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It’s no secret that I’m a cynic when it comes to the magic powers that urban design improvements are supposed to have in terms of impacting the community around them. I can show you dozens of streetscapes, parks, waterfronts and more that were supposed to transform the ills of the neighborhoods around them, simply by their mere presence. Often, the promised stores and businesses and residents never came – the improvements were lipstick on a still very troubled pig. In other cases, the improvements did attract new investment, but at the cost of a whole lot of unintended consequences — consequences that cost earlier residents their communities and businesses and homes.
In either case, the urban design usually doesn’t seem to live up to its promise. And worse, we repeat the same blunders over and over again, one city to the next, usually with very few lessons learned.
Which is why this article generated some actual guarded optimism for me. The 11th Street Bridge park under development in Washington, D.C., has a mind-numbing budget — close to $100 million. But unlike the usual build-it-and-they-will-come approach, the developers of this park appear to be making a reasonably solid effort to anticipate and mitigate some of the potential undesired impacts of this project (do go read the article; I’m only sharing bits of it for reference here).
Kratz and his organization, Building Bridges Across the River, are trying to ensure that this effort doesn’t end up hurting the communities it will link, especially the historically disenfranchised neighborhoods of Anacostia, Fairlawn and Barry Farm east of the river. That’s because the 11th Street Bridge Park — a dramatic cross-section of overlapping decks that form a wide X over the river, designed by the firms OMA and OLIN — looks a lot like the kind of charismatic placemaking amenity associated with a sudden spike in brunch reservations and moving-truck rentals.
….Instead of denying or ignoring the chance that a new destination amenity could push out longtime residents, Kratz means to harness the anticipation around the park to work for the existing community, not against it.
….With a $6 million grant from the US Department of Commerce, organizers are debuting an environment education center, which will be operated by the nonprofit Anacostia Watershed Society. The park facility will enable exhibitions, host school groups, and facilitate outdoor demonstrations; an adjacent kayak and canoe launch will give visitors hands-on access to the group’s efforts to restore the river, waterfront and wetlands.
….Specific local recommendations going forward at the park include local artworks, native trees (196 new plantings), opportunities for D.C. businesses to set up shop, and even a mobile kiosk to foster Black-owned businesses in the city’s Ward 8 — a cart that is itself a project made by the River East Design Center. It’s all local, all the way down.
….The Ward 8 Home Buyers Club, for example, promotes homeownership and generational wealth for tenants who have been locked out of the market; so far 104 local renters who came through the program have purchased homes. Building Bridges Across the River is running a pilot to give $2,500 cash grants to club alumni for closing costs. Another pilot is helping Ward 8 buyers with $10,000 forgivable loans to help cover down payments. Kratz and his partners put these and other equity components in motion years before the design work was finished.
Maybe the most tangible effort so far is the Douglass Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that holds land in trust in order to preserve or build housing. What started as a strategy recommendation for keeping homes affordable near the park has since evolved into a private nonprofit with its own board and staff and a portfolio of some 240 units of permanently affordable housing for local residents.
… In a partnership with Booz Allen Hamilton, the consultants are providing $50,000 of in-kind technical assistance for 10 Black-owned businesses along Good Hope Road Southeast. The park organizers are providing $8,000 grants to help those businesses implement those business strategies, which include ideas for marketing, solutions for back-of-the-house financial services, and assistance with grant applications. The very thing that might make small businesses feel skittish — the looming arrival of an architectural marvel, enough to catch the eye of backers like Booz Allen — is the thing helping to secure their success.
So, there’s a lot here. And of course reading one article doesn’t make me anything resembling an expert on this project. And I could probably quibble with some of the details ($8,000 can help, but it’s hardly the kind of investment that enables a small business to become an employment hub or a community anchor).
But there’s a few key items that look from here like a quantum leap beyond how these kinds of projects too often roll out. Here’s a couple that I spotted – let me know if you see more.
- Organizationally, this is an ecosystem-driven initiative. No one entity owns the whole thing, and —more importantly — the developers buit relationships outside of their field of expertise and pulled those organizations into the initiative. The conventional approach to a project like this would have been for the designers to shrug and say “not my problem” to any issue other than keeping the bridge standing and the plantings green and the buildings upright. We have a bad habit of thinking of urban design projects as having the hard and fast borders that get drawn on the maps, and that silo-style thinking gets us into real trouble.
- The community, particularly the lower-income Anacostia side of the community, appears to have had a more active role in the actual design of the park than we usually see. I would suspect this is a big part of the reason why the ecosystem comprehensiveness developed as it did. That’s a profound insight that “non-technical” community members can often bring to a design initiative. They often understand intimately how a proposal will impact issues and areas that fall well outside the expert’s boundaries. Sometimes our technical knowledge actually blinds us to the interconnectednes of lived experience. And that’s what leads experts to establish the functionally arbitrary and useless, if not downright destructive, areas of “not my problem” mentioned previously.
- This was not a quick process. The article notes that some of the elements of that ecosystem approach were started years before the bridge’s design and construction was, and that’s crucial. Not only because it allowed those initiatives to get rolling, but because it allowed the community to get their heads around the scope of the opportunity and really engage multi-dimensionally in anticipating how it might impact their community. It never fails to amaze me (and frustrate me) that we take a complex project, throw a bunch of Power Point slides at people, ask them for their “feedback” and then get surprised when the community decides to fight it later on. It’s like serving someone a seven-course meal and demanding that they write the restaurant review after their first sip of water. And then being surprised when they change their mind. Or decide that they can’t trust any of us before they walk in the door.
The devil, as the old saying goes, is always in the details, and I hope someone, someday, creates an in-depth analysis of how this project developed – including the arguments and conflicts that we all know must have happened, but aren’t mentioned in a short article. I’m sure it hasn’t been the smooth sailing that this article might seem to imply.
But however imperfect it might be, I hope this becomes a model for big project developers of all stripes. As I said in The Local Economy Revolution Has Arrived, most design or planning or economic development projects have unanticipated consequences, and unanticipated consequences are called that for a reason. These designers might not anticipate all of the potential consequences, but it’s better than ignoring that and playing If You Build It Everything Will Be Wonderful.