For better or for worse?

Posted: March 13, 2011 in Uncategorized


Two opposing sides give in a little to reach a decision with which they both can live.  It’s how we make progress.


To accept standards that are lower than desirable.


A community worked for years to build a new park.  Though the interests and desires of the community were many and varied, through the spirit of compromise they were able to develop a program that would eventually improve the quality of life for everyone.  The dream was about to become reality.

A friend once told me that car salespeople sell a fantasy.  The car glistens in the showroom.  The buyer envisions the car winding through the mountains, wind in his hair. He doesn’t think about the oil changes, the worn tires, the inevitable dings and dents.  He buys the car because he wants the fantasy.

Projects are the same way.  From the first sketch on the back of a napkin to the grant award, it’s all easy fantasy.  Shortly after that comes the first ding.  Usually, despite the generous grant, there’s not enough money to fund the complete dream.  There’s a compromise on what the first phase of the project will include.

When the project was on the back of a napkin, people weren’t paying much attention to the details.  But when the design development drawings show that the water feature has a basin in which people could splash around in the water, the city leaders get nervous about soap bubbles, kids playing with boats, and the inevitable lawsuits.  Another compromise puts the basin below grade so there are no accessible water pools.

As the project gets closer to construction, the issue of security comes to the forefront.  Despite an understanding of the principle of inclusion, images of drug dealers come to mind and the broad, easy access to the park is reduced to a six-foot lockable gate.  It’s hard to argue against erring on the side of safety.

There will be more issues and more compromises.  Some are patently necessary; others are judgments thought to be prudent.

Compromise is part of the process.  Compromise is part of life.  Sometimes compromise is the easy way out.

When we accept standards lower than desirable, you have to question whether compromise is the right thing.  And of course that takes courage.


  1. Meda Ling says:

    Food for thought: Collaborative or Consensus decision-making:

    When a COMMUNITY comes together in the spirit of collaboration about a proposal or project, a consensus decision-making process is highly recommended over “top-down” hierarchical (win/lose) agreements.

    Non-collaborative decision-making processes (typical of organizations where Robert’s Rules are used to win approval by majority vote) sets up a win/lose mentality that disempowers participants in a group/collaborative process and may overlook important concerns of those who may be directly affected. The result of top-down decisions often discourages participants in a collaborative process from further participation in a community project and results in divisive and unproductive group dynamics. “Compromise” becomes a negative result rather than facilitating ongoing proactive participation in a community effort.

    Consensus decision-making, on the other hand, helps participants reach as much agreement as possible through a collaborative, cooperative, egalitarian, inclusive, and participatory process resulting in better decisions and relationships among participants in a group effort. Full agreement is not the primary objective. The ethics of consensus decision making encourage participants to place the good of the whole group above their own individual preferences. Giving consent does not necessarily mean that the proposal being considered is one’s first choice. Group members can vote their consent to a proposal because they choose to cooperate with the direction of the group, rather than insist on their personal preference. Sometimes the vote on a proposal is framed, “Is this proposal something you can live with?” This allows proposals/projects to move forward in the spirit of ongoing collaboration/cooperation.

    Consensus decision-making is highly supportive of collaborative community efforts. For a more thorough description and discussion, see

    “Encourage courage.”

    • Joseph Bird says:

      Thanks, Meda. The collaborative process and concensus decision making is something too many professionals, myself included, sometimes take for granted.

      “The ethics of consensus decision making encourage participants to place the good of the whole group above their own individual preferences.”

      I completely agree when we’re talking about individual preferences. One bench over another. This paving pattern instead of that one. Such preferences really won’t affect the success of the project to a great extent. Other decisions, such as whether to use exclusion in the form of strict controls such as gates to keep out undesirables, or whether to embrace the concept of inclusion to make a space acceptable for everyone, has a huge impact on the success of a place. The “compromise” in this instance is to accept the lower standard because of faulty reasoning.

      In the end, I suppose that if such lower-standard compromises are accepted, it could be reflecton of some fault in the decision making process. Not easy waters to navigate.

    • Joseph Bird says:

      Excellent points, Meda. You’ve illustrated that it is possible to come up with creative solutions within the framework of sound planning and design principles. You have also illustrated that the process of project development is critical for arriving at these creative solutions. I’d like to talk to you more about how to encourage a true collaborative design process that is more than just going through the motions.

      Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation.

  2. Meda Ling says:

    Consensus decision making also involves a dissent component, when employed correctly, may open another round of discussion to address and clarify concerns — and for creative professionals, opens opportunities to propose INNOVATIVE (win/win) SOLUTIONS that may not have been considered before. In other words – the spirit of collaboration continues to move forward rather than losing momentum because of a perceived negative. Finding positive no compromise solutions often comes out of listening carefully to dissent because it brings another perspective into the conversation that leads to a solution no one thought of before.

    I “hear” legitimate concerns for health, safety & welfare concerning water features. Water features with below grade reservoirs are an innovative design response to those concerns and having watched people (of all ages) at play in several such water features, I would say that is a win/win solution.

    I “hear” legitimate concerns for health, safety & welfare about excluding ‘undesireables’ from public spaces. As design professionals, we should be aware of maintaining clear lines of sight so law enforcement, people in surrounding neighborhoods, watch patrols and even casual passersby can monitor activities within the public space. How participatory are the neighboring property residents/owners/businesses in the collaboration – are they willing to step up participation and take responsibility/ownership to maintain an atmosphere of safety and comfort? Does local law enforcement have the personnel and budget for regular patrols or “presence” through this public space? Have representatives from law enforcement and local neighborhood watches been invited to take part in the collaborative discussion? Is the proposed design inviting for the DESIRED uses?

    Boundary fences/gates are used ‘keep in’ as well as ‘keep out’ – it’s a matter of perspective. Playgrounds are routinely fenced to provide a safety zone for children and keep them from straying into adjacent traffic or other hazards. Multiuse playcourts are routinely fenced to define the boundaries of play and keep stray balls contained. Many parks are surrounded by fencing and gated in order to control hours of use (to relieve cost of night lighting, maintenance, etc), to control entries/exits for public events or safety reasons (i.e., to discourage jaywalking or crossing in middle of a busy street) or route pedestrians around features such as garden beds or secure a utility area. Also keep in mind that “gateways” into public spaces can be designed as celebratory, commemorative, or public art features that express transition to a place of value to the community.

    I don’t know the details of the project you have cited in your blog, but I do see opportunities for continued community collaboration. Sometimes you have to let go of attachments to a particular idea and look at it from a different perspective to see the possibilities — this is part of collaborative/consensus process.

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