The Process

Greetings from 35,000 feet above the heartland. I am heading, once again, for the bastard cold of Southeast Iowa. This on the heels of a weekend soccer tournament in (the bastard cold of) Decatur, Alabama. The good news there was that S.Rushing scored two lovely goals. The bad news is that those were the only two goals the mighty CFC U-9 Blue scored in three games. Win some, lose some, on to the next one. Late November and early December are proving to be quite the gauntlet. No complaints though, equal parts business and pleasure. I will try to stay on topic for the next weeks, but it with all the exciting goings on it be may be tough though. Plus, you must realize that this is my mother’s primary method of keeping up with me as some of her children “must have broken fingers since they can’t pick up the phone!” I ask your forgiveness in advance if the next few weeks turn into C.Rushing's Adventures.

Obviously, the thing in the multi-verse this week is only the Most Important Iron Bowl of All-Time. Never, in the history of God’s Greatest Rivalry have the both teams been ranked this high entering the game. Never have the stakes been so high. I may well immolate before Saturday. I will most certainly throw up. The rivalry is very complex for me. I was raised an Alabama fan and have lived and died with them since I can remember. I went to graduate school at Auburn and currently serve of the Advisory Council of the graduate program in planning. My inner struggle, however,  has turned out not to be such a struggle at all; I’ve found that my heart and soul roll with the Tide. The turning point would have been the gut-turning 2010 game that also Mr. Updyke off the cliff. That said, I harbor no ill will toward the plainsmen during fifty-one weeks of the year. Such is the importance of this game, however, that I pledge to leave the country if Alabama does not win. (Stay tuned on that.)

Speaking of the Tide, on our way to the soccer this weekend, we listened to a bit of their game on the radio. It happened to be Senior Day, and we listened as Eli Gold went down the list of legendary players who will be graduating this year after four or five years at the school. Graduating as the winningest class in school history and with at least 3 National Championships, I might add. Normally, the shadow of an event such as this is the realization that you’re losing your best players and that leaner times are to come. Fortunately for ‘Bama, however, this is not the case. As a legendary recruiter, Saint Nicolas Saban has also pulled together the nations number one recruiting class five of the past six years. This is one of the facets of his famed Process.

The Process

There is much that city builders can learn from the well-oiled machine that is Alabama football. Think of specific projects to be games within a season, or even seasons unto themselves. It’s great to win. It’s great to celebrate wins. The next game, or next season, however, is always right around the corner. Is it possible to build a great program/city when all of the efforts are focused on winning single games? I suppose its theoretically possible, but over the long term it’s not sustainable.

So how might we go about creating a Process for sustainable success in city building? The cornerstone would have to the establishment of a set of shared principles that are derived from the community, and that guide the process. As with all good teams, coaching is important. In this case, the coaching of the community is a learning process. The process of community education happens in many ways: through overt instruction, through institutional operations, through community conversations and by example. Once equipped with those tools, the members of the team need to understand their role and responsibilities to the community. Further, they must be committed to doing their job, and be held accountable to the rest of the community.

Over the past few weeks, I have probably sounded like a crotchety old man pining for the good ole days. Perhaps there is some truth to this. I am undoubtedly influenced by a man who suggests that we always understand past and present as we look to the future. My take on past and present leads me to the conclusion that we are currently, at best, disjointed as it relates to issues of urbanism and design in our community. While we have the human capital in place to continue the work of making this a great city, we lack a Process for implementing successful urbanism. Do you not think we could create and sustain success if there was means of establishing community principles, providing education, reinforcing roles, and establishing accountability to the whole? Would that not then lead to the recruitment of more talent? Is that not the blueprint for how to win?

Fundamental and of utmost importance to the Process is recruiting. The community must ever strengthen it’s ranks- both from within and outside of its borders. Our challenge is not to reassemble the exact team that led to our successes over the past thirty years. The task should be to assemble a framework that can continually add to and augment a community of thoughtful and engaged designers and citizens.

The beauty of the Process is the promise of the future. It relieves the pressure of the single game. Is Alabama’s long-term success at risk in a single game against Auburn? (the answer is no) Saint Nicholas Saban has created a machine that focuses not on the outcome of a game, but on doing day-to-day tasks to the highest standard. If the aspiration is a sustainable level of success, the focus has to be on process instead of project.

My prediction: The Process 35, Auburn 21.


It's Not Life and Death, It's More Important Than That

Last week, I hastily penned a post about the discontinuity of our civic conversation on urbanism and the atrophy of our common understanding of principles, goals and vision. Before we jump back into that, however, I must comment on the weekend.

