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We Have Met the Solution, and He is Us*

by on 03/11/2009

Architecture is a prediction, and all predictions are wrong
-Stewart Brand

Watch a modern-day Major League Baseball player step up to the plate. He shuffles his feet moving the dirt around in the batters box before he finally digs in. He’ll tug at his uniform every which way, and unsnap and snap his batting gloves. If we’re lucky, he’ll eventually realize that there are 30-40,000 fans waiting for him to swing his bat and settle in to face the pitcher. And that’s just before the first pitch. If he’s a disciplined hitter and works the count (swings at mostly strikes and fouls off tough pitches), he’ll be up there for a while, repeating his numerous bodily maneuvers after each pitch. Some stay at home plate so long, the only way to get them out of there is with a 30-day notice.

The second group of hitters, as the Nike commercial advises, just do it. They think that their brain stem (the pure instinctual part of the nervous system) knows best how to get it done. They’ll get up to the plate and swing away, as if the batter’s box is being rented by the minute.

Those of us who are lucky enough to live in Edmonds see both of these mentalities in the realm of planning and development—the deliberate, disciplined type, and the seat-of-the-pants type. Unfortunately, the planners don’t develop, and the doers don’t plan. To abuse this baseball metaphor to a point nearing a felony, doers keep hitting into double plays, while planners look at called third strikes.

To be clear, when I say planners, I am not talking about the City of Edmonds Planning Department, which is not a planning department but, rather, a rules-and-regulations department. I would not accuse the City of Edmonds of ever planning anything, short of which week it will be raising the Mayor’s salary, and which week it will be unraising the Mayor’s salary. By planners, I mean the citizens of Edmonds who, no matter how effective in their personal and professional lives, get stuck in neutral when trying to accomplish something positive for our beautiful city.

Is there a way out of this dilemma, where doers get it done, but ugly (butt ugly?), while planners dream of utopia? Can doers learn to plan and planners learn to do?

Irreconcilable Differences

I used to be a marriage counselor. Getting just two people to agree on something, two people who supposedly share major values, is nearly impossible. This is more so when they’re in a mixed marriage—you know, where one spouse is for, and the other spouse is against, raising Edmonds height limits. Statisticians tell me that two people have one relationship, three people have six relationships, and ten people have 75 relationships. (Good thing I ducked that call from one of the King of Siam’s 39 wives trying to make an appointment.) Lack of common beliefs make it harder to forge agreements and the more relationships involved, the fewer common beliefs. The first major reason why it’s so hard to make changes is that it’s so difficult to get lots of people to agree on any particular change.

When citizens think of public projects, they usually think big: an indoor swimming complex, a large art center, a condo-rich urban village, a multi-billion dollar mass-transit system, new bridges, freeways, a new sports stadium. A new project of this sort means an unimaginable amount of money, concrete, and construction time, that takes an unimaginable amount of time to produce. And what if it doesn’t work as promised, by reducing congestion, bringing in tax money, or creating beauty? What if it turns out to be a real or metaphorical bridge to nowhere? Or worse, a typical new downtown building in Edmonds? The second major reason it’s hard to agree on any particular change is that major projects can turn out badly, and major projects have no undo key.

Agile is the New Black

There’s a trend in software development called agile development. Rather than build a huge edifice of capability (or in some cases, an artifice of capability), such as Microsoft Windows or Microsoft Office, developers go with simple, but elegant applications. Rather than big releases every few years, agile developers release updates in increments. And rather than releasing a new version with the primary goal of refilling the coffers, they release to only improve the product. This works especially well with web applications and services, where users pay by subscription. The main advantage of the agile model is that users can heavily influence the selection of features by taking part in online forums. With relatively small applications, change in the form of updates can be quick and responsive to the needs of users.

Agile development sounds ideal for a software company, but what does software development have in common with the development of cities and buildings? Enough apparently, for UC Berkeley, Professor (Emeritus) of Architecture, Christopher Alexander’s ideas to have influenced programmers through his design guidelines he calls A Pattern Language. Alexander’s patterns are recommendations for houses, public buildings, and cities that are meant to be used, not by architects, but by the home and city dweller. He believes that architects should not design homes or cities for other people to live in, but that people who live in these houses should view their homes and towns as works-in-progress, and design/build/modify using his patterns as a guide.

Similar ideas are expressed in Stewart Brand’s book (and the subject of a BBS series), How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built and Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

What these approaches have in common is foregoing the big upfront design and letting the process be the blueprint. Here’s the traditional way to create a major waterfront center of activity: Design and build condos, retail structures, expanses of empty space with walkways and plants, and a multi-level parking complex. Make sure that you pour mega-tons of concrete with your mega-funding. Hope that there are condo-buyers and thousands of shoppers.

There’s already an excellent example of the agile way—the summer market. It started as a small farmers’ market, with produce stands, and quickly expanded to include prepared foods and crafts. Other examples we now take for granted include The Taste of Edmonds, and the Edmonds Arts Festival on Father’s Day weekend.

The agile way means that if something works, do more of it. Why not have the summer market become a four-season market? Why not add live music, dance classes, and Tai Chi classes? Not enough space? One option is to ask Edmonds Mall manager, Al Dykes, if he’d rent the old Safeway parking lot until the city council and he agree on a mega-project (in other words, until hell freezes over). Target his ego and offer to name it Dykes Place Market.

With the agile way, if it doesn’t work, you can just stop doing it. You can experiment, endlessly, because when you’re not pouring concrete and spending gobs of money on a project too big to fail, you can develop and undevelop. You have an undo key.

Objections to agile development — especially by the local government — are inevitable, mostly, because modest projects won’t solve our tax revenue problems the way (we fantasize) a mega-development would. But building for tax revenue is like marrying for money. It sounds practical at the time, but a loveless mega-project is likely going to end in disappointment, or even disaster, because an ill-conceived mega-project can ruin an area for decades.

A failed agile project, in contrast, can be modified endlessly, or shut down quickly. At its worst, it provides useful feedback on what to do different next time. At its best, it’s just what the people of your community need until the people of your community decide they need something else.

If you have an interest in this approach, please leave a comment.

Footnote:
*Apologizes to Walt Kelly

From → Edmonds

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