Oy VeyI Again With the Design Guidelines?

In response to an earlier post I have received some hate mail from a couple of friends who think I am disparaging the holy sacrament of the design guideline. A couple of these are people I love and respect, so I thought I should dignify their comments with a response.
Let me first say that an urban designer blogging about guidelines is a bit like a foodie dining at the Fat Duck* and writing about the tableware. A fork is a very useful tool, and there are no doubt fork blogs out there that discuss the ins and outs of tine-crafting. However, when all is said and done, a fork is a tool, a device that aids in accomplishing a task. Design guidelines are no different. As much as I do not hate forks, I do not hate design guidelines.
So if design guidelines and overlay districts are the fork, what is the meal and who are the chefs? The chef de cuisine has to be embodied by the collective will of the citizenry. It is the citizens who have to decide if we will be dining on saddle of venison with beetroot soubise, risotto of spelt, umbles and black truffle or if we’ll be choking down a #5 from Taco Town. As in a restaurant kitchen, teamwork and cooperation are essential elements in executing “the dish” that the community desires.

Establishing a collective consensus about the state of our community, and nurturing the partnerships that grow out of that process are far more important than the tools used to implement them. I have argued (successfully) that those partnerships in and of themselves can actually be just as effective as tools. We didn’t have design guidelines downtown during the 80’s and 90’s and our community did a fantastic job of maintaining our identity and making the city a world-class example of good urbanism.
It is the people that make the difference not the tool (although some people are tools, but that’s a subject for another post). What I have stated is that the remedy for things like the bad chain restaurants is not to slap a set of design guidelines on them. A case has to be made to the community that these things matter, and we need a stable of engaged citizens who understand the language of urbanism and why it matters. Only then do tools like design guidelines and overlay districts began to even remotely make sense.
Design guidelines that are worth a damn have to have broad support. This support has to include buy-in from local government, the development community, and the citizenry at large. Without that broad support the wrong compromises get made and the guidelines get watered down. The result is a process that doesn’t really work for anyone and exists only for its own sake.
My point can be illustrated with a local example. (I have no interest in opening old wounds or rehashing the past in great detail, so I will omit the specifics.) Several years ago there was a proposal for a chain store in one of the local overlay districts. Both site and building design clearly violated both the spirit and letter of the district guidelines. However, after grousing and grumbling from folks on both sides of the issue, the development was approved, built, and is in operation today. How did it happen? Well, that depends on your point of view. There are two possible scenarios. If one believes that the board genuinely thought that the proposal fit the guidelines, then either the guidelines were flawed, or the individual members did not understand them. The other scenario is that board members, for whatever reason, did not vote their conscience. In either event, we have a scenario where having a tool in place made: absolutely…no…difference.
I read this week that the RPA has undertaken to draft design guidelines for downtown and will have them completed in six months. Having worked for the RPA some years ago, I still know most of the folks down there and think they will do a fine job from their end. However, I must admit that the timeframe scares me. In the current environment I have doubts that it is possible to convene stakeholders and community, have substantive conversations about downtown, establish how design should address those conditions and draft a technically proficient document within six months. I rather suspect that this is a knee-jerk response to the Applebee’s and BWW buildings. I think it's great that there is support in the community to do something, but if we are going to do something, I think we should focus on doing it right instead of rushing to get something in place.
Design guidelines have their place, and perhaps over time that will make sense here. However, judging by our past successes and failures I think it's folly to believe that guidelines are the nostrum to cure our urban ills. The more pressing task is for the community to restart its dialogue and reform its partnerships.
Perhaps before we try selecting which particular fork we should use, we should find out what we’re eating. Shall we eat our soup with a fork?

Heston Blumenthal is an unqualified genius. My foodie friends should go here and watch the two videos of Heston preparing a “Trojan hog”. He sous vides a whole…hog…in a hot tub.

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