and soul of a community.  The physical assets can be created with civility, or without (for example, sidewalks are people oriented, but as above, design sometime trumps common sense).  Either way, places need people to be functional. The physical assets are made possible by acts and decisions guided (or not) by human civility, the ordinary virtues of people.  Volunteers who open the doors at the museum or clear brush from the trails.  Educators who help children develop ordinary virtues.  Government officials and developers who put people ahead of cars. So sometimes the blog will be about the human side, our ordinary virtues that contribute to a community. 

And sometimes there may just be cat videos. :-)