Williams: Parks planning needs public input

A recent study of planning theory and practice … suggests that the ineffectiveness of city planning results from two key factors: the tendency of planners to be pulled along by the prevailing political currents and the consistent refusal to formulate a notion of the ‘Good City’ that draws upon the widest possible base of support.”

— Christopher Silver, “Twentieth-Century Richmond: Planning, Politics and Race”

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, thought Richmond had turned the corner on planning.

He and his wife had moved here the year before, and the public engagement surrounding the Downtown Master Plan “was absolutely inspirational,” he recalled.

But a half-dozen years after that plan’s approval, the 20th century described more than 30 years ago by Silver, a former professor of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, sounds a lot like Richmond in the 21st century.

Last week’s forwarding of the proposed Kanawha Plaza makeover by the Planning Commission had all the traits of Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ approach to public projects — a blitzkrieg of lobbying and behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, a dearth of public say, and a fast-track product guaranteed to leave folks asking, “What just happened?”
From the Stone brewery to the Shockoe ballpark plan to the pro football training center, there has been dissatisfaction over the level of transparency and public engagement.

The $6 million Kanawha Plaza renovation — to be bankrolled mostly by the corporate sector — will execute a plan produced in part by a design firm hired by Dominion Resources. The rehab could be completed in time for the bike race in September.

So much for the concerns of the Urban Design Committee, which were pretty much ignored as the mayor’s team pushed through a plan that calls for a large lawn at the center of the park, a stage like structure, a food truck area, retention of the plaza’s fountain and other grading and landscaping improvements.

At least one planner questioned what would be the lack of shade at the plaza during summer months; another was critical of the “disjointed” process and the lack of input from people who live downtown.

Even with the time crunch, it shouldn’t have come down to this.
Rachel Flynn, former director of planning and development for Richmond and now director of planning and building for Oakland, Calif., noted that numerous cities have forged public-private partnerships to address the design of public spaces, citing Bryant Park and the linear High Line Park in New York and Post Office Square in Boston as successful examples.

“The key was the hiring of excellent landscape architecture firms with very strong track records in creating beautiful public spaces, that are highly popular,” she said in an email last week. “If the city wanted to turn public responsibility over to the private sector, then they should have required the highest design standards.
“The hired firm, KEI Architects, is not a landscape architecture firm — and therefore doesn’t have the experience in designing successful public spaces,” like the aforementioned parks, she said. “Richmond deserved the best landscape architects for this project and the best design for its citizens. What a missed opportunity.”

While Flynn questioned the design, Schwartz lamented the process that led to it.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth has urged Richmond to have a more inclusive planning process, greater transparency and public involvement in the economic development process, and more sharing of information on the city’s website.

“We have a lot of creative talent in this city that we should tap. You get better decisions and outcomes in this city when you bring everyone to the table and tap their ideas,” Schwartz said.

He observed that there’s significantly more public involvement as a routine part of the planning process in Northern Virginia. And he lauded the Sacramento region’s Blueprint along with Envision Utah as broad outreach planning that we would do well to emulate. A byproduct of Envision Utah was a deeply conservative state’s construction of two light rail lines in Salt Lake City.

If that can happen there as a result of collaboration for the greater good, what can’t we accomplish here? For us to be not just a good city, but the best city we can be, we need broader involvement and fewer political power plays.

Or as Schwartz said, “We’ve got to turn away from the old way of doing things where just a few people make decisions about the future of our diverse city.”

A city guided by prevailing political currents, rather than transparency and inclusiveness, is guaranteed to stray off course.

Read the original article here.