Design by committee.

Posted: June 20, 2010 in Uncategorized

A few weeks ago Joseph Higginbotham challenged me as follows:

Perhaps in a future post you will give us the benefit of your 30 years experience in the design of public spaces and write a post that is a kind of “white paper” on what a municipality should do before it spends one dime of taxpayer money on a public space. How does a muny prevent their public space from ending up looking like it was designed by a committee instead of by an expert like you? How does a muny start this process of evaluating its public space needs? How does that muny end up with a public space that looks like it was designed by an expert and not by a committee of amateurs?

Ok.  Easy questions with easy answers.

Response to Question No. 1:  A municipality can prevent their public space from ending up looking like it was designed by a committee by not allowing a committee to design it and instead, trusting their appropriately qualified design professional to know what to do.

Response to Question No. 2:  A municipality can start the process of evaluating its public space needs by forming a committee to study the needs of the people it serves.

Response to Question No. 3: See Response No. 1.

While my responses may seem sarcastic, they’re actually true.  Only the owner of the project, the municipality, can ensure that the space is not designed by committee.  The design professional can guide, direct, and suggest, but often a public-input committee has met and developed the program for the project long before the design professional has been engaged.  By then, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo the established program.

My response to question No. 2 is also true.  Public input is important in evaluating public space needs, and while committees are a good way to have group input, the process needs to be carefully controlled to evaluate and take suggestions.  They should stop short of developing the actual program that will drive the design.

Why?  One of the most serious mistakes a municipality can make is trying to cram too many good ideas into a public space.  Committees can cause that.   A public meeting can generate many good ideas, but more often than not, a pubic space that tries to do too many things will be less successful.  The space may have an ambiguous identity in the eyes of the public.  Too many different use areas can create user conflicts.   And sometimes it can just get too cramped.

Most civic leaders want to do the right thing and gaining public input is a good instinct.  Committees are almost automatic.  Only the civic leaders have the power to control the power of the committee.

This is not to say that the civic leader should eschew the committee in favor of an autocratic approach to program development.  Your typical civic leader is not trained in the design and development of public spaces and their attempt to bypass the committee by laying out the public space themselves seldom produces good results.  The are just too many design issues — spatial relationships, use-area conflicts, and user safety, to name a few — for the untrained professional to get right.

Which brings me back to why I write this blog.  If creating good public spaces were as simple as writing a white paper, I’d do it and be done.  Committees will be formed, good ideas will come forth, and public spaces will be designed.  But if we can learn more about what makes good public spaces before we join the committee, the results will be better.

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