Future Here Now: Urban Space Co-creation

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I don’t usually comment on urban design issues — I’m definitely not a design thinker — but this article gets at some of the core issues that I think lead to dysfuntional public spaces. It’s not the best written piece, but the examples are valuable and the author’s framing is useful.

The author’s premise is that urban design initiatives can make a space more exclusive, rather than less, and less beneficial to local residents, despite the benefits they usually promise.

Bleak winter park, one person sitting on bench

If you’ve been paying attention to gentrification issues worldwide, you understand at least the economic / social side of this — pressures to privatize mean that more seemingly public spaces are actually owned by private organizations. Those private organizations often have objectives that are different from those that govern traditionally “public” spaces, such as projecting a certain image or making their target demographic comfortable. On top of that, public spaces, like streets or urban parks, are increasingly policed or managed in a way that makes longtime residential user uncomfortable or threatened. People who are used to hanging out laughing on a staircase during hot weather can become a subject of police harassment if new residents see that long-established behavior as undesirable.

But this article illustrates a key source of the failure of public spaces: the fact that they are typically designed for some designer’s view of how people should use the space, instead of designing it with the people who will be actually using it. The author glosses that a bit — he throws out the term co-creation without really talking about what that means, or how that’s a fundamentally different process from the design examples he cites. And he mixes together projects that clearly came out of an urban renewal-style, top-down approach with some that are more recent. But co-creation is exactly what we need — not just in public spaces, but in anything that touches public life.

Designers often think that they are doing co-creation when they hold a charrette or do user interviews, but they’re still acting as the intermediary, the interpreter, not the partner. At the end of the process, all the community can do is hope that the designers actually took what they said to heart, and did something with that information that actually interprets it the way they intended. And that doesn’t always happen.

We seldom actually give the pen to the people of the community and ask them to tell us what a park or a bench should look like. Now, I know there’s a good reason for that: most of us non-designers don’t have the language or skills to show you what’s in our heads. I assure you that, despite my master’s degree in planning, I couldn’t draw you a recognizeable bench or a playground to save my soul. And if you just ask me “what do you want?” I don’t necessarily know how to describe what I’m imagining — or what the kind of space that would enable the experience I want would look like at all.

But that doesn’t mean that the design process shouldn’t get as close to that as possible.

If we’re serious about building equitable, resilient and economically healthy communities in the post – Industrial Era world of connectivity and interdependence, we need to take seriously the expert-ness of residents on their own communities. That means that we have to intentionally create a design process that doesn’t just consult residents, but that treats them as the experts on the local place and community. That’s the level of engagement that is necessary to prevent the damaging mistakes that this author cites.

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