This week marks the end of our 4 part series on agencies. Our general lethargy combined with the enjoyable spring weather have limited this to a cursory survey (our interested readers’ thoughtful comments notwithstanding). Nonetheless, we hope to offer some thoughts and insights today about the future of public agencies, the works they will be executing, and the methods for doing so. Prior posts have focused in on what we consider key issues- the role of innovation and profit; public/private partnerships in funding, maintenance, and design; time and institutional memory. In addition, any comments, corrections, or pithy bon mots are more than welcome as our perspective is limited to a myopic and opinionated take on the agencies in New York City.
Public agencies are the traditional means for executing public works in the US and there is a need today for new public works because of the economic crisis and environmental imperatives. Given that, how will the role of the agency evolve, and how will landscape practice inform and be influenced by this evolution?
Varnelis states: “What makes our moment distinct is that the remedy of creating a new infrastructure or using new technology to surmount breakdowns is no longer an option.”
Belanger states (once again): “In stark contrast to the 20th century paradigm of speed, the effects of future transformation will be slow and subtle, requiring the active and sustained engagement of long-term, opportunistic partnerships that bridge the private and public sectors”
Varnelis is wrong, and Belanger is telling a half-truth. Infrastructure is a modern concept, and it has historically only been thought about in one way- economies of scale as seen in the New Deal civil engineering project and its progeny (public works have another history, one as old as civilization). Infrastructure of the future will no longer take it’s cues solely from the civil/army engineer; rather, infrastructure is bifurcating- the civil engineering standard will exist alongside a new paradigm, one influenced by concepts from the late 20th century fields of software engineering and ecology. This new paradigm- a mycorrhizal infrastructure- will be characterized by works that are small, highly specific, and built by agglomeration. It will take the shape of hi-tech urban informatics and lo-fi landscapes, temporary strategies and stabilization wedges, seasonal interventions long-term lifescapes.
This mycorrhizal infrastructure will work together with the larger, slower, civil infrastructures, adapting them to optimum efficiency in local environments, small enough to be intelligible to inhabitants yet resilient enough to withstand the violent upheavals of market crashes, social unrest, and climate change. Just as mycorrhiza adapt to each specific plant and its environment enabling the plant to take in nutrients that their own roots cannot, so these new infrastructures will build on the existing systems, adapting them to local conditions, and accessing resources that were previously disregarded.
The importance of resilience has come to the forefront recently in the debates about both the environmental and economic crises. Manuel de Landa gives a good breakdown of this principle in A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History. In it he states:
“while economies of scale and economies of agglomeration, as forms of positive feedback, both promote growth, only the latter endows firms with the resilience and adaptability needed to cope with adverse economic conditions”.
This resilient infrastructure will be both fast and slow, big and small, hard and soft, networked and planned (and whatever other antonyms people are trying to make into infrastructure buzzwords). It will require new methods of private practice and new partnerships between newly effective public agencies (NEW! NEW!! NEW!!!). To get there, we’ll look to the two fields that were most radically innovative in the last thirty years of the 20th Century- ecology and computing software.
Agencies will need to become more agile, faster, and capable of sharing jurisdiction (always a difficult task because with jurisdiction comes funding). In the New York Times this week, there was a write up regarding a new NYC DOT project (our favorite agency, though far from perfect). A community board leader was talking about the community feedback period for the proposed project and stated, “Please complain right now, or within the next few weeks… This is not your father’s D.O.T. This agency says they do something and they do it.” This ability to marshal resources, gather information, and then implement small, localized decisions will be necessary for agencies to effect change.
There is currently some sharing of jurisdiction between the agencies in public space. For example, in city parks, the DOT maintains the lighting and occasionally creates park-like places within road right-of-ways. But that is a piss poor effort. Considering that part of the very foundation of public parks was a direct link to improving the health and sanitation of the population, it is absurd that there is no crossover between the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and the DEP and the Sanitation Department (DOS). Agencies in the future will form novel partnerships to handle specific situations. DOS facilities with their giant sand pyramids and phalanx of trucks rolling out into snowy nights will become a seasonal programming element in some public spaces, a delightful peek into the machines and the people that keep cities rolling. This type of project will enhance citizens’ understanding and appreciation of these functions, and increase transparency. Key to this development, invested and intelligent landscape architects (among others) will work in these agencies to make this happen.
In addition, agencies will become better at changing, at forming alliances with interested citizen groups, ngo’s, and private firms. Earlier we touched on this topic and noted that these partnerships are starting to spread to the design work of public works. And this development holds great promise, the chance to expand the values considered during the design of the construction process.
Design the Construction Process, Too.
Currently the construction process for public works is left largely up to the contractor and their interpretation of public agencies’ “boiler plate” legal specifications. In these specifications, standard legal guidelines are laid down concerning the safety of workers and residents in the vicinity of the project. The contractor then interprets these while trying to spend the least amount of money possible. No concern is given to the effect on the public experience and the result often sucks.
