I am fortunate to have a close-nit group of urban advocates who like to tell great stories, share both successful and failed design experiences, and argue about our city’s future over a few craft beers. Time spent learning from Mike Stepner, David McCullough, Kevin Clark, Pauly DeBartolo and David Saborio is invaluable. At our last soiree, the great Frank Wolden, told his most meaningful public process story.
A few years ago, Frank was leading a series of workshops for an older San Diego Main Street revitalization plan. The once vital Main Street had emptied out with the advent of the regional mall. It became mostly vacant and lacked any new investment or interest. Frank was in charge of coming up with a plan that would make anything new conform to the surrounding neighborhood’s ‘community character;’ which seemed unlikely.
His task was made even more difficult as a few too typical Not-In-My-Back-Yardigans were disputing the need for anything new during the workshops. This is because anything new represented change and change equated to fear of the unknown. This fear of the unknown was greater than the inconvenience of empty shops (they could easily drive to the mall). In fairness, San Diego is quite nice and there really isn’t enough pain around here to instigate great demand for change. It takes a lot of effort to simply hang on to what we’ve got. So, a frustrated Frank had an idea to change the dialog and get these folks to talk honestly about the state of their neighborhood.
He gave them homework.
For the next meeting, Franks asked locals to bring pictures/images of their local “Urban Treasures.” As expected, the Treasure Hunt was illuminating in the images people presented. Presentation after presentation quickly revealed that there was very little to ‘treasure’ in and around their local Main Street, beyond patina.
Main Street was a mess and had been neglected for too long. Something had to be done…
With this exercise, Frank was able to free up the public discourse by acknowledging a simple truth… There wasn’t much to love, cherish or treasure there. And, therefore it was possible that something new could actually improve the place they live, work, shop, play, worship, socialize, and dilly-dally around in. So at that point the conversation on a plan began in ernest.
I understand fear of change in San Diego as we have a ‘precariously’ high-quality of life. Anything that raises or lowers our property values is a very real threat to our long-term financial well-being. I made this point last week on Voice of San Diego Radio (at 22:08) while discussing density and the inflammatory dialog surrounding new transit station area plans.
My hope is that a public dialog on anything new begins with an honest assessment of the current context. What is really there today? Once we get to that point, then I believe urban designers and planners can assist in realizing a community’s ‘character.’ As that character is found in local resident’s memories and expectations, as well as its treasures shared with visitors and each other every day.
Understanding San Diego’s precariousness, I see today that smaller design interventions are making the biggest impact on how people see the value of investing, evolving, and engaging in their neighborhoods. With this, my favorite planning adage, “this too shall pass,” now fits nicely with Frank’s biblical lesson, “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”