From park bench to satellite: designing from the ground up


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Talk for IDSA 2011, in New Orleans.

Often the most exciting opportunities are ones that we make for ourselves. By engaging with the people and places around us, we can reimagine the possibilities for social interaction in the everyday. Surveying diverse models for making and remaking urban green spaces, this talk will present tactics for working with cities, neighborhoods and communities to inspire, inform and instruct the design process from the ground up. Along the way we will explore the unique challenges that designers encounter when addressing urban issues as well as groups of individuals.

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From park bench to satellite: designing from the ground up

  1. 1. Thanks.  In  this  talk,  I’m  going  to  look  at  issues  of  context  and  community  through  the  lens  of  a  long-­‐term  interest  of  mine  –  design  for  ci<es,  and  in  par<cular,  urban  green  space.  What  do  I  mean  by  urban  green  space?  Just  what  you  think.  Any  place  with  plants  in  a  city  –  from  window  boxes  to  giant  parks.    I’m  not  a  planner,  nor  an  architect.  I’m  an  interac<on  designer.  But  I’m  interested  in  the  design  of  interven<ons  in  built  spaces,  and  I  think  you  all  should  be  too.  As  industrial  design  spills  out  into  interac<on  design  spills  out  into  appliance  design  spills  out  into  service  design,  ques<ons  of  how  and  where  we  deal  with  not  just  building  scale  but  urban  scale  maHers  becomes  a  ques<on  we  can  ask  ask  and  answer.    I  have  two  goals  for  this  talk.  The  first  is  to  show  you  how  fascina<ng  and  interes<ng  this  space  is  -­‐-­‐-­‐  and  then  second,  to  discuss  why  its  hard.  But  don’t  worry  –  I’ll  be  going  over  some  tac<cs  that  I’ve  found  par<cularly  useful.  And  finally,  I’ll  be  turning  back  to  the  ideas  of  context  and  community,  which  animate  this  session.      This  is  going  to  be  a  whirlwind  tour  of  a  big  area.  Let’s  hope  I  raise  a  lot  of  ques<ons  and  issues  that  we  can  discuss  in  the  panel.     1  
  2. 2. At  the  moment,  I’m  a  PhD  candidate  at  UC  Berkeley.  My  background  is  in  design  research  –  research  for  product  development,  prototyping  and  design  as  a  way  to  do  R&D  for  large  companies,  and  research  on  design  prac<ce.    This  talk  combines  two  long-­‐term  interests  of  mine.    The  first  is  what’s  been  called  urban  compu<ng  or  urban  informa<cs,  which  I’ve  been  thinking  about  since  about  2002.  You  can  think  about  it  as  applica<ons  for  city  life,  such  as  the  map-­‐based  chat  you  see  in  the  middle  and  a  picture  above  that  of  map-­‐based  urban  theater  game  I  designed.    The  second  is  what’s  oVen  called  user-­‐centered  or  human-­‐centered  design.  I’ve  taught  design  research  at  Berkeley,  and  I’m  in  the  middle  of  revising  Observing  the  User  Experience,  a  handbook  of  user  research  techniques.    At  any  rate,  aVer  focusing  for  a  while  on  what  you  might  call  sidewalk  and  streetlevel  interac<ons,  I  got  into  studying  urban  green  space  largely  because  it  seemed  like  such  unexplored  territory  for  digital  design.  “GREEN  SPACE?!”  People  would  say  to  me.  “How  is  THAT  digital?”  I’m  just  contrary  enough  to  take  that  as  a  challenge  to  see  what  there  was.    And  also,  of  course,  I  felt  that  green  space  –  parks,  and  especially  community  gardens  –  was  something  I  wanted  to  support.  Green  spaces  are  places  of  beauty  and  play.  They  mi<gate  pollu<on  and  storm  damage.  Sidewalks  and  streets  can  be  difficult,  messy  places,  full  of  arguments  about  traffic,  rights-­‐of-­‐way,  and  other  issues  that  come  up  when  people  bump  and  crowd  each  other.    Green  space,  I  thought.  What  a  completely  benign  and  harmonious  topic.    I  had  a  lot  to  learn.     2  
  3. 3. Since we’re in New Orleans, I wanted to kick off this talk with a story of community and context from right here. Thisstory exemplifies some of the thorny issues involved in designing for urban green space, and with neighborhoods..Can every one who’s seen the map to the right raise a hand? Good.Here’s the short story. In 2006, a taskforce called “Bring New Orleans Back” released this map to accompany a plancreated with the Urban Land Institute for New Orleans neighborhoods. What it showed is some areas where rebuildingwould continue, some areas where rebuilding would be put on hold, and SOME areas, marked with green dots, whichthere was a real possibility would be turned into parkland. There was a real chance, residents believed, that theywould be bought out, whether they wanted to move or not.The release of this map immediately triggered an uproar, especially in neighborhoods like Broadmoor – inhabitantsshown at a Times Picayune photo at left – under the shadow of the green dots. Faced with what they feared would bethe destruction of their homes and their neighborhood, they revolted against the plan. Just think about that quote –“Mama, they plan on putting a greenway on your house.”What I find interesting about this map is the contrast between the specificity of the red-outlined areas, and the“approximate” vagueness of the green dots. It’s as if the real focus of attention were those red outlines, and the greendots were just…background. “Context,” let’s say, for the new development.There are two immediately obvious kinds of design taking place. One, urban planning for post-Katrina New Orleans,and two, the communication design of the poster. I would argue that there was a third process, perhapsunacknowledged but key to the success of the first two, which was the design of the collaboration between “thecommission” and “the community.”The green dots backlash, I would argue, is the revenge of “context.” And community. What you think of as backgroundmay well be the central battleground of someone’s life.REFERENCESKennedy School of Government case study: Picayune article 3  
