Monday, March 17, 2014

To Figure Out Where You're Going, You Need Design Thinking and Creativity

Importance of Active Transportation
Throughout North America the importance of healthy community design and active transportation is increasingly recognized by the planning, health care, and allied professions as being particularly relevant in light of environmental; chronic disease; personal safety, and personal mobility issues.  Add to this the needs of an aging population, and the negative economic impacts associated with neighbourhoods that are not active transportation “friendly”, and the effects on communities’ overall quality of life continue to mount.

For example, in terms of personal safety our recent history of auto-centric community design has had such great negative impact that the Office of the Chief Coroner of the province of Ontario has unfortunately determined that it needed to influence how we design our towns and transportation systems.  In 2012 the Coroner published the Pedestrian Death Review and Cycling Death Review, in which the first recommendations of both were for a more active transportation friendly “complete streets” policy to guide the (re)development of communities throughout Ontario.  This approach considers all modes when designing transportation infrastructure, and in terms of mobility needs, helps create more safe and equitable neighbourhoods and towns. 

Momentum for quality urban design standards, complete streets policies, and active transportation plans is growing with more being adopted across US and Canadian cities/states every month.  Policy statements and community growth plans that address the need for creating communities that are supportive of active transportation may not be cutting edge anymore, but neither are they common place yet.  However, it takes much more that policies, guidelines, and plans to achieve meaningful results. 

One of the problems that is slowing down the effectiveness of this shift in perspective toward active transportation, is that for the most part the solutions are not appropriate to the problems.  Having reviewed close to 200 hundred active transportation plans and policy documents and their implementation I have found that for the majority of communities these plans are too big to manage, too complex to understand, too costly to implement, and too boring to capture the interest of citizens.  Unfortunately, the result is that most of these plans quickly fall “out of fashion” once the easy projects that closely match current funding and staff resource levels have been completed.

While the details and engineering of how we build facilities are significantly improving, the underlying assumptions of most of these plans are still based on a previous generation of thought.  This is one where the planning, designing, and building of our communities is focused on large scale infrastructure solutions and technical fixes.  In general terms, there are four characteristics of this that can be seen:   

A) Lacking systems approach:
Disregarding key components of active transportation supportive environments such as: urban design; user needs; and, culture.  The result is a loss of: contextual built form; compatible land uses; effective education and citizen engagement programs; and, human-centred design.
B) Focused on growth:
Principally based on active transportation being supported through large infrastructure works.  These plans define many construction projects for the creation of on and off-street networks that tend to be difficult to fund, particularly for smaller towns and cities.  These projects are also seldom easy to initiate or complete in phases; leaving them half done, or altogether passed-over.
C) Lost sense of time:
Most plans include a series of projects that would take far longer that their identified implementation timeline.  When overburdened with these unrealistic visions these plans become unmanageable, confusing, and stale. 
D)  Poor communication:
Active transportation plans are generally not written to be easily understood by citizens, and elected officials.  They tend to be extremely technical in their presentation and content, resulting in plans that are, not only confusing, but also uninspiring to the community.  Effectively making them easily ignored, unimplemented, and forgotten.  This does little to support the culture of active transportation that is such a necessary component for communities.

A Step Forward
Recognizing this conflict between the needs of communities to be more supportive of overall community health and active transportation, and the approaches being take to initiate this change, there is a clear argument for adapting planning perspectives and practice to be more effective. 

In 2010 I had the pleasure of creating an Urban Design Manual (UDM) for the Town of Collingwood, Ontario which was inspired by Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language.  It developed into a ground-breaking document now being used as a template for many other communities and as a teaching reference in university planning programs.  It includes a number of regional, provincial and national firsts, for example: first design manual to be adopted as law (not guidelines) in Ontario; first in North America to include natural playground design standards for neighbourhoods; and, first social media engagement strategy in the region.  The UDM’s requirements support healthy community design and active transportation and its implementation has resulted in efficiencies for application processing, more contextual and human-centred developments, and better functioning sites.  Upon reviewing the UDM, international active transportation expert Dan Burden (Walkable and Livable Communities Institute) referred to it as “one of the best in North America” and uses it to in his work with communities throughout the US and Canada.  Blue Zones has also adapted this manual for their programs, and it is featured in a number of planning design courses in universities and colleges.   

In 2012, I decided I would build on the successes of the UDM to specifically address the active transportation challenges described above.  The result was an Active Transportation Plan (ATP) that advanced contemporary stakeholder engagement, focused on healthy community design principles, defined placemaking strategies, integrated cultural shifting programs, and supported asset based community development. 

Although early in it’s implementation, this Active Transportation Plan has also become a resource for other communities seeking to adapt it to their context.  The use of animated videos to describe its content; the integration of a series of “100 Day Implementation” projects; the use of a citizen “Do Tank”; the facilitation of urban acupuncture pilot projects; the performance based structure; and reader friendly content are some of the reasons why this is the case.

The plan sets the parameters for cooperative multi-disciplinary transportation planning/design work between Planners, Engineers, Landscape Architects, and citizens.  The results from this framework are:
a) Changed Culture:  Making active transportation easier for daily activities; and supporting the local neighbourhoods and economy.
b) Changed Environment:  Addressing all aspects of active transportation, including: people-oriented design; better biking facilities; better signage; and, complete streets approaches; that will all make the built environment more supportive of active transportation.
c) Empowered People:  Making it easier for citizens & neighbourhood groups to get involved in real projects and facilitate test projects in partnership with the municipality.
d) Changed Scope: Facilitating real measurable improvements within a five year timeframe to the various aspects of active transportation; having a range of implementation projects that will “make things happen” in the community.
e) Changed Expectations:  Improving understanding of active transportation and municipal implementation projects by citizens, elected officials, and professionals, and; include ongoing community input throughout the Plan’s life.

Where Do You Think You’re Going?
Seeing the effectiveness of this non-typical approach to planning, and the number of people interested, I have designed workshops to engage, inform, and inspire communities and professionals so that they can adapt the UDM and ATP to their context.  Through storytelling, hands-on group work, videos, and animations, participants are immersed in techniques, examples, and challenges that teach a variety of skills.  These “tools” are useful at all stages of developing and implementing these urban design and active transportation initiatives.  The most critical skill learned during the workshops is that of “design thinking”. 

Design is a process of examination through which ideas are identified, tested, and refined before being realized.  It is the process undertaken both when developing an active transportation plan; as well as, when implementing its recommendations in the built environment.  Participants of the workshops develop a design focused awareness, understanding, and basic skills.  The intent is that Planners, Engineers, and citizens will develop creative approaches to effectively manage and direct positive change in their communities. 

For all our towns and cities the difficulties of the future will require us to choose new ways of thinking about our problems and the solutions we develop to address them.  This includes initiatives for healthy community design and active transportation.  Creative design thinking is the key.  This isn’t easy, and will often mean that we have to change the culture of the organizations we work in.  However, my experiences with the UDM and ATP illustrate that this is possible; and the workshops I have developed that ask Where Do You Think You’re Going? can at least point people in the right direction and inspire them to take their own first steps.  I look forward to working with other groups of change agents at my next workshops in Toronto, Peterborough, Buffalo, and Niagara Falls this summer.  For those that cannot attend, I offer these words from Ze Frank, to help you make the choice for creativity and design thinking over the status-quo: “Choices aren’t things that happen to you, they happen, when you happen onto things, and choose them. So happen!

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