Efficiency and Effectiveness: Inside the Regional Assembly

Photo by <a href="steveladner.com">Steve Ladner</a> Courtesy of the Regional Plan Association
Photo by Steve Ladner Courtesy of the Regional Plan Association

Our economic and environmental crisis is building consensus that we need new ways of doing business, making policy, and building infrastructure and investing in our communities. We know that these issues are interconnected, yet we are only beginning to understand the deep complexity of those interactions. Innovations in decentralized technology – social media, GIS data, locative software and smartphone applications – provide us with rich new sources of localized and distributed information that have the potential to identify new trends in how we use our built environment and, therefore, might uncover new efficiencies and opportunities for planning our built environment.

Yet the full meaning and scope of the innovations we seek have no consensus. New efficiencies might yield better price signals, reduce power consumption or provide better transportation. But efficiency alone cannot address the larger issues of sustainability and equity. All the information and embedded intelligence we can imagine will not represent input from the full breadth of our society if the digital divide is not addressed or continues to grow. We need innovations not only in technology, but also in how we perceive our cities, and in how and what we choose to learn from the ever-growing stream of information that people produce about themselves and their communities every day.

These issues were the topic of discussion at the Regional Planning Association’s annual assembly on April 16. Designers, planners, and policy-makers gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria to take part in a discussion of this year’s conference theme, Innovation and the American Metropolis. The day-long event comes at the halfway point between the release of RPA’s last Regional Plan in 1996 and the next plan to be released around 2025. RPA’s goal is to begin looking forward and to think about how innovations in technology can lead to innovations in policy and planning. Recently, Urban Omnibus sat down with some of RPA’s leadership to discuss the premises behind the event in the context of the organization’s history. The event itself aired a range of responses and approaches to new technological opportunities for metropolitan areas already underway, and it also provoked new and difficult questions about how these innovations might fit into a larger vision of design and planning.

Efficient vs. Effective

Regional Assembly 2010 Keynote: William McDonough via Regional Plan Association.

In a keynote speech, William McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle and renowned sustainable design architect and educator, cautioned the power-brokers in the room – from NRG to the Port Authority – about the difference between being efficient and being effective: that when efficiency alone is a goal, the formation and implementation of policy begins with metrics and never goes beyond the mere measurable to include values and principles. It was a reminder that when we plan and design our environment, we must think about values before metrics in order to be effective. McDonough’s point seemed to resonate throughout the remainder of the conference. When Robert Atkinson, CEO of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, talked about a future city in which embedded intelligence allows efficient pricing or when Chris Ward of the Port Authority embraced these efficiencies as a way to support new infrastructure investments, the trends seemed promising. As previously guarded and proprietary information becomes open source, as in the recent decision about MTA scheduling data, new data-gathering intelligence from the private sector can work in the public interest. This model of public/private partnerships in the areas of energy, transportation, and infrastructure seemed to dominate the interest of both the individual participants and the corporate sponsors. Yet for all the technological optimism, there was little discussion about how this technology could or should affect our values and principles, or any attempt at articulating a larger vision. Among the smaller workgroup sessions offered, the two outliers in this context, “Radical Housing” and “New Tools for Civic Engagement and Community Design,” seemed to represent the best opportunity for a discussion that might engage these larger themes.

How to Use the Data

Courtesy of the Regional Plan Association

“New Tools for Civic Engagement and Community Design” presented many of the potential benefits and pitfalls for the use of new technology in planning. The panel ranged from those skeptical of technology to those who openly embrace it. For instance, the moderator, Ed Blakely, represented the skeptics, concerned with the digital divide and the ease with which a true participatory process could be hijacked by others. Michael Keating of the Open Planning Project represented the technological optimist, telling the design and planning community that they no longer have control of the message, and that they have no choice but to learn to use social media and to referee the free flow of input. Barbara Faga of AECOM and Robert Lane of RPA stood somewhere in between, believing in the role of technology with limited application. Damon Rich, urban designer for the city of Newark and founder of the Center for Urban Pedagogy had a unique stance on the issue, saying that good participation demands very clear goals about the type and level of participation that is being asked for. He also advocates a kind of grassroots educational campaign, akin to organizing, to build the decision-making capacity of those we seek to consult. The comments of Mr. Keating and Mr. Rich point to the use of marketing tactics and social media already developed by advertisers trying to reach new consumers, but repurposed to be used in the interest of the public realm. In general, though, the session and audience comments seemed to reveal unease in the design and planning community about the loss of control that comes with new social media and new technologies. There was also ambivalence towards real engagement with community participants and perhaps a lack of imagination as well. A real opportunity was missed when a decision was made early on not to show a demonstration of some of the new tools available to planners. Some of them require both sides to realize that once the input is given, it can no longer be under anyone’s complete control. For instance, Amsterdam Real Time represents a new kind of data-gathering tool that is still more art than application. Yet, the potential is enormous. Once we understand how to use the data, it may tell us things about our environment nobody had considered or thought possible. This is the kind of radical, innovative tool that may allow us to get beyond our ambivalence towards real participation and our desire to control the outcome.

