NIMBY and the Unintended Consequence

Is it fear of change, or actual aversion that causes us to rally against new ideas? Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) is the bane of most planners as well as anyone who’s had to go through a public hearing process.  Concerned neighbors worry about the impact that a proposed project, change of use or zoning might have on their property and they speak up loud and clear at public hearings, becoming influencers of opinion and striking fear into the hearts of approval boards.  Rightly or wrongly, they bully their concerns into prohibitive restrictions or even outright banishment of a proposed change.  It’s easy to be judgy as architects and planners who understand (or think we do) that the pros outweigh the cons and know (or think we do) that all those feared unintended consequences are no more likely than a child’s fear of monsters under the bed.  We become almost pedantic in the face of these obstacles to change.

However, NIMBY is a double-edged sword.  It’s not only the narrow-minded, bigoted, or greedy who take issue.  Sometimes, those people in the trenches can run through scenarios we never envisioned that could in fact lead to disaster.  The designers and social workers behind Pruitt-Igoe thought that they were counteracting blight and providing a better social alternative to housing for the poor.  Their revolutionary design concept didn’t take long to implode, figuratively and then literally, when the project was demolished just 17 years after construction was completed. 

What’s good for the goose...
At it’s heart, NIMBY-ism is rooted in support for a concept in general, but an aversion to taking the risk of having this experiment played out as a specific where it could affect us.  How many times have you designed a project from on high, imposing what you believe is best on its users? How many times have you been part of a panel or commission who tried to mold policy around practices you deemed to be the right answer? Good intentions aren’t good enough when we are talking about things that influence real lives. We can only do that by really understanding the needs of our users, by seeing though their eyes and being willing to experience what we are asking them to live with.  The best projects do that - they are not so focused on playing to the lowest common denominator or influencing behavior that they stop being spaces that people want to inhabit.

The grand utopian vision is wearing blinders
I think that it is critical that we not feel pressure to have all the answers.  We are taught to be utopians, the examples of masters LeCorbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Baron Haussmann held up for their bold, irreverent approaches that got people to live in a modern (read appropriate) way. An arrogance is cultivated within us that just because we do our research and have conviction, we can improve the life of the average slob.  No wonder that average slob is so damn suspicious of our ideas, hatched behind their backs and forced down their throats like a good dose of castor oil.  No wonder they say “NO WAY is that happening in my neighborhood!”

The New Urbanists are on to something, whether you like them or not.  They started asking, “how do people really want to live in their cities and neighborhoods, and how can we facilitate that?”  There’s a reason that high modernism never took off and most housing developments are based on traditional references.  Oh yes, there’s an unintended consequence for the lack of design and vision, defensive planning and zoning statutes, and pandering to nostalgia that plagues most cities.  But those consequences were born out of the design and planning world’s inability to listen, understand and give vision to lives that people really want to lead.

Can prototypes help you think outside the box?

It seems like a good idea at the time- if you are going to build something more than once, you should develop a prototype.  In theory, your standard can then be tweaked with lessons learned from each subsequent project, allowing the ultimate in efficiencies for design, construction (hello purchasing power), maintenance, even optimizing the efficiency for staff, patients, customers, vendors, you name it.  However, the idea of a prototype is very different from realities on the ground: this project, in this location, with this demographic and these codes.  I used to do a lot of commercial retail projects (where prototypes reign supreme) and I think I only ever once built anything straight out of the box.  That was in a really small town where the community was happy for any development at all and the city planner was also the plan reviewer and the building inspector.  I also got a building permit in less than 24 hours, so that should tell you something about THEIR standards.  If you think that developing a prototype is a shortcut, a way to circumvent the design process, it’s time to take another look at your motives:

The standard with no standards
Architects and their clients alike are guilty of developing prototypes based on the lowest common denominator in an attempt to build more,cheaper, and faster.  Elementary schools with no windows that got replicated over and over in two rapidly growing school districts who shared a facilities manager is a distasteful (yet sadly real) example that comes to mind.  Sure, the buildings were practically indestructible and went up in record time, but the staff and students were placed in an environment that was one step below prison requirements.  I’ve also worked with prototypes that were so low-budget that the building essentially served as a billboard and nothing more.  How much time and money (including architect and landscape architect fees) do you think got wasted every time the cheap, somewhat gaudy prototype exterior had to be upgraded to pass muster with a local planning department?  Avoid unintended consequences that cost you time and money by having design goals for your prototype that extend beyond the desire to save time and money.