It is clear that society places too much emphasis on matters of sport and our priorities are out of whack. We spend billions of dollars on games, while more serious issues go unaddressed. I get it, its lunacy. Perish the thought, however, of life without it. Did you see the games on Saturday? If not, you missed: a great catch to avoid a major upset; a keystone-cop-esque last second field goal; a down-on-their-luck traditional power pulling a massive upset; some dude running for a bajillion yards; and millions of redneck prayers being answered on this play (you can’t really call it Hail Mary since Alabamians don’t really go for Catholicism). I ask, where else in contemporary American society can one experience such a microcosm of the human experience. Oh, the joy of that extraordinary emotional swing- feeling the dread of certain defeat to a bitter rival to the manic jubilation of victory over seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

A couple of thoughts:

1) How good was SEC on CBS this year? They were lucky enough to broadcast such instant classics as Awbun/UGA, ‘Bama/LSU, Awbun/TAMU, LSU/UGA, ‘Bama/TAMU. Those games, as great as they were, are mere prelude to…
2) The most anticipated Iron Bowl ever. My beloved home state is home to the last four national championships (let that sink in). This year ‘Bama is ranked #1, Awbun is ranked #6. The day of reckoning is two weeks away with Awbun having a bye week and ‘Bama also having a bye playing Chattanooga. This game will wreck me, I feel like I’m going to throw up. As Bill Shankly once said of another kind of football, this game is not a matter of life and death…it’s more important than that. 

Lest I peak too early, we shall return closer to home and to issues of design and urbanism. The intent of the post last week was to observe that over the past eight-plus years a variety of factors have conspired to erode the community understanding of our shared principles and vision. To be certain, bits and pieces of various visions survive, there are a number of people in town with sophisticated understandings of urbanism, and there is an almost palpable energy coursing through the city.  There does seem to be, however, a certain lack of focus or common purpose. At risk of sounding like a broken record, I will again sing the praise of the Urban Design Studio. The Studio was a sort of “home base” for the community as it relates to issues of design and urbanism. The studio was the facilitator of community vision, and the keeper of the flame of that conversation. The strength of the studio was that it was a place of ideas, a place of education, a place of principles, a community resource, and the place that served as the steward of the community conversation. Our civic renaissance is directly attributable to this work.

I am of the opinion that there exists within the community a fundamental misunderstanding of the role and vital importance of vision. In this regard, we are a victim of our own success. We now take for granted that we can make big projects happen. We don’t just dream big, we build big. Because of our abilities, we are now prone to be more concerned about “doing things” than taking pause to consider what we’re doing. Because vision is ephemeral and intangible it is too often seen as being less important than action. The reality is that vision and action need each other. Do you think that the initial investments at the Riverfront would have been successful without the comprehensive community vision for reestablishing the “front porch” of the city? Do you think any of the development in the Southside would have come about without the community vision for creating a place for people to live, work and play?

The Design Studio was one of the most important, successful and influential players in the revitalization of the city. Despite that overall success, however, it had an abysmal record as a regulatory entity. Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten. There have been conversations regarding the creation of a new urban design resource for the city. Those conversations inevitably lead to questions of whether or not it is possible to create an entity that has the teeth to prevent bad development like BWW, Applebee’s or Publix. Those conversations always miss the point. Design Studios shouldn’t be wrapped up in that mess. If that is the goal, there are a number of better solutions to that problem. Studios should be concerned with the vitally important, indispensible, and essential task of facilitating the civic vision. The unfortunate reality is that many people can’t wrap their head around the idea that the success of our Studio was rooted in the intangible and ephemeral. Indeed, it is difficult to point at a project and say the design studio did this, or prevented that. Yet, everything we’ve accomplished is a direct result of their work.

The success of our historic revitalization is rooted in the fact that every project, public and private, contributed to an overarching shared vision of what the community wanted to be.  The country is littered with cities that have failed in their efforts at revitalization because they focused merely on building things. Our efforts were successful because we understood the absolute necessity of marrying vision and action. In my humble opinion, we are at risk of losing nothing less than our unique understanding of how to get things done...the right way. 


Issue One: Community Conversation

Well kids, I’ve left it to the last minute this week, so this will be a brief one. What can I say, the life of a silversmith’s apprentice urban design consultant is not an easy one. (Which is not actually true. I’m blessed and fully aware that in the grand scheme we have it better than 99% of the people on the planet. Just come with me on this one.) In any event, good things come in small packages…

Working in a place over any amount of time presents a unique challenge. Pretty much everything the consultant does is based on some level of client and community education. Cities are complex things that often require complex solutions to complex problems. Cities belong, however, to everyone who lives in them, not only those who understand urbanism. One of the tasks of the planner/designer/consultant is to establish among the citizenry a common level of understanding of basic principles of urbanism upon which more complex concepts can be built.  That, in and of itself, is not a difficult task. The challenge is in maintaining that common base of understanding over time- people forget, people move here, people move away, people die, people are born, people are people. The very lucky places have people and institutions that provide this education and maintain it over time. Places with these frameworks develop a level of education and sophistication that allow them to tackle increasingly complex and difficult issues. Places without these types of frameworks typically end up starting from scratch every four or eight years. 

