Saturday, June 1, 2013

Innovations in planning

This past week, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council held its annual meeting in the drab desolate spectacle called the Marriott Hotel in Quincy, MA.  Getting to the meeting was no joy either -- a 25 minute ride on the Red Line down to the Quincy Adams stop was augmented by a 20 minute walk from the T station to the hotel on sidewalks that could claim nothing other than being afterthoughts in a world made entirely for the automobile.  That urban environment is a perfect example of why we will spend the next 30 years trying to undo the last 50 years of planning and construction. 

Being at the conference however was better than the trip there.

Ever since my panel discussion at Harvard's GSD on innovation districts this past April, I have been thinking about innovation in planning.  The panel spent two hours trying to understand how "innovation districts" work and why they work, but it occurred to me at the end of that session that the next question is not how the districts help to encourage innovation, but what planning itself needs to do to innovate and incorporate some of the new capabilities that exist through technology.  I think it was Nicole Fichera's wrap up question that got me to that thought.

This week's MAPC meeting brought me back to it.  In one presentation, a transportation planner argued that interventions will happen better by testing out possible options before making the full investment.  A temporary bike lane with cones in the roadway will show more than a six-month planning process ever could.  At least that is his thesis, one which I fully support.

He was really asking -- can we problem-solve through an iterative approach?  Must we always plan before we act? These questions are not at all dissimilar from what happens in innovation districts.  Trying and then trying-again is one of the fundamental aspects of our innovation economy.  The can-do attitude of most entrepreneurs  follows this path, and the investment money in the innovation world certainly supports it.  Not every dice roll needs to come up double-sixes.  It's an interesting concept for a high-tech startup, but an even more interesting way to think about a city. 

There can be no better example of this than what is happening in Las Vegas right now.  Downtown Las Vegas is being rebuilt currently by an energetic team of youthful dynamic leaders almost none of whom have traditional urban planning or design backgrounds.  What they do have is confidence, energy, access to money, and a belief that the same qualities that make the start-up world go can also be applied to cities where the return will come not in dollars but in community value.  What they are doing has huge implications for the future of cities in the United States and globally.   This is a fascinating study of 21st century urban planning in which planners are not being asked to participate.

The example in Las Vegas is familiar these days -- Tony Hsieh, the founder of the online retailer Zappos, decided to move his company from a suburban office park in Henderson, NV into the heart of downtown Las Vegas, 20 miles away, to draw and retain talented workers.  Yet it posed many significant challenges: the new headquarters is surrounded by nothing but vacant parking lots.

The land that the Zappos/Downtown Project will be redeveloping, across from the new Zappos HQ

To manage this complex development challenge, Zappos created Downtown Project, a group that is re-building a city from the ground up.  They are defining success by some of Ed Glaeser's metrics in his book The Triumph of the City.  It remains to be seen what this lack of urban expertise will mean for their results.  What is undeniable is that this team is approaching their many challenges with a high degree of creativity and willingness to risk.

Both of these examples point to a concept I find very powerful, "The City as Platform", and they ask the question: Can you iterate a city? In some ways, the answer is obviously yes.  That is what cities are, after all: iterations of design, construction, market, demographics, management, politics, outside forces, broader economic trends. But can you iterate a city quickly?  That answer is probably no.  Development projects by their very nature are long-term investments, both of capital and also of concept.  Undoing something that took ten years to move from initial design through permitting to construction and occupancy is not likely to be undone hastily.  Yet this is exactly the large question that the Downtown Project folks are putting to planners.  Their energy is infections and their confidence sincere.

The MAPC meeting wrapped up on Wednesday and then offered a tour of downtown Quincy, which points to the final innovation in planning.

Quincy, Massachusetts is an ancient city by North American standards, and birthplace of two American presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams.  It is also in the midst of a large redevelopment effort partnering with Street-Works, a private development team.

Street-Works comes across as an innovation in handling urban infrastructure investment costs.  The Street-Works model is that the city does not do all the hard investment up front and then go out and solicit bidders to come fill in the rest -- by the S-W accounting, this is the traditional model of urban re-development, and generally  doesn't work particularly well.  Instead, what S-W does is build infrastructure as needed.  They own the infrastructure until such time as the city buys it back from them.  Meanwhile, by prior agreement, the landowners in the zone where this work will happen have agreed to cover the cost of these improvements through an additional levy.  Does it all work?  According to S-W it does, based on their experience in Connecticut.

Street-Works co-founder Richard Heapes explaining the model of downtown Quincy
It has a strong component of privatizing the public realm (and responsibilities), but with the notion that the tax-payers are not stuck holding the bag for improvements that most communities can never afford to make.

Altogether, these three examples are efforts to rethink planning and its processes both at very large scales and at much more micro scales.  These approaches, and many other related efforts to re-think anew, will be the thread in planning over the next two decades.