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This week’s Future Here Now focuses on an issue that struck me over and over again while I was at the National Planning Conference last week. In many professions (urban planning being one of them), we say that we are doing what we are doing for the people — residents, customers, students, whatever — but we fail to deeply understand their motives, their desires and their behavior. Instead, we imagine how we think that they should respond to the ways that we change their environment.
And when they don’t respond like we expected, we shrug, or we explain it away, or we accuse them of not understanding their own needs, of not being rational.
What we don’t want to admit is that we very seldom get their motivations and priorities right, and they very seldom act the way we assumed that they would. And that means that our big ideas and grand plans and really lovely products very often fail to make the impact we promised — or they create unintended consequences that can be worse than what we were trying to fix in the first place.
From my perspective, the problem isn’t that our residents or customers aren’t rational actors. The problem is that too many of us who are in the business of creating solutions are more interested in our own visions than in understanding how other people actually think and work.
What we learned from the waterfront
One of the things we do that takes real people out of the picture is over-simplify them — into dots on a diagram, demographic assumptions, consumers. Waterfront As Tourist Destination typically failed to generate anything resembling a healthy urban life because it (a) ignored real locals in favor of idealized tourists, and (b) reduced what people were willing to do
to buying, eating and gawking.
WHAT LESSONS HAVE WE LEARNED from a half-century of waterfront initiatives? One, as explained by the engineering firm MFS, is that waterfront restorations have to be more than the creation of carnivals. They can’t just be tourist gimmicks. They should incorporate the history of the neighborhood and the city. They need to make use of old buildings. And they need to make creative use of the water itself. It’s fine if people want to stop by and enjoy the views. But a lake or river retrofitted for public use is a better candidate for long-term results.
This is one of those architect proclamations that always makes me more than a bit uncomfortable — high on drama, low on explanation, definition and details. But I think there’s an important dimension embedded in here. One of the charges often levelled at modern or minimalist design is that its “less is more” ethos reads as bland or soulless. I don’t exactly know what “emotion” looks like in a building — and I know that people with the same puffed — up sweeping gestures lambasted post-modern building features (think the impossibly large gargoyles on the Harold Washington Library in Chicago) as silliness.
So I don’t know how to put “emotion” into buildings and spaces. But even us non-designers have places that we love and enjoy and feel comfortable. They feel…human?
By 2050, seven out of 10 people worldwide will live in a city. Yet, despite the modern world’s technological advances, we have continued to create soulless spaces that reflect none of this genius. Whether you’re in downtown Hong Kong, Paris’s financial district, or central Toronto, the human touch has vanished from urban design while social isolation is growing and people are feeling increasingly overwhelmed and burnt out.
However, I believe change is coming. Before, you could get away with thinking “less is more.” Now it’s becoming clear that emotion matters when designing buildings and urban spaces.
In 2023, cities will start waking up to the value of emotion. Architects and designers will begin to embrace the idea that the aesthetic quality and the diversity of buildings deeply affect our feelings and have the power to lift our spirits, engage, and connect us.
Watch what they do, less what they say
I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the reasons why we often want to scoot real humans out of the picture we’re creating is because they often make no damn sense — they say they want one thing and then they do another.
This is an older article from Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns that was referenced in a more recent article. It reminded me of how, after my early planning career, I learned about the empathetic design methdology that industrial designers use — walking with you as you use their product, asking questions, watching closely how you hold your hands and where exactly the finger rests on the buttons. It’s that attention to the human-ness, and that striving to understand the full technical and personal experience of the user, that lets industrial designers create devices that objectively, comprehensively, holistically make the users’ experience better.
It’s challenging to be humble, especially when you are in a position, or are part of a profession, whose internal narrative tells you that you already know what to do. It’s painful to observe, especially when that means confronting messy realities that do not fit with your view of the world. It’s unsatisfying, at times, to try many small things when the “obvious” fix is right there. If only those around you just shared your “courage” to undertake it (of course, with no downside to you if you’re wrong). If only people had the patience to see it through (while they, not you, continue to struggle in the interim).
Yet what if we humbly observe where people in our community struggle — if we use the experiences of others as our data — and we continually take the actions we are capable of taking, right now, to alleviate those struggles? And what if we do this in neighborhood after neighborhood across the entire city, month after month and year after year? If we do that, not only will we make the lowest risk, highest returning public investments it is possible to make, we won’t help but improve people’s lives in the process.