Since 1978, the Institute for Urban Design has brought together architects, planners, policy-makers, developers, academics and journalists into a common conversation about topical issues related to urban development and design. At the time of the Institute’s founding, American cities were in crisis, and the task of exploring the strategies, policies and design priorities best suited to enhancing the urban landscape fell to a dedicated group of passionate professionals. These days, cities are celebrated — and their prospects debated — by a much wider public. So the Institute is inviting the entire city to engage with urban design and its multiple definitions, applications and possibilities during a weeklong festival that kicks off this Thursday.
Many of the events during this week hinge on By The City / For The City, a crowdsourced ideas competition for New York’s public realm for which the Institute solicited design challenges from people across the city and then invited designers to respond. Tomorrow’s opening night event at the BMW Guggenheim Lab will launch a book and exhibition of the designs from By The City / For The City, and the rest of week will see events that range from discussing the historic significance of Isham Park in Inwood to participating in a 72-hour “urban action” in Long Island City, from open air film screenings on the High Line to helping to design a new skatepark under the Manhattan Bridge, from a picnic in the Financial District to a walking tour that explores the ways women have contributed to the creation and life of the Brooklyn Bridge. With over 35 happenings, openings, screenings and designings, Urban Design Week seeks to increase public understanding of how living in the city fits into larger systemic questions of what cities are and how cities work. What’s more, it promises to foster a sense of transformative possibility about those systems and how design can improve them. We sat down with Anne Guiney, executive director of the Institute for Urban Design to find out more about how it came about and what to expect from…
Tell me about Urban Design Week.
Urban Design Week is six days of events – starting this Thursday, September 15th – organized by The Institute for Urban Design that seeks to engage New Yorkers in the complexity of the public realm, to get people thinking about the streetscapes, sidewalks and public spaces at the heart of city life. This week of activities is about celebrating what makes New York the city it’s known to be: it’s dynamic public realm.
None of it is accidental. There are a thousand decisions that go into shaping and reshaping the city and its public realm; it’s an ongoing process. There are a lot of wonderful ways to insert one’s opinions, desires and hopes into those processes. The traditional apparatus for citizen involvement in New York is absolutely necessary and hugely important. But existing mechanisms for participation have limitations. Some people can’t afford to spend three hours on a Monday night at a community meeting. With that in mind, we made our project “By the City / For The City” the centerpiece of Urban Design Week. The project combines crowdsourcing methods with a design ideas competition to ask New Yorkers to articulate how the city’s public realm could be improved. It’s about trying to find different ways — ways that feel less official or restrictive — to get people involved in conversations about what works in the city.
How does “By The City / For The City” work?
We conceived “By The City / For The City” as a way to figure out how non-designers imagine that design can change the physical fabric and systems of the city, the things they use and think about every day. We wanted to explore what the potentials and limitations of design to make meaningful change are by asking New York City residents to identify challenges. And then we invited designers to respond to those challenges. The range of ideas that came in was amazing. There were 600 in total. Some are incredibly modest and small in scale — for example, “This corner always floods.” Others were much grander in scale: “Please rethink how to get from Brooklyn to Queens.”
We started by asking people to respond to a very simple question: “Wouldn’t it be great if…” Then we worked on how to ground this hypothetical in spatial and physical terms, because we wanted to avoid kvetchy responses like “Wouldn’t it be great if… my neighbor didn’t yell so loud.” So we encouraged respondents to give some context: a location and an explanation of why. So we provided four prompts: “Wouldn’t it be great if…?” “Where?” “So that people could…” and the final one was “Because I want the city to be…” Here’s an example of a response, #362:
Now this is, I think, a great example of somebody thinking, “this road is a nightmare to get across,” but then imagining that as a challenge that design — whether it’s traffic calming or planting or everything in between — could solve. It’s so important to get down to the perceived social benefit of a design intervention. That helps ground it in an important way.
Location was a great way for respondents to give some context for the challenge they were articulating. We worked with Project for Public Spaces to develop a system that allowed people to drop a pin on a map where their ideas would happen. But we wanted more than just, say, “wouldn’t it be great if this intersection in Throgs Neck had a park?” We wanted to get each respondent to explain why he or she would want a particular goal to be met: “I want the people of Throgs Neck to have a place to sit outside because right now there is no public space that actually makes sense.”
What was the audience for your call for challenges? Who suggested ideas?
Our hope was to be able to reach out to people who might not customarily participate in projects like this. So we worked with local newspapers, community boards and neighborhood blogs to get the word out and begin to take the temperature of how people see the physical city and how it could be better. For some people, that’s a flooded corner at Astor Place. For others, it’s the transportation system. Someone else wants the Steinway Mansion saved, or is concerned with waste removal practices. Now that we have gathered all the ideas that came in from this process into a website, a book — An Atlas of Possibility for the Future of New York — and an exhibition, we can start to help people understand how these concerns, at both small and large scales, are the concerns of urban design.
So the next phase was bringing those concerns to designers.
