making big urban ideas happen through idea management

Lately, there is no shortage of reporting about big urban ideas and visions of what will make places great.

For David Roberts, writing in Grist, the answers are conceptual, e.g. assurance of ecological sustainability and density, while Crosscut contributor Mark Hinshaw lauds great projects in the making through citation to the “verve, variety and vitality” of James Corner’s early rethinking of the Seattle waterfront—with a city-wide focal point in mind.

But where is the realism, and why does it matter?

In a recent Financial Times article, Edwin Heathcoate dissected the ever-popular lists of great cities and acknowledged that such rankings are often based on individual taste—in response to the qualities that the identified cities present.  However, Heathcoate’s goal was not to organize a ‘liveable city” list based on successful implementation of a big urban idea.

For me, as a practitioner, I am anchored on the “how” to make big urban ideas happen. Once a big idea is vetted—whether in an authoritarian or democratic way—what assures its success? Most particularly, what if, from Day One, the vision pushes comfort zones of the achievable; politically, legally or monetarily?

I suggest reality-checks from the beginning, which includes careful and contextual due diligence—reflecting back and showing some immediate grounding of what detractors might argue as the pie-in the-sky.  Call it “idea management” in the urban arena.

To return to the Seattle example, on the waterfront:  Grand, “make no little plans” visions are afoot, in a purposeful, unconstrained exercise led by james corner field operations that contemplates a merger of natural systems and urbanity. With a considered framework (summarized nicely by Cristina Bump here) a presentation in Seattle by Corner and his team last Thursday night brought the potential of a new city orientation towards the city’s nascent Elliott Bay, with the potential of reclaimed beaches, green piers, terraced topography-sensitive runoff and new, waterside gathering places.

Hinshaw frames the successful rebirth of the Seattle waterfront by artful hint—now is not the time for curmudgeons—rather, it is the time for courtship in an urban Spring.

Regeneration of the waterfront in Seattle and other cities worldwide (see plans for Perth, Australia, here) is but one example of potential implementation of the big urban idea. But big ideas can fail without the idea management of due diligence—a catalog of what will, can and could happen.

Without a simultaneous catalog of due diligence checklists (even if they are kept under cover), visions risk repudiation and rancor. In reaching this conclusion, nothing has impressed me more than first-hand learning from the Jerusalem light rail project —off budget, off schedule, full of geopolitical questions and implementation snafus.  Ironically, as I recounted in 2010, project implementers noted that:

BRT [bus rapid transit] is more viable in Jerusalem given far less need for excavation and utility relocation, and, echoing sentiments in other Israeli cities, probably should have been the mode of choice to begin with.

The project is almost done today, with opening scheduled for later this year—five years late.

So in conclusion, I suggest no moderation in the generation of big urban ideas, no doom-saying.  But I hope amid all of the vision, the checklists are forming.

Even beyond the seemingly universal challenge of funding for vision, the pitfalls of process and delay remain—concerned neighbors, overlapping agency jurisdictions, related regulations and other stakeholder review will often come to light.

Through idea management, let’s use existing tools and invent new ones so that big urban ideas do not die before their time.

All photographs composed by the author. Seattle waterfront graphic courtesy of City of Seattle/james corner field operations.

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