A major component of construction projects is dealing with the unknown despite a designers’ best laid plans; more so in urban environments where the ground plane conceals hundreds of years of different interventions layered on and cutting through the iterations of prior generations. This complexity during the construction process can be seen as a difficulty, but designers should work to repurpose it as an opportunity, and agencies are the ones that can make this happen. Public works including sewers, roads, and parks- not to mention the new forms that are coming about- are all constantly reconstructed (roughly once a generation). Dealing with the complexities of urban public works often stretches construction times across several years. During this time the space is a dead zone in the urban fabric due to the plywood sheets that come right up to the sidewalk and block all views into the space. That this is a dead zone is a real disservice when you consider that, in fact, fascinating urban processes are going on behind that chain link-and-plywood curtain: the driving of piles, earthmoving, erosion control constructions, concrete pouring. Whether or not a community wants to see the various works occurring will depend on the community, but it should be considered and designed, especially since the construction period can easily last several years (a significant percentage of the life of the project).
Agencies have the [sic] agency to make this happen, and there is already a precedent. Any project that will affect pedestrian and vehicular movement in NYC must provide an MPT plan (maintenance and protection of traffic) for approval by the DOT. While utterly utilitarian- focused only on movement vectors and cost- this mechanism should be expanded further. The most lovely example of this that immediately springs to mind is the big red balloon at the Great Park in Orange County. At Fresh Kills the DPR runs guided bus tours. These parks are large enough to lend themselves to this type of sanctioned exploration. But this idea should also be applied to the smaller projects, too. Any person that has craned their neck walking down a street that is being opened up and repaired, hoping for a glimpse inside into the spaghetti bowl of conduit, pipes, and footings knows the opportunity afforded by a slight shift in mentality here, one more towards transparency- literally and metaphorically.
To do their part, private practitioners should be bringing on contractors as consultants. Paying a small percentage of the design fees to an appropriate contractor for their feedback and ideas about construction and staging methods would be invaluable. It would enable the designer to create a project that facilitates construction and is a community amenity during the process. Major private projects already have this, as construction management consultants are hired, often at the beginning of construction documentation to provide this type of insight. However, this rarely happens in the public realm. Designers need to respect the construction process and recognize that it is inherently cool; building things, making a mark, seeing a city or neighborhood execute some needed project- that is a process of great symbolic, educational, and entertainment power.
Construct a Compelling Narrative
In our recent interview, Kate Orff of Scape Studio emphasized the importance of “constructing a compelling narrative about the environment” and how we are currently not very good at it. There is currently a lack in either ability or interest to construct a compelling narrative about the environment. This is must change. More landscape architects must learn to construct narratives (whether through mapping, writing, tweeting, or whatever) in order to influence public policy and opinion. To illustrate this, there are two shining examples that we should look to: Olmsted, and modern day scientists.
Frederick Law Olmsted was a journalist, a traveler, and a high level bureaucrat. He helped found The Nation. He was the Secretary General for the United States Sanitary Commission (which became the Red Cross). He wasn’t a trained designer. Vaux was the trained designer. But Olmsted, through his writing, his political connections, and his ability to construct a compelling narrative was able to guide political and public opinion and fundamentally changed the way we think about our cities. He was also a good designer.
In our times, scientists are far out in front of designers in constructing a compelling narrative. Despite the recent dust-up involving the IPCC, a serious groundswell has taken place within scientific communities in contributing their work to the public discourse (otherwise dominated by infotainment histrionics and political calculations) about the issues facing our society today. Starting with folks like badass entomologist E.O. Wilson and ecologist C.S. Holling in the 80’s, scientists have gotten after all forms of print and digital media, staying up late in to the night to publish their nerdy ideas and critical findings in everyday language, with humor and sincerity, in blogs, online journals, and magazines like Scientific American and Seed. Landscape architects in that time have generally taken our cue from architects, preferring to insist upon our relevance using pretentious hyperbole and esoteric design-speak and appealing to elites for a head-pat. There have been a couple in the field, including Kristina Hill and Joan Naussauer, who are prolific and write plainly about contemporary issues. Not coincidentally, they are landscape architects closely aligned with scientific professionals.
Research will be a major part of the effort and ability to construct this narrative, as it has been within the scientific community. Recently profiled on mammoth is the latest development in P-Rex’s work on the Pontine Marsh project. Regarding this recent develpment, Alan Berger of P-Rex states “… if you do good research, you can change the type of project that is done.” Landscape architecture will become more adept at doing and interpreting quantitative research that can inform public opinion and policy regarding the new public works.
Agencies’ role in this effort is significant and obvious. As major public figures, the agency heads are able to influence public opinion and become lightning rods for criticism and support. Their policy decisions influence funding and direction private practitioners‘ take. Additionally, their role in publishing information for the public record is critical in informing the work of academics, and to a lesser degree private professionals.
One serious issue concerning agencies is their tendency to maintain any problem to which they are the solution. This fact introduces an inertia into the system, the ability of the agencies to change themselves, to grow and shrink as is appropriate. This institutional inertia toward self-preservation instead of public service contributes to the mistrust of government agencies and the programs and funding needed for major public works. It is also a part of the public narrative, and will be addressed.
City agencies will continue to be invaluable because of the institutional memory offered by a bureaucracy and the protection from market vagaries that comes with a public mandate. They will have to become more agile and more transparent. New partnerships and more institutional transparency will help create a more informed discussion and invested constituency concerned with our nation’s public works. More projects will be less capital-intensive, less about start-dates and completion, less about jurisdiction. Smaller projects will build off of partnerships between agencies, public and private partnerships, and will be a community amenity in all stages, including construction.
Boundaries between agencies themselves and between the public will become blurred; less like divisions and more like membranes. And infrastructure will become more like mycorrhiza- small, highly specific, and built by agglomeration.