The United States had a major growth spurt in the 20th century when policymakers and developers formed cities with industry and efficiency at the heart of decision making: It was about expanding the highway system, getting cars from point A to B, building parking spaces for those vehicles and designing sprawling intersections for them to safely cross paths. Architects proposed “visionary” projects that, on paper, would improve urban life. However, the polar opposite occurred as they based their objectives on assumptions of what people required, not what communities desired.
As we consider what makes a place desirable, it boils down to championing people. The good news is that decades of top-down planning have given way to bottom-up innovation as the community is now welcomed at the table. Much of this formal community involvement is called participatory design, an umbrella term for workshops, activities, surveys, visioning sessions and interviews that call upon experiences and input from all stakeholders in a project—including the government, neighborhood members, developers and designers—not just the traditional decision makers at the top. The hope was that involving the community affected by a project would yield a stronger design.
Also called cooperative design or co-design, the participatory concept originated in Scandinavia and made its way to the United States in the 1960s. During this decade, pioneering activists like the great Jane Jacobs issued a rallying cry for planners to listen to people, take the pulse of a successful neighborhood and try to reverse engineer it for new initiatives instead of imposing predetermined master plans. In fact, it’s thanks to Jacobs that New York City did not demolish parts of the West Village and SoHo, two of the city’s most iconic enclaves, in favor of an expressway: While it would have supposedly improved traffic flow from Brooklyn to the Holland Tunnel, construction of the four-lane freeway would have razed Washington Square Park, which is a beloved public space and the heart of the community to this day. Her neighborhood-saving endeavors illustrate the root of the issue: As cities hold the purse strings for capital projects, rezoning and permitting development, bad design fundamentally boils down to bad policy.
“Many of our policies are built out of fear,” says Jason Roberts, co-founder of The Better Block. His organization leads grassroots exercises on ways the community can improve their neighborhoods and also consults with local governments on how to incorporate citizen-led design into the bureaucratic process. “Rules are typically put in place because of the fear that something horrendous could happen—which could be valid, I don’t want to minimize that—but once you start constructing your community based on fear, your byproduct will be these structures that are inhumane,” Roberts says. A classic example of this notion of “hostile” or “defensive” architecture is park benches that people can’t lie on: Spacing the seats a certain way is a subtle modification intended to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them, but it also restricts how the seats are used by the rest of the population. “Your options are fear or love,” he says. “When you look at an environment built on love, you get an entirely different ethos: You get an area with a high quality of life that shines and is very human-centered.”
The Better Block started in 2010 when Roberts gathered a few friends together to stage a pop-up intervention in a section of Oak Cliff, a rougher neighborhood in Dallas, Texas. They banded together and spent an afternoon painting bike lanes, bringing in potted plants and trees, propping up a few café chairs and creating mock-ups of businesses in the empty storefronts. Once they were set up, they used the neighborhood like it was just another vibrant street. The hope was that by showing how easy it was to create a welcoming space in an area that was previously abandoned— thereby altering the psychology of the block—the city would take note and change some of its policies.
While the project was ephemeral (Roberts likens it to an art project), its effects weren’t. Their act of building an attractive and vibrant city block sparked community. Since then, his team has replicated this process of faux-placemaking across the country. “Time and time again, I see people come out to these projects and say, ‘I just want to work with my hands and do something,’” Roberts says. “Humans are made to move and made to be social. When people do some kind of physical activity together, it benefits the broader community and brings a sense of engagement.”
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