Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Community Consensus and Design Excellence

A traditional Eugene neighborhood (photo by Chris Pietsch from the City of Eugene's Community Design Handbook)
Note: The following is my contribution to this year's AIA-Southwestern Oregon Design Annual (Register-Guard special insert), to be published next month.
The theme of the Design Annual you’re reading is Forward Motion. The articles gathered here reflect the perspectives of just some of the architects who are your neighbors in the community. These insights variously address how we should plan for growth and change, which issues are most worthy of prioritization, which strategies might help us resolve the inflexibility of competing points of view, and what our shared vision for a Eugene of tomorrow should be. The implicit premise is you can entrust architects with illuminating the way toward a collective, promising future. After all, given their education and skill set, aren’t architects best equipped to catalyze the positive changes we all want in the design of our built environment? 

The reality is nothing is so simple that a single profession, regardless of background or stature, will have all the answers. While architects may frequently be of one mind when it comes to complex issues related to design and planning, it’s also true their opinions are occasionally as divergent and varied as they all are as individuals. Architects don’t always speak with one voice. 

In the case of what needs to be done to preserve and improve upon what makes Eugene so desirable, architects cannot exclusively claim the righteous high ground or a monopoly on opinions. It’s taken time, but as a profession, they have learned to listen, to consider humility a virtue, and to avoid repeating past mistakes. Architects recognize that accord with those from outside their bubble on issues of public concern is hard won but worth pursuing. 

Building consensus is challenging, particularly in the arena of environmental and public policy. The process exposes rifts between competing interests, while also highlighting the diversity of those interests and the groups involved. Whether they understand it or not, the parties affected are interdependent, which is why it is difficult and ineffective for these groups to attempt solving controversial problems on their own. Those problems are often immeasurably complex, so much so that people are fooling themselves if they believe solutions are easy to come by because they never are. This is the reason why it sometimes seems miraculous when consensus is achieved. 

A significant planning success story, one built upon community education, collaboration, and consensus, is Envision Eugene. The seven pillars of Envision Eugene reflect the values of the community and are the foundation for the City of Eugene’s present and future policies, guidelines, and actions related to development of the urban environment. The seven pillars are: 
  1. Provide ample ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES for all community members 
  2. Provide HOUSING AFFORDABLE to all income levels 
  5. Protect, repair and enhance NEIGHBORHOOD LIVABILITY 
  6. Protect, restore and enhance NATURAL RESOURCES 
  7. Provide for ADAPTABLE, FLEXIBLE and COLLABORATIVE implementation
It’s probably safe to say most AIA-Southwestern Oregon members agree with how each of the pillars is framed, and with how the city proposes to balance them while accommodating the jobs, homes, parks, and schools we’ll need as Eugene grows. The seven pillars appeal to universal values and beliefs; they’re motherhood statements few people would disagree with. That they likely mirror the thoughts and opinions of local architects should come as no surprise. 

Community involvement has been an important part of the Envision Eugene project from the beginning. The City’s website details how extensive the community involvement process was and continues to be. Architects have participated as equal partners with their fellow citizens directly on various committees or resource groups, and provided review and input during the many public outreach opportunities.

The bottom line is a shared vision of the city’s future exists in the form of Envision Eugene. It isn’t one architects (or even the city’s planning staff) formulated by themselves. A wide spectrum of the community expressed views that were commonly held by many. It only took Envision Eugene to bring those views together and give them shape. 

Allowing that Envision Eugene already establishes a foundation upon which to build a better future, how can architects best leverage their talent, experience, and wisdom as a force for positive change? In my opinion, architects should focus upon what they (we) do best. They (we) need to emphasize the importance of design excellence

Architects have an obligation to influence the community dialogue about how Eugene will look and feel tomorrow. This dialogue is necessary irrespective of Envision Eugene’s seven pillars. It is necessary to augment and give flesh to the principles the pillars espouse. 

But what is design excellence, and who should be its arbiters? 

Architects must emphasize the underlying principles that foster good design; it isn’t enough for architects to simply paint a pretty picture of what could be. The principles underlying design excellence should be the building blocks for codified urban design guidelines and standards. The city’s Community Design Handbook is a baby step in this direction. 

Architects can illustrate strategies for bringing our streets to life, creating successful public spaces, and strengthening neighborhood character. They can explain the importance of working with nature by designing for climate and resiliency, celebrating important natural features, and enhancing the regional habitat network. They can describe why it is important to evoke a sense of place and work with the genius loci by embracing Eugene’s most successful patterns. They certainly can emphasize that design excellence is a means to achieve a desirable urban density because not all density is created equal. The key to buy-in by Eugeneans is enhancing their appreciation for the benefits of good urban form and compact growth. 

The place where urban planning and design excellence meet is not at an edge; instead, there is an overlap that is substantial and growing. Architects understand that planning alone—conducted in the absence of an understanding of its physical consequences—is insufficient to foster a beautiful, sustainable, and livable city. It should be our goal to nurture a culture of design excellence in which citizens equate the quality of the built environment with the quality of their lives. This culture would embrace ingenuity, artistry, and the ineffable properties we immediately recognize as design genius. Ideally, we will see our neighbors demand, value, and appreciate design excellence. If this happens, architects will have contributed in a way only architects can, to truly important and significant effect. 

Looking forward, the pledge of AIA-SWO members is to further ongoing dialogue about critical topics associated with the built environment. If our participation constructively supports enlightened policy-making and greater public appreciation for the value of good design, we’ll have done our job well.

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