Sunday, September 18, 2016

Community Design Handbook

Back in 2013, I wrote a blog post about the City of Eugene’s effort to develop a broad set of non-regulatory design principles and guidelines with the intent of setting expectations for design excellence in Eugene and achieving the community’s vision for the built environment. Christened as the Community Design Guide, the city planners have since redubbed the document as a “handbook.” 

Fast-forward to 2016 and the Community Design Handbook (CDH) remains in draft form and very much a work in progress. The City’s primary goal continues to be its desire to represent best practices related to design espousing the “seven pillars” of Envision Eugene. Despite the express statement that the CDH will not be a regulatory document, the City clearly intends it to form the basis for consensus about what the future of our built environment should look like. What the City wants is to ensure that development occurs in a manner consistent with the seven pillars as the challenges posed by Eugene’s growing population continue to mount. 

Here’s a link to a digital version of the current draft document: 

Since the original draft of the guide/handbook first appeared three years ago, the City’s Planning Division has invited comment from the general public as well as specific community stakeholders. You can see a summary of past community input here. The city continues to welcome feedback. Earlier this summer, senior city planner Zach Galloway directly solicited the opinion of AIA-Southwestern Oregon’s Committee on Local Affairs (CoLA), of which I’m a member. CoLA will convene later this month to compare notes. Our goal is to forward a single set of comments and recommendations for improving the CDH to the Planning Division. 

Here are my initial thoughts about the current draft of the handbook: 

I believe the current draft of the CDH uses plain language in an engaging way. It is well-illustrated using colorful photographs, mostly of local scenes. Fellow CoLA member Scott Clarke questioned whether the graphic style Γ  la Sunset Magazine is appropriate, but I think it suits the current sensibilities and short attention spans of our digital society. 

My biggest issue with the document is its frequent reliance upon “motherhood and apple pie” statements that fail to rise high enough above a shallow rhetoric to be truly meaningful. For example, the design guidelines for the creation of successful public spaces include statements like the following: 

“CONFIGURE the size and shape of public spaces for human comfort, proportions, and intended uses.” 

"MAXIMIZE natural, everyday observation and experience of public and semi-public spaces through high visibility and open connections.” 

Sound good, right? The problem is there are no metrics cited by which to gauge the extent to which a proposed development complies with or successfully fulfills the design guidelines. Will it be important to somehow objectively measure this? Does it need to be codified in some way? Is this what the City of Eugene intends to do? As I mentioned above, my understanding is the City has no plans to formalize the CDH as a regulatory document; however, I’m pretty certain aspirational statements alone won’t ensure good design. 

Some community members who have reviewed the various previous iterations of the guide/handbook share my concern. They likewise fear it will fail to be beneficial without implementation of critical development standards in the Eugene Code. Lacking “teeth,” how can the CDH be a practical tool that effectively influences design in Eugene? If it is not codified, will well-meaning developers, architects, and designers interpret its underlying principles in contradictory and conflicting ways? 

At the other end of the spectrum, some people believe the CDH will eventually become an overly prescriptive albatross regardless of the City’s statements to the contrary—yet another regulatory burden discouraging desirable and productive development. These commenters fear the guidelines would not stand up to the eyeball test of clear and objective standards. In their opinion, the City should leave architecture to architects and site planning to landscape architects and engineers. 

The City wants the CDH to be an all-encompassing, comprehensive document but it also wants it to be easy and fun to read. I don’t think the CDH will be successful if it is overly encumbered by countless pages detailing the means to execute designs that would help comply with each of the guidelines. I can imagine an electronic version of the document copiously hyper-linked making it easy to go down whatever rabbit hole you need to in order to find concrete strategies for how to “shape public spaces for human comfort, proportions, and intended uses” among the many design goals; however, this isn’t an option for a hard-copy of the handbook. 

Again, the City’s primary goal for the CDH is that it become the basis for an inspired, shared vision for future development in Eugene. Given this is its principal purpose, the CDH must serve as effectively as possible as an educational and communications tool providing citizens who lack a design vocabulary a primer about what is commonly regarded as good community design. In this regard, I think the current draft version does a pretty good job. 

Ultimately, the trick will be getting the CDH in front of as many eyes as possible. If it does not ultimately serve as the basis for new form-based codes, it will only be useful and valued if the community widely embraces and implements its design principles on its own accord. Perhaps it will become required reading for every high school student, developer, community activist, and politician in Eugene. In order for this to occur, I believe the City of Eugene will need to vigorously promote the CDH without equivocation and with the support of as many stakeholder groups as possible (CoLA included). 

*     *     *     *     *     

Interested in sharing your thoughts about the Community Design Handbook? The City of Eugene’s Planning Division would love to hear from you. Review the latest draft version and then participate in the City’s online survey by clicking the link below:


No comments: