What is Agile city-making?

What is Agile city-making?

City-making using the best of start-up methods, place-led, and design-led urbanism.

What is Place-led city-making?

What is Place-led city-making?

Place-led Urbanism

One strategy for making cities for people comes from the people operating in the placemaking and tactical urbanism movements. Place-led city-making emerged as a response to the failings of design-led city-making. The placemaking movement showed it’s possible to overcome inertia of governments and community impasses through building a shared vision and getting short-term wins, and that you do not need professional designers to make successful places. And, that within many people there is an inherent skill to make places which others would enjoy.

 A riverfront plaza on the Thames South Bank activated by a Bar - a diversity of types of seating meshed well with the landscape to create a lively spot.

A riverfront plaza on the Thames South Bank activated by a Bar - a diversity of types of seating meshed well with the landscape to create a lively spot.

These parallel and interwoven movements have rightfully put the spotlight on community and user involvement in place projects, and injected resourcefulness and fun into making parts of cities better. The movement has identified that at times the thinking learned in design, planning, and engineering education fails to create great places.

In contrast to design-led urbanism the focus is on action (that may be followed by a professional design process). When compared to design-led projects, these places usually express their character more quickly through the actions of many diverse groups, and feel more authentic such as the Thames South Bank. Recently the Tactical Urbanists Guide to Materials and Design has been released further strengthening the body of knowledge for this approach.

Criticism of these types of projects is that:

  • They don't address fundamental design issues.

  • They lack in professional prestige and respect.

  • They won't make a bigger enough impact or be robust enough to last.

  • Execution can be perceived as low-quality, cheap, or tacky.

  • Activations can be spread too thinly, appear a bit random, and have diluted impact.

The upside of place-led urbanism is so strong that most leading cities (rather than designers) are experimenting with these approaches. The learnings from these movements need to be incorporated into agile city-making for the era of digital transformation.


MAKE AN IMPACT IN THREE STEPS

Overcome challenges that limit your progress on your big goals. Use a simple three step process to make an impact in your city. The steps:

  1. Engage.

  2. Accelerate.

  3. Adapt.

Contact us for an initial consultation about your goals.

What is Design-led city-making?

What is Design-led city-making?

DESIGN-LED URBANISM

Design-led city-making emerged as a response to the failings of the urban engineering paradigm. Places were so focussed on functionality that they lost all meaning and we only optimised for a narrow range of uses. Many cities are suffering from the impacts of this paradigm.

Designers have begun adding meaning and quality back into cities. Yet, it’s a costly and slow process to reverse the damage caused by urban engineering. Professional design consultancies are competent in making well-designed, functional places with beautiful aesthetics. Yet, often the degree of people-friendlyness appears to depend on a designer's focus or passion, and the client's preferences and brief.

Sometimes, lay-people summarise the short-comings as a ‘lack of soul’. A common criticism is that these places can feel too sterile, but when they're done well (such as Sydney's Goods Line or NYC's High Line) people use them in great numbers. Sometimes design-led projects include prototyping but the focus may be on materials testing or the planting palette. These designers want to make something that lasts.

Design-led projects tend to be larger and require greater resources and longer timeframes to implement. This leads to the feeling that they're too slow, and become out of touch as the context changes quickly around them. In addition, large projects are politically fragile and can become first on the chopping block when an administration changes despite the waste of resources by scrapping years of planning, design, and community goodwill.

The dynamics of built masterplanned projects leads to new places needing ongoing nurturing to ensure long term success. This is place management and by layering experiences over time, truly amazing destinations can be developed as the details and fine grain character of a place begin to complement each other.

 The Goods Line in Sydney is a transformational project which demonstrates the benefits of the design-led strategy. The project is of a high quality and is well used. It is not an original idea but it is a great example of transfer of the linear park concept to reuse a railway corridor from Paris to New York to Sydney. At this stage in its life you can clearly see the hand of the single-designer.

The Goods Line in Sydney is a transformational project which demonstrates the benefits of the design-led strategy. The project is of a high quality and is well used. It is not an original idea but it is a great example of transfer of the linear park concept to reuse a railway corridor from Paris to New York to Sydney. At this stage in its life you can clearly see the hand of the single-designer.


MAKE AN IMPACT IN THREE STEPS

Overcome challenges that limit your progress on your big goals. Use a simple three step process to make an impact in your city. The steps:

  1. Engage.

  2. Accelerate.

  3. Adapt.

Contact us for an initial consultation about your goals.

Start-up concepts: validation

Start-up concepts: validation

Validation and the learning cycle

The learning cycle is the starting point for the Lean Startup for city-making. In business the goal is to make a successful product or service which nurtures a specific business model, while in city-making the goal is to make successful places which make an impact on peoples' lives. A key to the Lean Startup is to admit that every action you take to make an impact in a city has an element of uncertainty. This can be difficult for design professionals and experts who have thrived on their expert knowledge being unquestioned.

The level of uncertainty in a project can vary from inconsequential to extremely high. The effects of uncertainty become magnified with the amount of resources involved in a project and how important a project element is perceived to be. The learning loop focusses on testing the most important assumptions in your project with the minimum resources as quickly as possible. To reduce uncertainty ideas need to be tested and to achieve validated learning the lean startup focuses on three questions:

 From The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, 2011.

From The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, 2011.

  1. What do we want to learn?

  2. How do we measure it?

  3. What do we need to build?

The goal of the learning loop (Build - Measure - Learn) is to get through the whole cycle as quickly as possible. This process is called validation. The result of validation is knowing that an idea was worth doing.

Yet, in some placemaking and tactical urbanism projects with communities, the focus drifts directly on to 'what should we build?'. After all, people involved in placemaking projects really want action (the fun part) rather than another talkfest, so, the focus on doing is acceptable for community members.

However, staying disciplined and focussing on learning makes the difference between a scattergun approach with unmeasured benefits and a virtuous cycle which will add increasing value to a community through each iteration. We believe this aspect - focussing on the entire learning loop - is where professional city-makers need to sharpen their skills and be more valuable to their communities.

  Validating a waterfront market   Fleur Lincoln at Napier City Council wanted to learn if the community would use the waterfront for a twilight market. She suspected there was latent demand for night-time events but the waterfront and city-centre are quiet at night. So, significant uncertainty existed about how a twilight market would perform. With a commitment to a monthly market over four months she was able to test additional questions involving liquor licensing and the supply of alcohol at a public event. The success of the market led to a demand to test the market in the middle of winter. The market's management has since been professionalised. (Photo credit: Napier City Council)

Validating a waterfront market

Fleur Lincoln at Napier City Council wanted to learn if the community would use the waterfront for a twilight market. She suspected there was latent demand for night-time events but the waterfront and city-centre are quiet at night. So, significant uncertainty existed about how a twilight market would perform. With a commitment to a monthly market over four months she was able to test additional questions involving liquor licensing and the supply of alcohol at a public event. The success of the market led to a demand to test the market in the middle of winter. The market's management has since been professionalised. (Photo credit: Napier City Council)

What next?

The bias toward action of the startup approach has helped our clients to reduce risk and cost, and accelerate outcomes and build relationships with place stakeholders and delighted their communities. The startup approach is great for quickly establishing a rhythm of of build-measure-learn for projects when resources are available. Yet cities are not businesses and the regulatory environment in which they operate can cause headaches for city makers. The start-up approach needs to be combined with the traditions of urbanism.


MAKE AN IMPACT IN THREE STEPS

Overcome challenges that limit your progress on your big goals. Use a simple three step process to make an impact in your city. The steps:

  1. Engage.

  2. Accelerate.

  3. Adapt.

Contact us for an initial consultation about your goals.

Start-up concepts: the minimum viable product.

Start-up concepts: the minimum viable product.

THE MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT

Use of the MVP concept for validation is aided by thinking of a place as a product with features. The features can be anything required to test your ideas, for example, defining the place spatially, changing its meaning through art, adding new activities to invite people to spend more time, providing varied seating and so on. It's important not to attempt to do any more than necessary to accelerate execution and to reduce complexity (this is known as capacity constraint). The MVP concept requires two judgement calls, you must decide on:

  1. The features which need to be included in the prototype to adequately test what you want to learn.

  2. The quality of features that you need to test your predictions or hypotheses.

  Urban innovations are exported and adapted around the world   There is now a huge variety of successful examples for cities to make great places and build city life. City makers can emulate successful cities and put their local unique twist on a concept and scale it up or down to their community's size. An example of this adaptation is  a street food market on Copenhagen's waterfront  where the vendors are inside the warehouse and protected from the Scandinavian climate. This type of project creates huge social value for a city's social life and diversifies its social offering so we need better methods to import and adapt ideas. The Lean Startup is one of the best we've encountered.

Urban innovations are exported and adapted around the world

There is now a huge variety of successful examples for cities to make great places and build city life. City makers can emulate successful cities and put their local unique twist on a concept and scale it up or down to their community's size. An example of this adaptation is a street food market on Copenhagen's waterfront where the vendors are inside the warehouse and protected from the Scandinavian climate. This type of project creates huge social value for a city's social life and diversifies its social offering so we need better methods to import and adapt ideas. The Lean Startup is one of the best we've encountered.

The MVP is a flexible concept for learning how to make a successful place because it is contextual. After testing the initial set of features, new versions of the MVP can be created. Importantly, features which do not work should be removed or adapted to make space for features that do add value.

The Lean Startup is strategic by design - the direction is known but the exact route to getting there is not determined, and most importantly it anticipates that the direction will likely change once learning occurs with the users in the real world. The author of the Lean Startup provides the analogy of driving a car (Lean startup) versus launching a rocket (traditional business plans). Masterplans maximise risks for the client as assumptions underpinning the plan are not tested (i.e. traditional business plans are like the 'rocket' in the analogy). The Lean Startup which uses prototyping to learn and reduce uncertainty minimises risk for clients. Our experience with clients testing out this analogy has found it is easily understood and useful for a broad range of audiences and facilitates good discussions on the strategy of creating a successful place as people understand that there is no one right answer.

  Napier's first MVP   Napier's first 'urban oasis' March 2015 - a pop-up space on Market St had the following features (from near to far): box seating, market umbrellas, bean bags, artificial turf, and a small buskers stage. The judgement call on quality impacted on the quality of materials used to finish the seating boxes and the design of the turf - an Art Deco pattern to match one of Napier's heritage characteristics.  Through the learning loop, Napier Council found that the buskers stage was not being used as buskers preferred performing next to the flow of people along the footpath on Emerson St rather than performing at the urban oasis where people hung-out. The stage was removed in iterations of the oasis, and bistro style seating was tested in the same location.

Napier's first MVP

Napier's first 'urban oasis' March 2015 - a pop-up space on Market St had the following features (from near to far): box seating, market umbrellas, bean bags, artificial turf, and a small buskers stage. The judgement call on quality impacted on the quality of materials used to finish the seating boxes and the design of the turf - an Art Deco pattern to match one of Napier's heritage characteristics.

Through the learning loop, Napier Council found that the buskers stage was not being used as buskers preferred performing next to the flow of people along the footpath on Emerson St rather than performing at the urban oasis where people hung-out. The stage was removed in iterations of the oasis, and bistro style seating was tested in the same location.

What next?

The bias toward action of the startup approach has helped our clients to reduce risk and cost, and accelerate outcomes and build relationships with place stakeholders and delighted their communities. The startup approach is great for quickly establishing a rhythm of of build-measure-learn for projects when resources are available. Yet cities are not businesses and the regulatory environment in which they operate can cause headaches for city makers. The start-up approach needs to be combined with the traditions of urbanism.


MAKE AN IMPACT IN THREE STEPS

Overcome challenges that limit your progress on your big goals. Use a simple three step process to make an impact in your city. The steps:

  1. Engage.

  2. Accelerate.

  3. Adapt.

Contact us for an initial consultation about your goals.

Start-up concepts: the pivot.

Start-up concepts: the pivot.

THE PIVOT- A CHANGE IN STRATEGY

All ideas for action are based on a strategy - whether it's well articulated or not (the shadow strategy) - and so, there are a series of assumptions and predictions about who users are, their priorities, and what will happen when they encounter your idea in a place.

One of the greatest benefits of the Lean Startup approach for city-making is changing focus from what people say about an idea to what people do - their actual response to a prototype. In cities there is pressure to engage people, consult stakeholders, gain feedback and so on, yet this can backfire by providing misleading input into decision-making - people don't always do what they say. In the startup world there is now an understanding that it is better to put forward a prototype and develop it over time through feedback from user behaviour. In the Lean Startup the execution of the idea is the engagement with the user.

  Time to change strategy - a pivot   Not every action is going to be successful as demonstrated on this public chalkboard based on the 'before I die' phenomenon. This failed experiment was removed and replaced with new features developed from a new strategy for the place. The strategy pivot zoomed in to a specific user-group by creating a child-friendly play space in the street to attract mums with kids.

Time to change strategy - a pivot

Not every action is going to be successful as demonstrated on this public chalkboard based on the 'before I die' phenomenon. This failed experiment was removed and replaced with new features developed from a new strategy for the place. The strategy pivot zoomed in to a specific user-group by creating a child-friendly play space in the street to attract mums with kids.

Design capabilities and start-up methods

It is crucial for city-making with the startup approach to include design capabilities in a team to distill new or remixed ideas into propositions for urban innovation. Because, when a prediction or hypothesis about an idea is invalidated the team needs to make a decision about the strategy which lead to the idea. Including professional designers helps to overcome the phenomenon of 'pet projects' and hurt feelings that can arise in community-led placemaking projects when an idea needs to be killed off or radically changed.

