For innovation in this area, it seems that one needs to look outside of Europe and the US. To the south, we find the group Supersudaca and the architect Jorge Mario Jauregui, both of whom are coming up with creative ways not just of defining and executing program, or speculating about architectural memes, but of mobilizing and empowering constituencies and financing projects (explored in an earlier post here). And this is one area that the European and North Americans come up woefully short, perhaps because design is a class issue, and here landscape architects (and architects) come from a particular social and economic class and we have a relatively effective way of “designing for the other half”- government.
There are many issues people have with our governmental systems and officials, but compared to the majority of the world, our systems work. People pay taxes, people get education, corrupt officials get the boot. Some of those tax dollars also go towards huge bureaucratic agencies that put in sewer lines, build new roads, erect public buildings, and maintain public spaces. That this system works well enough that it has to this point precluded new entities from evolving to fill other roles is to their credit. Designers engaging in public work- institutional and infrastructural projects, open space designs, masterplans, and urbanism- build careers servicing these agencies. Below is a basic diagram illustrating the basic service model for a private or public client.
The process represented by the above diagram has many limitations, the most prominent and consistent of which are:
– community is 2 steps/entities removed from the design process and 3 from the implementation. this despite the fact that they are ostensibly financing it and will consume it at the end.
-government has a heavy hand with money and directives. because of its size, projects must be of a certain scale to register. This trends toward bigger commissions implemented all at once because of long hierarchical chains inherent in governments, and to a lesser extent, private firms.
-consultant produces plan for the government, to be implemented by a contractor. The community is often marginalized through a patronizing community design process and is reduced to consumer of the project once it is deemed completed.
-definitions of “complete”, alien to process and landscape, are necessary and become hugely important.
The design project becomes an object to be constructed by mercenaries and consumed by constituent groups. It is then up to disinterested third parties to maintain it and grow it, until such time as an agency allocates another inappropriately large sum to redoing the area.
I should acknowledge that there are smaller, non-governmental agencies organizing around myriad issues. However, these are largely ignored by designers because the scale that they work on is too small and the projects too prosaic to draw our attention. Heretofore it has not been profitable to engage in these small scale projects, and the bureaucratic nature of city agencies makes it unfeasible to fund micro-projects. This means they are usually not addressed because ngo’s and community groups rarely possess the knowledge and skills (and “permission”) to implement their own project.
This week there is a competition of a different sort wrapping up- the PayPal Developer Challenge. I’m a fan of paypal because of its convenience, security, and anonymity. For instance, it allows me to painlessly and anonymously order new lucha libre masks direct from the CorazonFairTrade factory whenever Don Roman has soiled his.
More to the point, I am interested in ways landscape architects might be able to use PayPal and similar tools to construct new business models and methods for offering design services. If we can circumvent the traditional bureaucratic and hierarchical models there would be new ways for intervening in the landscape that current systems don’t enable. Right now we try to change what work is done by writing about it for years, establishing experts in our fields, and getting them recognized by other powerful mouthpieces and decision makers. And with good reason. But this isn’t the only way to affect the discourse, trends, and ultimately the built environment.
To that end I’ve sketched out the following diagram and accompanying key for each of the different vectors in a new method of practice. It is a schematic at best but offers the beginnings of insight into how we might be able to go about doing different work.
Implementation of this method would likely have the following results:
-more community involvement and investment. This would likely create a “lower quality” or less professional finished product project, but a more dynamic and robust process project.
-more accountability for designers.
-almost exclusively utilized for small scale projects.
-favoring of more open-ended initiatives. This is consistent with the intellectual discourse today but extremely rare in practice because of litigious and bureaucratic considerations.
-the work of the professions would become more specific and less specialized. This would lead to a demystification of the profession which would encourage new and more varied forms of practice.
-less of a paternalistic attitude regarding government; projects would be financed by a process of aggregation, not allocation.
It is of particular importance to figure out new ways of practice to address the countless small-scale interventions that currently have no recourse. The deliberate turn towards the huge and the sexy by the intelligentsia of the landscape/urbanism professions (see Joe Brown and Belanger) is at first glance a good, ambitious move in dragging landscape architecture into relevance. However, a singular focus on these projects would be foolhardy and indeed is contrary to general trends in ecology, science, and technology, and culture. (For a more intelligent discussion of this theme, see mammoth’s excellent post on the subject).
With cities becoming bigger, more corporate, and pressed by environmental and economic constraints, there is a market for millions of $5K projects proliferating across the landscape, enabling armies of interested and capable citizen designers to address contemporary issues on a micro scale. Projects will grow through aggregation of small sums, not allocation of huge sums. To get ready, I’ll be in the basement hanging out with Howlin’ Wolf and working on the details.