I learned something: Cincinnati Form-based code team wins CNU Grand Prize

Last week I had the pleasure of being one of the people who got to represent the Cincinnati Form-Based Code consulting team at the Congress for the New Urbanism’s annual meeting in Buffalo. I had the pleasure of leading a team on that project that managed public engagement and public relations — that included Tammy Monroe, Northlich LLC, Sam McKinley’s Sustainable Places Studio and Patrick Whalen.

While I have some ongoing ambivalence toward the New Urbanism movement -(Ok, more with some of the tone and tenor, which I am planning to explore in an upcoming post) getting back together with the team gave me a chance to think through again what I learned out of that process, which finished more than a year ago.  And since the next Wise Fool book will be on public engagement, the timing is pretty good.

So here’s a few of the things I am remembering:

  • People need graphics to build understanding of their physical environment.  I kind of knew that, but I am such a verbal person by my wiring that I tend to forget that.  The power of being able to show people graphics – and revise them on the fly – I think does get through a lot of the mental barriers that people encounter when they try to think about what a different future would look like for their community. Most of us only have whatever stock of mental images we have in our heads, and that sense of unknown is probably a big part of what we often tag as recalcitrant NIMBY-ism.  Perhaps it’s not NIMBY, it’s frustration at lack of vocabulary.

 

  • BUT, showing people pictures isn’t enough.  The planner/designer has to be like a good teacher — part guide, part leader, part collaborator.  The team that worked the charrette process in Cincinnati (largely consisting of Opticos and Urban Design Associates staff) seemed to me to honor and value the eye-to-eye feedback they got from the community members.  That’s also a humongous part of the reason why a citywide form-based code passed in what’s historically a pretty cautious community. The people of the communities understood what the code was doing – it wasn’t done to them, it was done with them.  Based on about a million other proposals that I have seen choke and die once they get out of the designer’s hands, both in Cincinnati and elsewhere, that real collaboration is probably the single most important reason why this project actually came to life and is being used.   We the professionals (of whatever stripe) forget that way too easily, and get caught up in the castles we built in the air.  If the people who have to live in those castles don’t come to own the castle themselves, you have wasted your time.  And they will not buy it based on your illustrious resume or your assertions that it will all be lovely.  That might have worked 40 years ago, when both professionals and communities were more naive, but not you’re dealing with people and places who have probably been burned more than once.  And as every person becomes their own potential publishing platform, your ability to snow them withers fast. That didn’t happen in Cincinnati on this project, because people didn’t feel like they were being snowed, but the speed and vehemence with which people can push back if they feel they’re being talked down to — and the number of people they can reach overnight –continues to amaze me.  I’ve seen that kind of backlash across different geographies, demographics and education/income levels, and it seems like it gets more intense every time.  So there’s really no rational reason to think you can get away with pushing your project over on them.  If that had happened in Cincinnati on the form-based code, I assure you that you would have never heard about it again.

 

  • Gaining the trust and collaboration of the community is more about soft skills than hard skills.  The guys who could draw the best technically weren’t necessarily the best charrette managers.  The design professionals who empathized with the residents, probed honestly, explored transparently, and explained patiently…those were the ones where you could see the energy flowing through the whole group working together.  And those were the groups whose communities are moving forward today.

 

  • People get economics.  And economics matter a hell of a lot to their willingness to take risks with their community.  One of the things that surprised me when my team first came on the form based code part of the job was that the lead firm had already lined up two economic development specialists.  I will admit now that my nose got just a skotch out of joint — like a kid saying “Hey! I can play in that sandbox too!!!”  But being in the public engagement/ PR role gave me a chance to watch the interactions in a way that I probably couldn’t if I were doing that part.  And what I saw was that Ed Starkie of Urban Advisors and Kathleen Norris of Urban Fast Forward were able to connect with the residents, through logic and data and through stories, and help them understand and articulate the latent potential of the places.  They were able to give these folks a very practicable, take-to-the-bank counter to the negative press, the narrative of disinvestment that had come to tag their communities.  And even though many of them sensed, sort of knew intuitively that the bleak picture wasn’t accurate, they didn’t have the tools, the rational foundation, to give them a basis for pushing ahead, and pushing back on the doubters.  That’s a crucial element — and I came to the conclusion that giving people this sort of mental re-framing turned out to be every bit as important as deciding how tall buildings should be and what kinds of porches fit the environment.  Designers, understandably, don’t always get the importance of community economics.  But in this case, paying close attention to how the designs might interplay with the community’s economies gave residents and political representatives the intellectual foundation to be able to support potentially risky proposals.  And again, if that happened, you would be reading something else now.

So my deep thanks again to the City of Cincinnati and to my friends and partners on the consulting team for this great experience.  And thanks to the more than 700 people who turned out to get their hands into this process.  Y’all did good.

The slide. We knew the project was getting an award, but we didn’t know it was getting one of the big kahunas.

 

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