  4. 4. We’ll return to urban planning and the green dots later. For the moment, though, Iwant to highlight some interesting stuff happening in product and service design forurban green space right now.My motive here in discussing these at all is two-fold.First, I want to highlight some inspirations for, possibly, your own work.Second, I want to give you a sense of the richness of this space, and the number ofdifferent disciplines that can potentially get involved – industrial and interactiondesigners, landscape designers and architects – and of course, not to mention policy-makers and community groups.I’ve divided these projects into four themes. I’ll discuss them in order of complexity.From projects that intervene in small or brief ways in the built environment, to projectsthat seek to reshape entire cities and regions.I’ll be honest – I would love to spend the entire talk highlighting inspirational andexciting projects. But I really don’t have the time/ Instead, I’m going to breeze past alimited number of exemplar projects, and ask you guys to come up and talk to me oremail me about them later if you want more information. 4
  5. 5. The art group Rebar, for example, sponsors International Park(ing) Day each year, in whichpeople around the world turn parking spots into temporary mini-parks.The industrial design group Common Studio turns a vintage candy vending machines intodispensers for seedbombs – globs of local seeds, clay, and fertilizer that, when thrown into anabandoned lot, turn it into a carpet of wildflowers.Parisian artist Paule Kingleur mods anti-parking posts on sidewalks into tiny planters byattaching small bags of soil.These three projects are all close to traditional industrial design. What they all have incommon is a playful approach to urban infrastructures, and in particular abandoned orunderused spaces. They rely largely on individual initiative, and suggest ways in whichpassersby could also intervene. I label these projects “planting ideas” because their effects lienot in the scale of their effects, but in the way they provoke the imagination. 5  
  6. 6. This second category of projects tries to help individuals reap the personal benefits ofgardening by helping them learn to do it better.Botanicalls is a cheap sensor kit that actually calls you or tweets when your plant needs water.MyFolia is a gardening website which connects gardeners who grow similar plants or liveunder similar conditions. In a sense, it’s accumulating expert, microlocal knowledge aboutwhat to do, when.What is most interesting is the way in which projects like this suggest how we could startdistributing the responsibility for caring for plants - Not just keep the things alive - But developing trust relationships with other people through the shared attachment to a living thing ----Botanicalls photo: 6
  7. 7. The  third  category  takes  up  that  idea  of  stewardship  to  move  from  Do  It  Yourself  to  Do  it  Ourselves,  rethinking  no<ons  of  ownership.    We tend to draw strong lines between public and private space, between what we can andcannot physically access, or can and cannot care for. A few recent projects use the Internet to rethink who  provides  food  to  whom,  and  what  kinds  of  rela<onships  we  have  to  property.  These  projects  broker  rela<onships  between  people  and  places.    They  network  the  produc<on  and  consump<on  of  food  –  and  of  less  tangible  goods.  In  guerilla  gardening,  in  which  an  ad-­‐hoc  groups  of  gardeners  self-­‐organize  to  replant  an  abandoned  areas  neglected  by  the  city.  Or  the  Find  Fruit  iPhone  app,  which  allows  people  to  find  publicly  accessible  fruit  trees  in  people’s  front  yards,  ready  to  harvest.  Finally,  we  have  a  new  business  model  –  that  of  the  distributed  backyard  farm,  in  which  backyards  across  a  city  are  turned  into  one  giant  community  supported  agriculture  project.  What’s  interes<ng  to  me  is  that  many  of  these  projects  are  not  objects,  per  se,  but  compelling  ideas  that  are  some<mes  ar<culated  as  books  and  online  forums,  as  in  the  guerilla  gardening  movement  or  urban  scavenging,  some<mes  as  a  business  model,  as  in  distributed  farming.   7
