• Steve Price

Out from under illusory "Realism"

Updated: Apr 9, 2018

There are always good reasons for not doing the right thing.

Years ago I served on the design review board (DRB) of my home town in the San Francisco Bay Area. On the board, I was the only soul who was not an architect. I got my degree in sociology. My only credential was that I thought my community should have more visible pedestrians and bicyclists. I called myself an urbanist, a word without much currency back then. The fact that I was an advocate for good urban form—whatever that meant—convinced the city council to appoint me.

The architects on the DRB were used to focusing their work on the inside of build-able lots, not how their work affects the street and walkability. In the process of dealing with real-world development applications before the DRB, I raised urban questions that provoked the architects.

To their credit (these were professionals who by nature enjoyed wrestling with problems through design), they grew to think outside the parcel, that architecture has consequences for more than just building occupants. The design review board became dedicated urbanists.

Development applicants who came before us would routinely push back, objecting to our requests to put parking in the rear, windows on the front, a door visible from the sidewalk. Applicants who didn’t share our urban convictions (that was most of them) saw the DRB as capriciously trying to enforce members’ personal tastes. And the DRB didn’t have strong back-up from the city. The zoning ordinance was no help. Walkability was clearly not its intent. (Nobody really knew its intent, so we didn’t look at it much.)

Fighting a culture war

Education on urban design was in order, but half-hour project reviews didn’t afford the time to teach applicants Urbanism 101. Instead we typically had to negotiate compromises with applicants: parking to the side rather than the back; a door on the front, but not the main entrance; facade windows with storage rooms behind, thus not affording eyes on the street. All this compromising with people who lacked the urban spirit and had no idea why all this fussy design was necessary, was dispiriting, especially while knowing that the compromises would sit there for as long as the building stood.

The applicants always had “very good” practical reasons why they couldn’t meet our requests: the changes wouldn’t pencil out; seeing into the building would impose a security risk; the applicant already had spent too much money on architects fees to make changes. City staff also pushed back: Street trees shouldn't be planted in front of buildings because utility lines were under the sidewalks; we shouldn’t be too critical of projects that had the potential for generating lucrative tax revenues; we shouldn’t say anything that might put off an applicant who was beloved in the community and had served on the city council.

The DRB's advocacy for better urbanism was frustrated with depressing predictability. It seemed like little we said was practical. All this off-putting “realism” made it feel like we were fighting a culture war; our own culture seemed unsympathetic to community as a physical thing.

The gathering storm

My city had a reputation for being liberal and environmental, but there wasn’t a shared understanding in town as to what the physical form of community was. Social and environmental problems were understood as the problems of individuals and the unintended consequences of technology, not the physical form of a city. For the DRB, being portrayed as unrealistic was particularly maddening. We knew that all this compromising was community death by a thousand cuts—hardly a liberal objective. There was pressure building in the hearts and minds of the DRB members.

One project that the DRB got excited about was dear to its values of walkability, transit-oriented development, and creating social space. It was a streetscape project right next to a commuter train station. The city went through some public workshops asking citizens what they wanted for the street. A main street environment was what people overwhelmingly hoped for. The city then hired an urban design firm who created a plan with wider sidewalks, street trees, street lamps, narrower travel lanes, and diagonal parking. The job of the DRB was to husband the plan along making refinements to insure success. We all felt good about the prospects.

But then the public works director showed up. Under the hoped-for diagonal parking was a sewer line. We couldn’t have cars parking on top of manholes! The diagonal parking had to go. This meant scuttling the plan and its street cross section—and starting all over again.

I remember the anger of Bruce, one of our members. The constant compromising had finally gone too far.

He turned to the public works director and said, “The public wants this streetscape. The DRB wants it.” The public works director said that a fix would be too expensive; it can’t be done.

Bruce replied that the director is supposed to serve the community.

“Yes, but the engineering says that it’s not realistic,” replied the director.

Bruce was undeterred: “This is not the DRB’s problem. This is public works’ problem.”

The cart and the horse

This brings to mind Steve Jobs’s angry replies to his own engineers who repeatedly told him that his design ideas for the iPhone were unrealistic. Jobs’s response: at Apple, design dictates the engineering, not the other way around. Bruce and the DRB knew that the future growth and well-being of the community should not hinge on the reluctance of engineers to rethink manholes. That evening’s meeting ended on a testy note with nobody feeling good about things. I came back from the meeting feeling discouraged and inadequate to the task of urban advocacy. The “realists” had won.

Or so I thought. Things that seem solid and immovable can succumb to constant pressure. Even gravestones erode in time. Fortunately the increment of time was not long for this project. The city council was expecting movement.

At the next month’s DRB meeting, the public works director showed up with a solution: he could relocate the manholes to the sidewalks; not a perfect solution, but the sewers could be easily accessed in an emergency, and the relocation wouldn’t cost that much. Soon after the street was rebuilt according to plan. Over the years I’ve never seen the city access the sewer through those manholes.

Faith-based urbanism

If you're lucky, you'll live in a city that goes through a planning process that produces a plan that excites a developer who then builds what the community wants, and NIMBYs don’t bring lawsuits. But absent an angelic developer, sometimes you just need to continuously push an understanding, that you need to be patient with what it takes to change minds and that the short-term concerns of opponents will fall away in time. You gotta keep the faith. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That’s only if moral actions are persistently applied. Urbanism will happen. So will sprawl, but it’s not guided by conviction and vision. Urbanists have a moral advantage if they have the patience.

Moral advantage is not dogmatism. Dogmatism shouldn’t be mistaken for vision—development details need to be worked out through respectful and patient discussion. It took numerous DRB meetings for a common understanding of urbanist design to gel among all the members. But it happened. After the DRB had this understanding, we still had to deal with property owners, developers, and city staff who didn't share that understanding.

At the DRB, members didn’t shy away from sharing with the others what they knew and learned about good urban design. Our city council members assigned to the meetings as liaisons said they enjoyed DRB meetings because of the interesting ideas raised by dealing with tangible problems. Even many development applicants appreciated the learning atmosphere. DRB meetings were a place of group learning.

Remarkably now, years later, urban design ideas that drew derision in the past, are no longer very controversial. Moral passion, persistent advocacy, public education, and a multitude of conversations paid off. As I write these words, the city has fourteen different development applications before it. Nine are fully entitled, and a handful are under construction. They all face the street, put parking to the rear, are accessible from the sidewalk, have street-facing doors and windows, and generally meet or exceed the expectations of the DRB of many years ago.