Housing as Part of a Larger Social System

Courtesy of the Regional Plan Association

The “Radical Housing” session, in the afternoon, included Jonathan Rose, Rosanne Haggerty of Common Ground, Jerilyn Perine of Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC), Michael Kelly of NYCHA, with Julia Vitullo-Martin of RPA serving as moderator. Ms. Perine gave the most thought-provoking presentation, painting a portrait of New York as a community of people trying to fit into a housing stock that does not reflect new social realities. For Perine and CHPC, innovation in housing would require a radical rethinking of housing standards and a real increase in density matched by an increase in services for that density. For Kelly and NYCHA, the goal is to re-integrate public housing into neighborhoods with mixed-income communities where the homes of those who receive subsidies are indistinguishable from those who do not. Haggerty’s account of her work with Common Ground, an organization dedicated to housing the homeless, highlighted new unit typologies and living arrangements that echoed some of Perine’s comments. Jonathan Rose spoke of the focus of Rose Companies’ projects on social and environmental concerns. The session catalogued a series of approaches that attempt to deal with housing as part of a larger social system. Given this country’s history of planning and policy in subsidized housing, the projects shown were more encouraging than radical, and the ways in which they represent the cutting edge of housing delivery has very little to do with new technologies. As Ms. Perine mentioned in answer to an audience question, there are typically two tools, and only two tools, that planners have to make affordable housing – land-use policy and tax structure, policy areas where decentralized sources of information can only do so much.

Complex Systems

Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch, speaking of the grave economic situation in the state, at one point leaned into the microphone and told us in his gravelly voice that we are eating our seed corn, using tomorrow’s wealth today. Adolfo Carrión, Jr., now White House Director of Urban Affairs and former Bronx Borough President, struck a much more positive tone. The contrast in tone can be attributed partly to politics and partly to the reality that the Federal Government has funds that the State does not. Both are looking to cities to innovate in the development of a new economy and a more sustainable future. In a country where past Federal administrations have usually lacked faith in cities and failed to invest in them, this new message is welcome. But innovation is a funny thing. It can lead to tremendous efficiencies when implemented on a large scale, but it is borne out of a process that is messy and inefficient – it is a creative act. Cities are always messy, sometimes inefficient, but they are creative. They are complex systems that function in a non-linear fashion, sometimes producing surprising results. The conversations at the conference revolved around the idea that we are just beginning to understand the nature of these complex interactions. Planners, designers, and policy-makers need to embrace the laboratories that are our urban environments precisely because they are not under our complete control. They must also be open to the idea that what is efficient according to one set of metrics may not be effective under another. In the population densities of major metropolitan areas, localized and distributed information sources reach a critical mass that produces a constant feedback loop, allowing us to constantly reevaluate our goals, values, and policies. With greater access and fewer barriers to technology, more density, and more embedded intelligence, we will have more and more information about our environment and ourselves. Real innovation will involve a blurring of the boundaries between the environments and communities that we seek to shape and those who seek to shape them. And it may also require a leap of faith that sometimes solutions can present themselves outside of anyone’s control.

Samir S. Shah, AIA is an architect and writer based in New York City. He is a former Fulbright Fellow in Art & Architectural History and has written for various publications, including the Architect’s Newspaper. Samir has taught courses in architecture at the City College of New York and abroad, and is currently principal at Urban Quotient, P.C., a full-service architecture design firm and research collaborative.