  8. 8. But what about larger, longer processes and ecosystems?Collecting and visualizing information about very local events and conditions can be used totell stories about bigger trends. Then, how those stories are told and distributed can help formnew coalitions. Coalitions that can work towards political action and commitment. ParkScan isa citizen reporting system for park maintenance violations in San Francisco. It makes it easy toget individual problems fixed – but also allows the non-profit which runs it to track governmentresponsiveness to citizen complaints. Photographs and other visualizations of these patternsare important to collective action. They become charismatic images – images that can promptbelief, and action. Like the green dots.Landshare is a website that brokers agreements online to share cultivation of unused urbanand suburban land, so that I could find someone who wants to garden in, literally, my ownbackyard. What’s interesting is that the website has also started to encourage and supportpolitical organizing campaigns in the UK to make the practice easier. But I think it’s amazing,in terms of doing urban food politics through the clever use of existing web technology. 8
  9. 9. So we’ve gone through some great examples of what designing for urban green space canlook like.What I want to do now is take a step back and propose some concepts – some tools forthinking with – that you could use in your own work. Some concepts that have helped me getsome purchase on the complexity of getting involved, often as a relative outsider, in spacesand places that people care for. 9  
  10. 10.  We often think of green space as a kind of “nature” in cities that is somehow opposed totechnological innovation.  The  first  thing  I  want  to  point  out,  which  may  be  obvious  to  you,  but  which  was  not  to  me  when  I  started,  is  that  green  spaces  are  a  technology  of  urban  living.  This picture is a representation of the Air Trees installation in an arid, hot housingdevelopment near Madrid. While waiting for “real trees” to grow in, architects planned atemporary gathering place for inhabitants that would serve some of the same purposes thatparks or plazas might. The circular structure is filled with rings of potted plants. The plantscondition the air inside and provide shade. The circular arrangement works like a chimney,drawing hot air up and leaving the shaded area many degrees cooler – like natural airconditioning.I’m not recommending that everyone install something like this. What I’m suggesting is that wecan see greenery as a kind of technology of cities. And I think this example highlights how wecan see greenery as technology in different ways – as a tool to accomplish certain ends, as adeliberately engineered artifact, as a techne – a skill, of life.The  ques<on  is,  like  all  designed  tools,  for  what  end?  For  the  personal  growth  of  individuals?  For  food  security  and  jobs?  For  neighborhood  survival?     10
  11. 11. Green spaces – not just gardens – connect together many disparate urban elements. Theybring individuals together. They are part of urban ecosystems, working to process pollutionand drain water. They are part of neighborhood revitalization, as in Quesada Garden, a one-block community garden in San Francisco that serves as a local hub for political organizationand anti-crime efforts.So here’s a diagram, drawn from my research on community gardens, that suggests howmany actors might be involved in something as seemingly simple as a single communitygarden. The closer a circle is to the big green “garden” circle, the more present it is in thephysical space of the garden.It’s striking how many different kinds of actors are involved in keeping community gardensalive – people, technologies like email lists and GIS, laws about how you can use land,political parties who get involved in supporting or limiting gardens, chemicals.That’s why I think it’s helpful to think of green spaces not on their own but as networks – ofecosystems, of social relationships, of urban political arrangements. We can start to askourselves – who and what can green spaces connect? And what connects green spaces? Itallows us to see non-humans like bees and water drops as part of the design space – andthink about not just human-centered design but design for non-humans as well. 11
  12. 12. The  next  thing  I  want  to  discuss  is  everything  that  stands  in  the  way  of  remaking  urban  spaces  through  design  –   their  obduracy.  Obduracy is a very useful concept coined by urbanist Anique Hommels to describe why Things. Don’t.Change. Many people have brought up similar ideas, but I think the concept of obduracy is a helpfulframework for putting your dilemma into perspective. It has three different dimensions.1) Frames – local political interests and struggles for dominance.2) Embeddedness – the degree to which an object depends on other ones, and is in turn a source of dependency.3) Enduring attitudes and habits – what we might call ‘cultures.’Obduracy is an excellent way to describe what happened to the promoters of the “green dots” plan.The framing of this particular issue was very damaging – it seemed like outsiders coming in, with the help of powerful local politicians, and telling people what to do with what they saw as their own homes.But even despite the ravages of Katrina, these homes and neighborhoods were embedded – people owned their homes and had legal protection. Many of them had some insurance that would repay rebuilding. And indeed, many worked to make their homes even more embedded in the fabric of the city by renovating as fast as they could, to make their neighborhoods ever more solid – in order to contradict any idea to demolish them.Finally, there’s the culture of homeownership and neighborhood allegiance. The map of New Orleans is iconic, and people feel like it represents their lives. I would argue that people felt that their neighborhood belonged to them, and felt angry at the erasure of their love and commitment as symbolized by the flat green dots. 12  
