Resident Experience Master Planning

Scattered across the new master plan of Baltimore are blue dots that represent what are described as "nodal points," areas marked for significant development over the coming years as an influx of DC-area residents heads north to Charm City. One of these dots, located on the city's east side, represents the National Bohemian Brewery, now a massive mixed-use development helping to revitalize its surroundings. Perched atop the tallest brick warehouse is the classic-cute smiling face of Natty Boh, the brewery's mascot.

The disembodied head of Mr. Boh, though, is not an original piece of sinage. The Natty Boh sign was added by the developer who revamped the brewery in a dual effort to raise the development's profile and in deference to the history of the site. The resultant sign has become a landmark for the entire area -- which brings us back to the concept of originality. In architecture and urbanism, originality refers to different things. With architecture, originality is synonymous with innovation. In urbanism, it alligns more closely with historical value. So if we look at Natty Boh from an urbanist perspective, it is clever but not original. This is an important distinction to make, because the Natty Boh sign is an interesting (if simplistic) example of the potential for large-scale urban themeing.

In her June column for Metropolis, Karrie Jacobs decries the impending destruction of Coney Island by what she so brilliantly describes as "the tyrrany of concept." In the course of her lament, Jacobs quotes this from the webite of the firm designing the new Coney Park: "Thinkwell goes beyond traditional land-use planning and focuses on what we call Content Master Planning™ and Guest Experience Master Planning™...These approaches look at not only the physical layout of a project, but also take into consideration and pay particular attention to how that experience unfolds for a guest from the moment they pass through the project threshold until they complete their experience.”

Malls, hotels, theme parks -- high-concept themed design became a standard feature for these types of places ages ago. And while the Coney Island redevelopment would be relatively innocuous (it consists of a small theme park and several condo towers on nearby Stillwell Avenue), the idea that an urban neighborhood can be Guest Experience Master Planned™ creates the potential for a whole new kind of urban planning. In fact, Resident Experience Master Planning (I should ™ that) could revolutionize the way that cities are built. Using nodal points like Mr. Boh, cities could create self-contained neighborhoods that direct how life unfolds for a resident from the moment they move into the area until they...um...complete their experience, whatever that might mean.

Of course, this sounds like a lot of loopy mumbo-jumbo today. As one of the commentors on Jacobs' article points out, "The power to shape experience is what Thinkwell sells to its clients, yet neither philosophers nor cognitive scientists have deduced how an experience unfolds or how it’s 'completed.' Most researchers now doubt if an experience has a beginning and end — which means there are a lot of externalities, including prior experiences, that can thwart a planned experience." But new advances in crowd simulation technology are making Resident Experience Master Planning more and more possible and, with the economic potential of such a development so high, indeed more probable.

Pruned recently came up with some pretty fascinating potential uses for a new high-performance crowd simulator from Paul Torrens of Arizona State University. For instance, such technology could be used to "design a mall which can compel customers to shop to the point of bankruptcy, to walk obliviously for miles and miles and miles, endlessly to the point of physical exhaustion and even death." Or, perhaps, "figure out how one could, through spatial manipulation, inflame a crowd, even a very small one, to set in motion a series of events that culminates into a full scale Revolution or just your average everyday Southeast Asian coup d'état -- regime change through landscape architecture." If urban planning could figure out exactly how to get people to do specific things or behave in specific ways, it would give new and rather intense meaning to the term "master planning".

The Natty Boh sign in Baltimore is an example of the current extent of urban themeing. The best that developers can do right now is to drum up as much nostalgia as possible. The sign atop the old National Bohemian brewery is an eye-catching logo for the development and gives it some skyline presence, but these are essentially side effects. The true purpose of this sign is to, in effect, re-brand the entire neighborhood. American society has always been defined by work ethic, and Mr. Boh reminds the creative class-type workers moving to East Baltimore to work in the city's nearby "biotech districts" of the ever-elusive Simpler Time, when B-more was a blue-collar center of industry. Mr. Boh is to East Baltimore what Disney World's Cinderella Castle is to Euro-ancestral America.

So take the central idea behind this more primitive form of urban themeing -- sell real estate through nostalgia -- and add the supreme control granted by Resident Experience Master Planning, and voila! Revolution! Quasi-historical touches like the Natty Boh sign convince people to buy apartments, even to move great distances. So imagine the potential for landmarks or layouts or sophisticated systems of these things that could eliminate traffic by dispersing commute start-times, or promote concentration and convince potential residents to embrace density. On the flip side, imagine a city where small nodal neighborhoods each operate completely independently of each other to limit contact with others and thereby remove "externalities" from the experience equation. These neighborhoods could be planned to move residents swiftly from one pre-determined location (home) to another (work) to another (store), creating an endless, muss-and-fuss-free cash-flow for The Powers That Be. Think mass surveillance pre-planned and coded into the physical environment; after all, when behavior is planned, one does not need cameras to know where people are.

Mr. Boh better keep his eye on those pesky planners...

(Photo from Flickr user rebelpilot.)

Mr. Boh's Neighborhood (City Paper)

End of the Line (Metropolis)

Modeling Urban Panic (Pruned)


globalburgh said...

Your tale reminds me of the ruckus over UPMC (a symbol of Pittsburgh's new economy) putting its sign on top of the old US Steel building in downtown Pittsburgh. The very same people who fret over Pittsburgh's outdated national image (a rather negative brand), do not appreciate UPMC's attempts to stamp its identity over an icon of the steelmaking tradition.

There is a strong love-hate relationship with Pittsburgh's blue collar identity, which at times guides the city forward and other times holds the city back.

tonydetroit said...

Some really interesting thinking comes from this...

One one hand the creative-minded Floridaists of the world seem to push the Rust Belt to do whatever they can to break free from their downsizing pasts (namely by attempting each to grab more college kids, corporate tax breaks to fuel demolitions, build entertainment to replace the traditional downtown and add a Gehry), yet there is something inspiring - if not naive and romantic - to be part of the generation that reclaims areas of our urban fabric once brought to life by our grandparents and great grandparents. Perhaps it is just some of our desires to rebel away from our parents still before we become them, but I find hope that the very places our parents' generation abandoned, some of us are finding great joy in rediscovering and throwing in a nod to history.