On that scale, Chattanooga is in-between. For twenty-five years, the Design Studio coached us up. One could argue that outside of the New York’s and Chicago’s of the country, Chattanooga’s level of sophistication in matters of urban design was unparalleled. Such was the depth of this sophistication that eight years after the dismantling of the Studio, it is still on display in efforts such as the Urban Design Challenge and the City Center Plan. Still, eight years is a long time, and a great deal has happened during that time. There are a number of hold-over’s from the old days, but many are no longer with us, and the city is attracting new blood on a daily basis. Growth in the community is a great thing, and the new downtown residents we are attracting are in many ways the end game. The problem this poses, however, is that without leadership in the realm of urbanism and design, we are essentially a rudderless ship. (Please note that leadership in this case is not a person or institution dictating the terms of community development, but a steward of the community conversation of what we want to be when we grow up, and how we want to do it.)

Time to go all McLaughlin Group on you…

Question: How can the community maintain a common level of understanding and elevated conversation over time without a steward of that foundation? Is that even possible? Is it possible to build a great city while starting each process and project at square one?

Answer: It can’t. It’s not. No.



Goal for the Blog: Be 13.5% More Inspirational

Bleary-eyed, I approached the counter at the airport snack bar and ordered a coffee. “You take yours black” noted the barista. I answered in the affirmative and made a crack about needing my caffeine at such an early hourly. When she replied, “Well, this isn’t your first time on this flight, I’m sure you can handle it” it dawned on me that perhaps I have been on the road too much. Despite the fact that I have become a regular at CHA, ORD and DSM, life is good and I have no complaints. I typically don’t write about on-going projects unless they happen to be public processes in Chattanooga that jibe with the theme of this space. This week, however, I will borrow one story from my travels as it supports a point I want to make (again).

I’m working with a small community in Iowa on the revitalization of their downtown and a vision for their riverfront. In the downtown scope, one of our WIGs (wildly important goals), is the reversion of their one-way pair to two-way traffic. This one seems to be an easy call: five different consultants over the past twenty years have made the recommendation; it’s supported by traffic analysis; we don’t lose any on-street parking; travel time through the area remains the same; it’s cheap; and a philanthropic entity is prepared to essentially foot the bill. It appears that most people are on board with the switch, but some are not yet convinced. Politics in Iowa, I have found, are a different ball game.

During my most recent visit, I had an exchange with a skeptic during a stakeholder meeting. She essentially challenged me to convince her to change her mind. I proceeded to make my case (two-ways reduce out of direction travel, increase safety, increase business visibility, make navigation easier for residents and visitors, and on and on…) She did not accept these conceptual arguments- she wanted hard numbers. I then laid out a number of case studies of positive results in similar situations. She did not accept these examples because they occurred in other cities, not her own. She again stated that she needed hard numbers on why she should support the project. At some point during our conversation, it occurred to me that she was asking for the impossible. Sure, it is possible to project what will happen if we make the reversion, but no matter how thorough our methodology, a projection is a guess. Aside from the unrealistic expectation of future telling, I was once again face to face with a nemesis- the philosophy that if something is important it can be measured.

Not everything of value can be quantified. This, I have said this before. What number describes the love we have for our children? What is the price of the atmosphere of a Birmingham City v. Aston Villa game? What is the value of our public realm? How much is community vision worth? What is the metric by which we measure inspiration? Which brings us back to Chattanooga. The City administration (which has been a breath of fresh air after the WME) is working towards implementing an outcomes based budget. In short, this process is an alternate budgeting approach that is based on relationships between funding levels and results. I think it’s fantastic to consider another approach to spending public money- our country has not proven to be the most efficient or frugal. I am concerned, however, about a subtle distinction in the approach to budgeting for outcomes.

In reading through various approaches to outcome-based budgeting, the common theme is the application of funds to community values. The typical steps in the process are to: determine the price of government (what the city has to spend), determine civic priorities, determine a price for each priority, determine how best to deliver each result at the set price, establish measures for success. The detail devils in this approach have to do with how civic priorities are established, and how measures for success are approached. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the community has a decent track record for establishing priorities and this will not pose a problem. This leaves us with the aforementioned subtle distinction- achieving civic goals vs. achieving measurable civic goals.

If you are reading this blog, you are probably aware of the vitally important role that the Design Studio* played in the rebuilding of the city over the past thirty years. Even in hindsight, is it possible to say that the value of the studio was found in the measurable goals it achieved? The Studio didn’t really do projects- it worked to make good projects great, to interject new concepts into the civic dialogue, to advise decision makers in both public and private sectors, and to be a voice for a constituency that did not exist until the studio created it. Did that play a crucial role in the rebirth of the city? Yes. Can one use numbers to describe the value of that work? No. Did it achieve civic goals? Yes. Did it achieve measurable civic goals? Eh, probably not.

My hat is off to the Mayor and his staff for having the stones to take on the big challenges facing the city. He has taken on the Herculean task of reforming a $200 million budget when he didn’t have to and no one would have expected him to. He and his crew are all sharp folks, so I have faith that their work will bear fruit. It is imperative that that the public sector perform the civic duties that they are alone are equipped to execute. My hope is that as the city continues their work the value of the unquantifiable will be appreciated.

*Yes, I know that the Design Studio was a not a city entity. It did, however, receive some form of civic funding going all the way back to the days of Mayor Gene Roberts. The point, in any event, is that not everything that is of value to the community can be evaluated by quantifiable measures.