Placemaking in Olympia III

Bingo.

Debates about urban sustainability tend to focus on improving the built environment – making it greener, more efficient, less energy intensive. However, as both urban populations and the challenges of making liveable cities grow, a radical shift is needed. Much more emphasis needs to be placed on understanding the social life of cities – how government, public agencies and urban planners can design spaces, but more importantly, services to help neighbourhoods flourish socially.

Unraveling what makes a place work means understanding and examining the particular social life of that community and the multitude of influences – past and present – that shape it. What is the history of a neighbourhood?  Is its story one of growth or decline? What is its spatial relationship to the rest of the city? How is a place understood and defined by its residents, and in relation to neighbouring places?  Is it integrated?  Segregated? Socially excluded?  Politically engaged?  What is its reputation today and in the past?  What are the aspirations of current residents?  Who is likely to live there in the future and what will they need? (Emphasis added.)

That is precisely why jumping into actions like alcohol impact zones, community renewal areas, pedestrian interference statues, meetings about public process, blog posts about planning and collaboration are all misplaced. We haven’t yet answered basic questions about how cities and communities work from a social perspective. Until we do, we’ll continue to spin our collective wheels. If Olympia is to transcend these problems, we’ll need to answer these kinds of questions first. I argue that this collective action will not occur from the city council down, it will only happen from the citizen-level upward. What is your part and how is that going?

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3 Responses to Placemaking in Olympia III

  1. Rob Richards says:

    As a Planning Commissioner, and specifically as Chair of the Comprehensive Plan Update process, I feel it’s my job to lead that very conversation. We very much need mechanisms in place where neighborhoods are empowered, and development regulations are clear and concise. Ultimately, I want to create an atmosphere here where a developer is excited to reach out to a neighborhood because they realize that neighborhood buy-in means a successful development and ultimately more profits for them. On the flip side, a healthy neighborhood/developer relationship means less fighting and more opportunities to build the kind of neighborhood they really want.

    With all of that neighborhood empowerment, we must be careful, however. We have to strike a balance. We have to make sure that by empowering neighborhoods we aren’t simply giving all the power to NIMBYites. The desire to hold on to a small town feel and to isolate a neighborhood from “the city” can warp city life and erode what Jane Jacobs would call the “innate extroversion” or, sense of possibility, that cities contain.

    • Mark Derricott says:

      I disagree with your view of your responsibilities and even more so, the capabilities in the execution of those responsibilities.

      I think you’re looking at the question too narrowly. This isn’t a once off conversation guided by staff reports, consultants and a deadline by which it has to go to the City Council. The questions in this article are much much broader. Your job as the comprehensive plan update subcommittee chair is to get the comp plan to the City Council on time and under budget.

      I’m talking about a collective awakening through action/praxis (in the ancient Greek use) where civic responsibility is commitment to the community by the way one lives one’s life–not by attending meetings, forums or open houses. This collective awakening does not contemplate developers and neighborhood associations working together in harmony (which cannot happen as long as the profit imperative is the primary consideration in developing buildings). It cannot be imposed or driven by a leader any more than you can force an alcoholic into rehab. Public hearings and meetings need to have more listening and less hearing. Residents need to become citizens instead of customers. And elected officials need to awaken to the limits of their capabilities.

      Furthermore, the result of this awakening isn’t a utopia. It’s a real commitment to and desire toward our polis through which we at least at first metaphorically contemplate stepping out of our own shoes and into another’s. (More time on the front porch and less in the backyard.) This starts and reinforces itself with genuine human interaction which cannot occur through the mediation of a public process.

  2. Rob Richards says:

    I pretty much agree with your assessment here completely, except for the part where you disagree with me. 😉

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