Exactly. And that was a totally open invitation. Designers looked through the challenges that were contributed by respondents, chose one and worked out a design scheme to address it. The designers took the respondents’ ideas very seriously, and it was interesting to note which challenges designers took on. There were a lot more system-based projects than there were building-specific proposals. The designers who participated seemed interested in challenges like how to deploy green roofs all over the city, or what you could do if you took away one parking space per block. There were a lot more solutions that took a “kit-of-parts” approach than there were solutions for what should be done in a specific building.
The “kit-of-parts” approach is huge right now.
Along with tool kits and field guides! And that points to the ways that this project taps into the zeitgeist; it takes the pulse of what people are thinking about in the urban realm: green roofs, urban agriculture, cycling systems. It’s not a scientific sample, of course, but it’s revelatory nonetheless.
Crowdsourcing is also very popular at the moment, particularly in the context of urbanism and civic improvements. What do you think about the potential and the limitations of crowdsourcing?
Crowdsourcing is a powerful tool we have enjoyed using but I think I’ve learned as much about what its limitations are as I have about its potential. I’d be the last person to say it’s the silver bullet. It operates at a certain scale and is great for providing a certain kind of data. But there are certainly limitations. We talked to some experts in the design of forms and surveys who made clear that it’s best not to ask more than four questions on a form, such as the one we were putting out there, and that questions have to be short. We went back and forth for weeks and weeks crafting the questions that would yield the information that we wanted to get but would not discourage participation. We have to be completely honest with ourselves about the potential of these tools and when it’s appropriate to use them.
So what’s actually going to happen during Urban Design Week?
We’re going to kick off with a party at the BMW Guggenheim Lab, where we will launch an exhibit and a book of the results of By The City / For The City. Then there’s a full calendar of events all week, many of which are public conversations. We’re trying to do less stuff in lecture halls and more stuff in venues that are open. For example, Open House New York and Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop are going to run a community charrette with the organizers of the Gowanus Lowline competition.
Some of the events will appeal to a wide public, others are more specialized. Mimi Zeiger and her loose consortium of writers and thinkers, LGNLGN, are really interested in talking about some of the issues around public interventions and how we define communities. So she is hosting more of a salon-style conversation. There will be an event at the Queens Museum of Art – related to their show on Detroit that’s opening on September 18th – that looks at citizen interventions on a small scale. Mitch McEwen is involved in connecting that work to community-based efforts. And we’re going to hang out on the Museum’s incredible panorama and talk about some of these issues and precedents in relationship to both New York and Detroit. Those are just a few examples of everything’s that’s going on.
We will wrap up Urban Design Week with the US premiere of Urbanized, Gary Hustwit’s new movie and the third in his trilogy of design documentaries that also includes Helvetica and Objectified. I think that his goal in all three of the movies is to convey some of the complexities of design in a way that is popular. For Urbanized, over the last year or so, he’s been interviewing mayors, policy people, designers, everybody in between, to talk about how cities are designed and made.
How does all of this advance the mission of the Institute for Urban Design?
The Institute for Urban Design has tended to operate as a practitioner’s think-tank, where professionals working at a pretty high level in architecture, planning, design, urban policy, energy, etc. convene and work through issues. They then brought the benefit of this thinking back to their work.
Now, we’re at a wonderful point at which conversations about the city fabric and city systems are much more commonplace. The kinds of conversations that fellows of the Institute for Urban Design in the past have had just with each other are now heard in public settings throughout the city. Look at the kerfuffle over the Prospect Park bike lanes: you’ve got people all over the city passionately for or passionately against what is essentially an urban design issue. So I think this is a really good time to try and crack that open. There are people who care passionately about bike lanes and people who care passionately about streets and people who care passionately about dog runs or transit funding or housing prices. All of these fit into or are part of the conversation about urban design. That conversation becomes more productive when you’re not talking about bike lanes as just a transit problem, but you’re talking about them as a streetscape issue, a livability issue, a public health and sustainability issue. This is a great time to try to connect the disciplinary dots to be part of a larger public dialogue.
What do you hope someone who attends some part of Urban Design Week — someone who is perhaps interested in some of these issues but not involved in them personally or professionally other than being a neighborhood resident and a subway user — will get out of it?
I’d love for people who attend some of the events at Urban Design Week to start to think of the parts of the city that they use as part of a much larger, shared system. I would like that person to have a more straightforward understanding that taking the subway is more than just getting to work. It fits into a larger constellation of questions and issues.
That seems to me like a goal one could set for Urbanism Week or City Week. This is Urban Design Week. Where does design fit in?
I think the book, which showcases the designers’ responses to the ideas that came in from the crowdsourced search for urban challenges, helps to show how design strategies can address public realm challenges in multiple and overlapping ways. Take the area around the Holland Tunnel in Manhattan. A sophisticated design proposal for that space would look at it as a traffic problem, as an aesthetic problem and as a greenspace problem. Design helps us get from “this space is a nightmare” to more productive and positive thinking about how planning, architecture and landscape architecture can be applied to mitigate that space, to make it much more pleasant and functional.
This is about showing what design can do. Not in the sense of implementation, but to get people thinking. People don’t even agree on a common definition of urban design. I don’t expect that Urban Design Week will be able to establish that urban design is X, Y or Z in a neat little package. But it will, I hope, get people to ask questions and posit some, perhaps contradictory, answers.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.