One size does not fit all
Other organizations try to create prototypes for finishes and standard room types.  The goal is to circumvent a lengthy design process, including extensive user input.  This use of prototypes is especially prevalent in the healthcare sector, but you can also find it in the residential market in the form of subdivisions offering a choice of models.  Theoretically, the prototype has been carefully researched and will provide the most efficient and “best” layout for each type of space.  In practice, users customize their space as soon as they begin using it because it doesn’t really work for how they need to use it.  Standards for colors and finishes may also need to be modified if they project the wrong image to a community because there is a culture clash related to how the organization is perceived.  You are not necessarily even saving time and money when the prototype for a room or department has to be applied to an existing building or unique use and therefore requires modification.

So is there ever any circumstance where prototypes are good?  While a bit of a slippery slope, a prototypical design can be used as a tool to enhance the user experience, and learn more about operational goals and the specific design elements that can help achieve them:

Prototype as Pilot
It’s really exciting to think about a project as a test lab for all an organization wants to achieve with a particular space.  That can’t happen if the prototype isn’t constantly in question.  Not only should extensive mock-ups (including finishes) be constructed, but input from staff in all departments, at all levels, patients, customers, other community members should be sought.  Once a prototype design gets the green light, a thorough post-occupancy evaluation of the space should be conducted to learn about what worked and what didn’t BEFORE this prototype is used again.  Lessons learned need to be examined as part of the design process for the next project where the prototype will be used.  Don’t forget to collect data related to demographics of your building occupants; you may start to notice some patterns that cause your prototype to evolve into options over time.  You need to have a very clear set of goals for the project and each element of the prototype should be carefully researched to contribute to those goals.  When an element fails or underperforms, it needs to be analyzed in the context of those goals to determine whether the cause is a design or an expectation.

Prototype as module
There are many different scales of prototypes: master plan, building, department, room.  It often makes sense to have a prototype just for room types and finishes.  Sometimes, it is more important to map ideal processes and flows that you want to standardize and develop modules that can be applied with a greater degree of flexibility to an individual project. Prefabricated construction can often do more than prototyping to help you build cheaper, better and faster, without compromising a solid design approach that applies evidence based design and enhances the environment.  This module can be easily fit into a multitude of existing conditions, and has the flexibility to adapt over time.  Modularized prototypes give you a kit of parts that allow an open and honest dialogue with user groups about what needs to happen in the space to ensure that the standards of care are supported, not circumvented by design.

We’ve all certainly seen plenty of badly applied prototypes.  However, even in your own experience, there are design elements and combinations that work and that get used over and over in projects (although we don’t label them as prototypes).   These can represent just as much of a closed circuit as the officially sanctioned prototype and lead to equally banal and unresponsive design.  Saving time and money can be accomplished in a lot more interesting and effective ways than cookie cutter architecture.  The important issue is to constantly upgrade your knowledge based on a thorough assessment of how a design performs and to apply what you learned to consistently raise your design standards.