The Lean Startup uses the phrase "pivot or persevere" for this decision point. The pivot involves a new strategic direction, whereas persevering involves tinkering with the existing ideas.

In placemaking, local governments are typically risk averse and failure can be criticised both inside the organisation and by the users and stakeholders involved in a place. Our experience shows that at the pivot or persevere moment, its critical to demonstrate commitment to the place and stakeholders - the relationships with business people and residents is often built on shaky ground when starting out and building trust needs to be a priority. This means quickly addressing any issues, and also to committing to a new direction with skill and rapid execution when necessary. Nurturing relationships over time through placemaking is a key benefit of the startup approach - relationships become less transactional and more collaborative as more prototypes and successes are experienced.

  A new direction   The second iteration of lower Emerson St after a strategy pivot to target mums with kids. The board was repurposed to provide info about the library, play features, seating, a little library, and a toy library were added. A safety barrier was also created which incorporated a mural from a local street artist. The change in strategy was successful with both use of the area increasing and good user feedback. (Photo credit: Napier City Council)

A new direction

The second iteration of lower Emerson St after a strategy pivot to target mums with kids. The board was repurposed to provide info about the library, play features, seating, a little library, and a toy library were added. A safety barrier was also created which incorporated a mural from a local street artist. The change in strategy was successful with both use of the area increasing and good user feedback. (Photo credit: Napier City Council)


What next?

The bias toward action of the startup approach has helped our clients to reduce risk and cost, and accelerate outcomes and build relationships with place stakeholders and delighted their communities. The startup approach is great for quickly establishing a rhythm of of build-measure-learn for projects when resources are available. Yet cities are not businesses and the regulatory environment in which they operate can cause headaches for city makers.


MAKE AN IMPACT IN THREE STEPS

Overcome challenges that limit your progress on your big goals. Use a simple three step process to make an impact in your city. The steps:

  1. Engage.

  2. Accelerate.

  3. Adapt.

Contact us for an initial consultation about your goals.

Why is progress so slow in city-making?

Why is progress so slow in city-making?

Why is progress so slow?

In the age of the digitally interconnected cities the speed that ideas spread around is phenomenal. City-makers are bombarded with these ideas through many sources.

The internet and social media platforms such as instagram have democratised awareness of exemplary projects. The examples which community members and professionals bring to project engagements are very similar (if not the same) in towns, small regional cities, or in metro cities. It demonstrates a desire for creative, people-friendly places regardless of the scale and context of a place.

If most people want to live in a people-friendly place, then why is it so difficult to introduce urban innovations that make a city better.

 A street based playground in Amsterdam.

A street based playground in Amsterdam.

a Barrier to progress

It appears that a barrier exists in transferring and executing ideas from one place to another for public spaces. The barrier seems to affect the private sector less with developers and business owners more rapidly implementing global trends and copying design languages to stay relevant to customers. The commercial logic demands that they keep up, or go out of business.

However, with public space projects involving multiple voices the familiar "that won't work here" or "this isn't [insert place name]" arguments easily dominate. It's a frustrating situation when there are many good examples of urbanism which could be transferred from place to place with little effort. The additional effort to manage these common arguments and community dynamics is a massive source of waste. The logic is different for a ‘free’ resource.

This is not to suggest that all ideas which have worked in one context will work in another. But that there are challenges with:

  • The transfer of city-making ideas.

  • How city-makers are proposing new ideas to communities for buildings and places.

  • How communities manage learning from failure, and the attitude to risk.

If the old ways of doing things are ineffective, then city-makers need to systematically improve how they work.

In the era of digital transformation city-makers need to master a new skillset (strategy, network power, agility) and work in different ways that overcome the challenges caused by old approaches.


MAKE AN IMPACT IN THREE STEPS

Overcome challenges that limit your progress on your big goals. Use a simple three step process to make an impact in your city. The steps:

  1. Engage.

  2. Accelerate.

  3. Adapt.

Contact us for an initial consultation about your goals.

Good urbanism and urban innovations

Good urbanism and urban innovations

Our instagram account is urbankin_design. It's a collection of urbanism and urban innovations from around Australia and abroad. Follow us if you like to geek out on:

#urbanism #urbandesign #architecture #landscapearchitecture #landscape #publicspace #placemaking #cities #citymaking #citylife #urban #design #humancentreddesign #anthropology #userexperience #citiesforpeople