  13. 13. So what do we do if we want to change things – for the better?Here are three starting points – tools to think with in approaching green space and other urbanissues. 13  
  14. 14. Where do you think this photo was taken?This is Golden Gate Park -- before it was a park, before the space wascompletely remade.As I said earlier, we forget that urban nature isn’t natural. Plant life andgreenery survive in cities because humans either make room for it, activelycultivate it. Sometimes, destroy neighborhoods for it.One way to denaturalize green space – and other spaces – is to defamiliarizeit. As “to make by making strange.”This  is  the  idea  underlying  a  lot  of  the  seeding  ideas  projects  –  you  rethink  urban  infrastructure,  like  a  parking  lot.  And  call  it  out  as  man-­‐made  and  redesignableDesigners,  of  course,  do  this  all  the  <me.  But  there  are  some  special  tricks  for  working  in  ci<es,  because  ci<es  are  so  mundane  and  so  easily  taken  for  granted.  It’s  easy  to  believe  that  Golden  Gate  Park  has  always  been  parkland,  because  that’s  what  your  eyes  tell  you.  This  is  what  geographers  call  “the  lie  of  the  land”  –  the  tendency  to  assume  that  what  you  see  is  what’s  there.      So one of my primary tools in thinking about green space is the study ofhistory. What can the victory gardens of WWII tell us about today? 14  
  15. 15. One way to work around obduracy is to get yourself your own allies. You can read this literally– as in getting political allies.But I’m fascinated by the power and weakness of what I might call charismatic images –images that mobilize constituencies for and against the programs and ideas that theyrepresent. The green dots map was, in a sense, charismatic. It mobilized constituencies todefeat it. It was, in a sense, a very successful map.For a different example, take these satellite photos to the right – which have been called “50Million Dollar Photos”. Why where they worth 50 Million?On the right are two satellite photos of Washington DC. Taken together, they document thedisappearance of trees in the metropolitan area. They’re pretty murky photos, honestly. Kind ofthe opposition of charismatic. But in conjunction with a newspaper photo they prompted a 50Million Dollar commitment to reforesting DC from a charitable foundation. The city hired aprofessional urban forester for the first time in many years, increased tree planting, anddrafted and approved its first tree ordinance.These images didn’t speak for themselves – they needed human spokespeople, or maybe aninfluential and far-reaching spokes-institution like the Washington Post, to argue for what theyshould mean, and why they should be important.Even if you think your work stands on its own, it will always be perceived by others as having acontext. Having allies and a community. The question is, as with the Urban Land Institute andthe Bring New Orleans Back Commission, whether your audience sees your allies as a benefitor a downside. 15  
  16. 16. In 1969, Sherry Arnstein put forward this model for understanding citizen participation in urbanplanning. I’m not going to go into the details here – there are copies you can read online – butthe rungs of the ladder move up from lesser to greater participation. I think works equally wellfor thinking about the agency of potential consumers and users in design.More tactical level, the question often is: what level am I working on? What level should I beworking on?I often think of moving up and down the ladder in terms of obduracy. The more embedded anetwork is. The more tied in it is to existing physical installations, to ways of doing things. Themore tendentious it is in terms of organizational frames. The more bound up in culturalunderstanding of the “right” way to live and be happy – the higher one should consider going.Many of the projects I’ve shown you – for example, many in the planting ideas sections – donot face particular challenges of obduracy. Projects like reforesting a city…may well.This requires a certain amount of honesty with ourselves. The lower levels of the ladder arenot necessarily bad – although it is hard to make a case for therapy or manipulation – but theyare often not suitable for what we want our interventions in green space to do as technologies. 16  
  17. 17. So. Let’s return to the notions of community and context that I brought up at the beginning ofthis talk.When people talk about context, they usually mean “background.” Something passive. I wantto suggest that in working with urban green space – or really, any kind of social design projectat all, context, as it’s usually understood, does not exist. There is no way to cleanly assume apassive background. Projects spring from specific constellations of people and interests, andinteract with others. Depending on what audience they reach, the green dots are either asideshow or the main event.Community, as it’s usually understood, can be a little misleading. First, because “community”doesn’t mean agreement. Often, things that we describe as “communities” are contentiousand divided. Certainly, that’s what I see in “community” gardens. Second, because“community” may not be the most interesting way to describe all the actors involved in aproject. Maybe they are tax payers, hives of bees, renters, or simply passers-by.And that’s great. It means the world is more exciting, more diverse, more risky. It means youcannot take your status as an “expert” for granted, or the applause of the people you want tohelp. It makes the world more fun. 17  
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