Wellness: The Series

I'm very excited to announce that I am an author for Urban Times, an "optimistic, forward thinking online magazine," as they call it.  I call it a worldwide forum for very forward thinking articles and love that they share my interest in changing the world.  Today was published the first in what will be a monthly series I am writing for them on wellness in the built environment.  Please visit Urban Times and view the article.  Below is the full text to "Building Well-ness":

      Do you believe that the physical environment affects quality of life?  Many studies across various industries confirm that the way someone feels in a space can affect their performance. Consider research that indicates the following; the level of stress, and therefore pain, you experience in a hospital setting can be reduced through changes to your physical surroundings alone; your productivity and likeliness to make mistakes or injure yourself can be a direct result of the lighting quality and acoustics of your workspace; behavioral issues such as anger (which leads to bullying and abuse) or ADHD can be modulated by environment. I am an architect, but I don’t think that you have to be a design professional to take a proactive approach to shaping the built environment. This is my first article in a series on wellness and the built environment that will share strategies to help you see your world a little differently and be a catalyst for positive environmental change.
Many of us accept the world around us as a given.  While we may be able to cite spaces or places that we do or don’t like, we can seldom pinpoint just why we feel that way.  This makes us reactionary citizens and putty in the hands of developers who define our design values for us, then construct projects that evoke those images.  Couple this with well-intentioned zoning codes that are all about prescribing what can’t be done, and you basically ensure a new building has little or no distinctive character and lots of walls to shield its activity from its surroundings.  We are all guilty of not caring about what gets built until somebody proposes building something (or tearing something down) that offends us.  Then we organize en masse writing letters, making phone calls and storming public meetings demanding to be heard.  What if we looked at our spaces and places through a different lens?  What if we viewed all design as an investment in our community and in our own well-being?

All design needs to consider three elements: client needs (schedule, financial and functional), user requirements, and wellness.  Sustainability is just the tip of the wellness iceberg. Wellness is a multi-dimensional attribute that encompasses our physical, mental and social state of being.  It affects what it feels like to inhabit a room, a building, a neighborhood. Forgetting all of the edicts and manifestos out there on design, which are neither accessible or particularly meaningful to most people, I propose the following criteria to test whether an environment supports well being:

Is it Restorative?

Restorative design helps us to replenish ourselves.  Does a space encourage its inhabitants to make life enhancing choices, like walking or climbing stairs, or spending time in natural environments? Be an advocate for walking paths, gardens, appropriate lighting and acoustics.  Author and expert on the link between design, humans and nature  Stephen Kellert identified some specific ingredients essential to a restorative space:
  1. Prospect- a vista or view
  2. Refuge- the safe place from which to take in the view
  3. Water-actual water or design elements that provide glimmer, movement or symbolic images representing water
  4. Biodiversity- a rich palette of natural materials supplied through both interactive spaces (gardens, planters) and views.
  5. Sensory Variability- response to the changing times of day and seasons
  6. Biomimicry-natural materials, natural forms and structures
  7. Sense of playfulness-things that delight, surprise and amuse
  8. Enticement-complexity that encourages exploration

Is it Supportive?

Supportive design addresses the way the people that use a space need to operate.  Supportive environments do not provide barriers to completing tasks or activities.  How many times have you observed users engaged in work-arounds for design elements?  A good design understands multiple points of view and is meaningful for everyone from a child to teenagers and senior citizens. By thinking about what different demographic groups need from a space, and providing it the space, can actually make people better, in terms of their performance, health and state of mind.

Is it Enriching?

Environments that inspire us in some way leave a lasting impression. Yet, we so often settle for the mediocre.  Did you ever walk into a space and feel sorry for the people who had to live or work in it?  Did you ever enter an office building and get a headache from the bad lighting and dreary environment? Did a space ever make you feel uneasy or unsafe?  These visceral reactions are real responses to design or lack of it in a space. Just as design is the cause, it can be the antidote. We all have to start demanding better, from our city planners, developers, building owners, and ourselves. Whether through your donations, tax dollars, patronage or consumer activity, you fund the environment around you and you deserve to inhabit spaces that truly enrich your life.

Whether you are reviewing your own surroundings, working as part of a user team on an upcoming project, or proactively approaching your city with a plan for improvement or court a developer, I hope you will consider wellness as part of the way that you evaluate the space.  While certainly there are meta scale impacts on our wellness caused by global issues such as pollution, or chemical ingredients, an even greater impact on our well-being happens a lot closer to home, in our homes, and offices, and schools, neighborhoods, streets and public places.
How is your environment shaping you?