Opening Planning

"[A] problem I think we have in the arts is the over-professionalization of art. What I mean by that is, it is the ethos of the professional artist to present the final piece, with no warts, no rough edges. This is the art. We do not allow you backstage to see the process. I think Americans, and people in every culture, want to see the creative process. And I think professional artists have alientated their publics by not allowing them in...You don't have to change the art form, but the audience should know how hard it is to perform a new piece of orchestral music, and they should see the first violins struggling, having to do it over and over again. There has to be a way to allow our artists to be more vulnerable and to open up the creative process and invite people in." -- Steven Tepper on Smart City Radio

Hearing this quote from the September 13th edition of SCR (I'm a bit backed up on my podcasts this month) made me recall an art project I'd read about in dezeen a while back. The project, called If Gio Only Knew..., was a design/build-reuse-performance-art thingy (if you will) in which the artist (Martino Gamper) took classic pieces of Gio Ponti-designed furniture and took them apart to refashion them into new pieces of furniture. The results were uneven and sometimes downright ugly, but the project stayed in the back of my mind.

It was hearing Tepper opine about the overprofessionalization of art that made me realize what I had really liked about Gamper's little adaptive reuse experiment: he let his audience backstage. Even if you weren't at Design Miami/Basel, where the Pontis were refashioned into Gampers, you can watch a video of the re-design process. Even while the results of each reconstruction may not have been aesthetically pleasing, someone who is interested in furniture design can watch the video and learn about Gamper's creative process, and try to come to some better understanding of how and why he rebuilt the pieces as he did.

Of course, my brain started to try to translate this Aha! moment into urban design, which is one of the most underappreciated artistic fields. How cities could benefit from a more open planning process was obvious; people who understand why something in their neighborhood is changing are more likely to approve of it and, if they don't, are able to offer more focused critique of why the change is inappropriate. But how could such understanding be achieved? Even with public hearings and meetings and partnerships, there still seems to be a very negative attitude toward planners, at least in the US.

It's a public relations problem, when you boil it down. Not the evil kind of PR that tells lots of happy little lies to obscure a big ugly truth, but plain old-fashioned direct communication. It has been well-lamented that civic engagement is lacking in the twenty- and thirtysomething crowd that carries the bulk of the weight of gentrification on their shoulders. Whole groups have been formed to address this very problem (see Neighbors Project in the sidebar for a good example). The PR issue is twofold, then: older urbanites know too much about old-school planning from the 1950s and 60s to trust contemporary planners, and younger urbanites (often suburban imports with little to no understanding of how cities are shaped) who know too little about planning to care.

Planetizen's Interchange blog had a great post last week from Scott Page, a planner himself, that discussed the urban planning field's apparent identity crisis of late. In it, he laments what is essentially the overprofessionalization of the planning field. "In this process of defining who we are, are we not" he asks, "leaving out people that are, in fact, planners but not trained as such?...Let’s champion planning as an art that merges vision with pragmatic thinking. And let’s find a better way to define our community which, ironically, is precisely what we are trained to do."

The need for a more inclusive and open planning community -- in which there is plenty of room for professional planners -- is apparent as cities begin to acknowledge that, in the face of increasingly complex problems, solutions must come from all corners. But what can break down this overprofessionalization? How does the audience (the citizenry of a given metropolis) understand how planning works, and how small changes (and even inconvenient ones) can contribute to a larger solution? How do planners "open up the creative process and invite people in?"

(Photo from Flickr user seanfrom.)

Urban Innovations (Smart City Radio)

If Gio Only Knew... (dezeen)

Our collective identity crisis (Interchange)

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