Writing: Public Workshop’s Ten Suggestions for Creating A Stellar Comprehensive Plan For Austin, Texas.

Posted on August 10th, 2009 at 4:26 pm by in Writing

Writing: Public Workshop’s Ten Suggestions for Creating A Stellar Comprehensive Plan For Austin, Texas.

How do we as a city take advantage of the tremendous opportunity that is the crafting of Austin’s new Comprehensive Plan to make an even better Austin than the one we have today?

Below you will find Public Workshop’s Ten Suggestions for invigorating the Comprehensive Planning process, for taking full advantage of this unique occasion. A couple of these ideas, such as the mobile design lab came directly out of the small group brainstorming at the Comprehensive Planning meeting last week, I’ve simply expanded on them.

When you’re done, tell me what you think. Post some comments and then pass this link onto a friend, ask them to post comments.  But let’s not limit this conversation to the confines of the internet. Invite some friends over for migas to talk about Austin’s future. Ask the lady next to you in the elevator what she thinks. Talk about it with your buddies while basking in the sun at Barton Springs. Certainly don’t let me stop you from seeing what the people on either side of you in the Alamo ticket line think Austin should look like in 30 years.

1.Rename the entire affair.

Lets face it, language is important. Sure, the title ‘Comprehensive Plan’ is accurate but it doesn’t exactly foster an atmosphere of possibility, imagination or openness. In fact, it rather suggests something ‘definite’, something to be fought over and battled around instead of ‘Let’s think how we want our city to look, feel and function for the next couple of decades’ . Unless I am mistaken it is actually a framework and a series of goals, right? So why not change the name or modify it. Austin Tomorrow, the previous plan’s name is more interesting but in my opinion it’s not action oriented or suggestive of the distance that we should be looking in the future. How about Imagine Austin or Envision Austin or Re-Envision Austin or Austin 2040 or my personal creation that is admittedly dead in the water, Make Austin Weirder. Seriously though, if you want imagine and talk about the future, you’ve got to set the stage for it. No better way to get the ball rolling than to re-brand the entire affair. Have a City-wide competition to name it as well as raise awareness of the process. Someone out there can do a heck of a lot better than my, Envision Austin.

2.Make it a big deal.

People of Austin, this is your chance to imagine and create the city you get to live with for another couple of decades.

This is huge. Let’s make it a big deal, this is your future not the namby pamby redesign of the sewer system.

How do we want our city to look, feel and function for the next 30 years? How do we want others to see us? How do we want to interact with one another, as a region, with the rest of the world? Do we want to be a place of creativity, of innovation and of excitement, a world leader? Do we want to be a place known for its strong sense of community and equity despite our celebration of the individual?

What do we (Austin) want to be?

This should be front and center in everyone’s eyes for the next year, on the tip of everyone’s tongues in conversations in our bars, churches and coffee shops. We should hear people talking about it everywhere not scratching their heads in bewilderment, as is currently the case, because the Comprehensive Plan doesn’t even remotely ring a bell.

The normal meetings, planning sessions and forums won’t cut it. So how then do you get everyone excited ?

Beyond the other suggestions listed below, how about a City and perhaps region-wide Imagine Austin essay writing contest? Create curriculum and categories so students at all grade levels (including college) can participate. Be smart about though and first have a Story Corps-esque gathering of existing and past stories about places, neighborhoods and people in Austin……..then have your have the imagine the future contest. Publish the winners or a collection in the Statesman, Chronicle and/or online. Get KUT to have some people read their stories on the air. Get prominent local writers involved and create a separate contest for local film makers.

Invite teachers and classes at the local universities to tackle exploring different issues…….film, sociology, public health, design, music. We are in an age in which people want to be involved and engaged…….open the doors and let them in. For this idea to really work, you need to do the following:

3.Create an Austin Futurama on Congress Ave.

Located in downtown Austin- built by designers and the community. Ever-changing and evolving throughout the design process.

A prominent, centrally located public space that serves as:

*A public (read visual) repository of information gathered during and related to the planning process.

*A known location for an educational event series surrounding the planning process. No, not more meetings……but films about cities, lectures by big thinkers and fun events to build awareness of the process

*Place of sharing, collaboration, experimentation and innovation

*A place for consensus building

*A place of transparency

It should be open from 8.30 am until 8.00 pm at night. It should be partially staffed by teenage docent interns who will be participating in the process through their schools, neighborhoods and the making of the Futurama model. The Austin Futurama should have a storefront and should feel like a museum on one hand but other hand it should communicate that it is constantly changing- that people should feel free to touch, play, contribute and manipulate. Perhaps it should instead be entirely disarming and absurd to get everyones’ creative juices flowing like Dave Eggers’ writing centers- aka the Superhero Supply Store, the Pirate Supply Store, etc..

4.Build A Fun Fun Fun Imagine-Your-City Planning Mobile

A roving city design innovation lab that takes the planning process and tools to the neighborhoods. A mobile event facility that serves a backdrop, tool box and support vehicle to let the neighborhood stakeholder groups shine while they design. One part tool box. One part back drop, stage and movie screen. One part water cooler and mobile barbecue pit. One part design your-own-city mobile playground (check out David Rockwell’s Playground In A Box). One part mobile repository of material gathered. One part mobile Story Corps pavilion. That’s a lot of parts.

5.Create Design-Your-Neighborhood Workshops

In each neighborhood in Austin.

An actual physical location chosen by the neighborhood, not an event but a neighborhood design center. A jointly funded place in each neighborhood that acts as both a repository for neighborhood ideas and values as well as serving as a place of community building and neighborhood driven design experimentation/innovation. Develop intern positions at each design center for local teenagers, University of Texas Architecture and Planning students and local artists or cultural figures. The Municipal Arts Society (MAS) has a great program that pairs high school students that MAS trains on GIS with community boards in New York City. The University of Virginia and the Charlottesville Community Design Center have put together a great internship program that is worth checking out. Why not have a neighborhood-based, Imagine Your Neighborhood design competition?

