When Dr. Barry Allen (’79 U. Penn) lent me Design Activism by Anne Thorpe, it planted a seed that has quickly sprouted. Here in Central Florida, design activism is urgently needed to heal so many broken conditions, but very few experiments have been tried to fix the problems. I’ve been involved in four early attempts at urban activism and, after reading Thorpe’s book, I believe it is time to share more publicly some of the thoughts and needs to make Central Florida a better place to live.
About the same time that I read Thorpe’s manifesto to start designing public spaces, I was drafted into a public urban design question, and I attempted to plant seedlings of public design. The result was met with more than a little bit of dismay and skepticism, so I’ve retreated to contemplate how better to nurture their growth. I’ve shown a few close friends some tiny flowers blooming on this seedling, but since then, never taken it out into the sunlight. Here in Florida, the strong sunlight is not for every plant – this particular one, being imported from London, might not make it. The soil is also quite acidic here, making it difficult to grow. And finally, I’ve watched the same seedling get planted, grow a bit, and then wither and die. So my reluctance is protective. But I really think these flowers need to be seen here, perhaps more urgently now than ever before.
In 2012, I proposed, as a part of a panel discussion with Klaus Heesch, a design paradigm for the area between I-4, Highway 50, and North Magnolia Street, which we nicknamed the North Quarter. We presented our ideas to ReThinking the City. A disappointingly small audience, one of whom stated that he “came for the beer”, was the result of no promotion on the part of the venue. Nevertheless, we bravely soldiered on.
Heesch and I recognized that the area was about to receive an injection of major residential projects (which has since been built out), and needed an identity and a neighborhood character. We proposed The North Quarter. We defined the neighborhood’s boundaries, how you enter and exit it, where its prominent features lie, and how to enhance them. We identified a major deficiency – the adjacent negative energy of Interstate 4 – and proposed a solution. Our audience, by the end of the slide show, consisted of the beer fan and one other person who works for the local authority having jurisdiction over the area, and dismissed the ideas, seeming to express dismay that a volunteer group would be so bold as to perform urban design, rather than passively accept whatever the official city planners roll out.
If design activism raised the hackles of the nomenklatura, I’ve since come to believe that we were on to something. Design, in our contemporary life, is nearly universally a result of a private transaction between a single owner/interest and a design consultant, who solves the problem that his client presents. The city, for example, needs a new building. The city hires an architect and gets the design of this building. This is about 19% of all design commissions. About 81.9% of the rest of design commissions are when a private entity – a corporation or an individual – hires a designer to provide a logo, a website, a house, or a commercial facility. That is the current model.
Public design, which currently makes for 0.1% of all design commissions, is what Anne Thorpe is talking about, and which we were talking about with the North Quarter. This is when a set of clients (plural) have a shared public problem that could be solved by design. Thorpe puts it like this: “architecture & design can help us transition from a system that prioritizes consumerism and economic growth to one that addresses real wellbeing.” It is all about making our stuff better, not making more stuff.
I experimented with public design while teaching at Rollins. There, in urban design classes, we went about identifying conditions where the city had a problem, and proposed ways to heal the problem. In Sanford, we found a plaza that suffered from open space blight, and proposed uses and structures that banished the ugly parking lots and unified the open space. In Winter Park, we took an awful city-owned set of triangular blocks and proposed a new way of circulating people around a new use for the land. And so forth. Each of these problems is a shared-ownership problem; impossible for a single entity to commission, impossible to fund. Each attempt got closer and closer to the truth, and the flowers started to blossom.
Since then I’ve solved other urban design problems the same way. I repurposed some discarded metal and playground parts, and made them into bike racks for my neighborhood. This was funded by a grant. (the bike racks promptly got stolen before the city came along to fasten them down. Every single one of them. Again, the authorities having jurisdiction unwittingly defeated public design).
Look, Orlando has a pleasantly inoffensive atmosphere, but this belies several serious problems. For rankings of negative attributes, Orlando tends to rate high. For example, it remains one of the deadliest places for cyclists. For another, Orlando continues to earn a spot in lists of America’s 100 most deadliest cities. If you are looking for rankings of positive things, like walkability, Orlando scores last place. Something insidious is going on here, and this might explain a different phenomenon, one that has been troubling me and many other designers for a long time. It might at least partly explain why Central Florida seems to act, not as a collector of good design ideas, but rather more like a sink. Good designers constantly flow in, but the nature of the sink causes them to continue on their pathway down the drain, off to other places. The pleasantly inoffensive face of Orlando, like the hard porcelain sides of the sink, are slick and cannot be clung to.
Design cannot fix everything. But design and society are intertwined, and design activism has a place which deserves to be explored. Thorpe, in her book The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability, discusses how designers have, in various locations, have made some changes. And her blog, designactivism.net, is a kind of an inventory of interesting ways designers have tried to solve public problems with good design.
A few years ago I tried to start the Winter Park Design Bureau, thinking that a group of like-minded people might want to write grants and crowd-fund design solutions. The mission was to be a profitable business working within the context of capitalism. As a social business, its objective was to define certain urban problems that could be solved with good design.
These problems have not gone away, and in fact they continue to grow larger. For every year that passes without solving them, incrementally more and more money and effort are required to correct them. Some of these problems include:
Restore balance between man and nature. Some of the design assignments might include opening up biological corridors between local ecosystems, and creating species circulation systems (species other than man, that is). The annual drama of bear cubs seeking their own territory is growing and instead of it being a shoot-em and cage-em problem it could instead be treated as a design problem.
Reduce road rage and vehicular homocides. Some of the design assignments might include traffic and walkability design solutions.
We have other ideas that will be explored in future articles. These are just a few, and if we start locally, they might just converge into something interesting and positive, retaining some good people here for a little while longer. The vision of a flower might blossom and grow into a field.