Who would participate? Each team would be comprised of high school interns, college students, a design professional, children, business leaders and community members. The Charlottesville Community Design Center’s Design Marathon is a great model for this process. Of course this is really less of a competition and more of a friendly challenge exploring possibility…..sometimes the insinuation of competition even where there really is no competition can be very effective for helping design teams ‘gel’ and test the limits of possibility.

6.Children should be the architects and designers of 21st century Austin.

Need to make the Comprehensive Design Process more lively and innovative, one that convinces people that this is going to be different than the typical status quo community design processes…….that it’s actually worth their time and energy?

Want to get under-represented populations involved, especially those who may not be able to speak English? Want to counterbalance the stultifying effects of school and instead create a culture of engagement, ownership and achievement for the students of Austin? Want to create a plan that is not mired in the ‘now’ but can look well into the possibilities of the future?

Make Austin’s children and teenagers the designers, planners and architects of 21st century Austin.

Teenage focus groups? Ridiculous. Surveys? Boring and only questionably useful. Have them make a box city of Austin? Maybe but only partially useful and often ignored as ‘kids’ stuff’. Scrap what you think you know about what children are capable of contributing. Give them ownership of the city, their neighborhoods and the problems at hand. If you do and you do it well, amazing things will happen…….beyond your wildest dreams. Don’t believe me? Have a look at the work I’ve done for the Rural Studio, the Hester Street Collaborative, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum or the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Still don’t believe me? Then have a look at some of my collaborator’s work such as that of the Center for Urban Pedagogy or the Municipal Arts Society. Let the City of Austin itself be the classroom for Austin’s students. You’re gonna be pleased, I promise.

7.Design Events= good. Design Meetings= bad.

Aka, this should be fun not a painful, tooth yanking, blood spitting death match or bore-athon. Every event should have music, food and some sort of ‘doing’ activity. The event programming should be jointly developed by the community and the designers. In fact by having music, food and storytelling at every event, one should consider and promote these design events as celebrations of the culture, and people that comprise a given community. The event itself or the aggregate experience of the events for a particular neighborhood is in fact design research. This idea points out the fact that ideas, information and feedback can, and should be gathered in ways other than the traditional survey, post-it or community discussion- and sometimes these alternative methods are more appropriate for the particular culture of a neighborhood or zip code.

8.Make it a game.

Did I mention that this process should be fun?

Well, it’s so important that it’s worth mentioning again. It’s worth mentioning that fun doesn’t mean ineffective, in fact it can often mean greater effectiveness. Hands-on games such as Erect Architecture‘s treasure hunts or Bad Design Darts that I developed with my high school interns for the Hester Street Collaborative can be very effective at not only roping people into actually participating in the process but also gathering meaningful research. The design firm, IDEO makes gobs of money and is incredibly effective largely because of the playful game-like approach that they impart on their participatory design processes.

There was a lot of talk at the meeting last night about using Facebook, Twitter and other forms of new social media to get people involved. Great, yes, wonderful but this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to employing the internet as a tool for imagining the future of cities. Jane McGonnigal’s  World Without Oil or Greg Niemeyer’s  Black Cloud are ARG’s or alternate reality games that you play online in which a community or group of people imagines what might happen to a community, city or the world if a particular event were to happen- such as oil supplies drying up or a mysterious black cloud arriving on the horizon. These are used to imagine and vet possibilities as well as to begin to predict how people might react if such events were to occur. It’s not so difficult to imagine a series of games related to Austin and the region that have both negative stimuli such as dwindling water supplies and positive stimuli. What’s great about these types of games as design reseach tools is that although they are inherently limited to those who have access to the internet, they can bring in a broader spectrum of users from the Austin region, focusing on regional issues such as transportation that have a huge affect on Austin’s future. They also allow people throughout the region, suburbanites and city dwellers to work collaboratively on a problem in a manner that rarely happens in the ‘real’ world.

9.Create an Explore Austin or Make Austin Weirder Day.

It may be monthly, it may be just twice a year but create a special day in which all of the residents in the City and from surrounding areas are encouraged to explore places they haven’t been and do things they normally wouldn’t do. I don’t necessarily mean a publicity blitz to go to Austin’s museums, no, not at all. When envisioning a future and exploring possibilities it is important to create an atmosphere of empathy and knowledge as well as one of openness and possibility. Having events or breakfast in places that weren’t intended for such activities challenges our assumptions of what’s possible. Permanent Breakfast is a perfect example of a simple activity that brings people together, lets them question how we use our public/private spaces but also better understand a place they’ve may have never previously visited.

Other possibilities? They’re endless, but here are a few:

Have a city-wide soccer tournament in Austin’s alleys. Shut down Guadalupe, Lamar or Congress for a Ciclovia. Have one neighborhood (or neighborhood association) invite another neighborhood over for a bbq and kickball. Try taking the bus, walking, rollerblading or carpooling to your destination- take a completely out of the way route. Have an art parade. Have a rodeo downtown. Visit all of Austin’s parks or try to follow one of the City’s creeks to it’s logical ends. Use the entirety of Waller Creek as a miniature golf course.

And have people record their day and their experiences on a blog, and in letters to the newspaper.

10.Milk the publicity.

Properly cast, all of the above are actions or approaches that will cast Austin as a city of innovation in the 21st century. In itself, this process can be an incredible marketing tool, a lure for businesses and people. Take advantage of it. Be honest about the challenges inherent in this incredibly complicated process but broadly proclaim our successes, and Austin will reap the benefits for many years to come.

Alex Gilliam