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Crowd-Sourced Design

December 6, 2013

After eons of frustration, Brandon Palanker thinks developers finally may have found the cure for the seemingly endless gauntlet of government hurdles, stakeholder pushback and last-minute neighbor uprisings that developers must handle to get a project permitted.

Palanker and his colleagues at Long Island, New York-based Renaissance Downtowns, where he is vice president of marketing and public affairs, stumbled on the “cure” in 2010 as they were embarking on a master plan to redevelop downtown Bristol, Conn. It came in the form of crowd-sourced design: using the Internet and social media as tools for maximizing the participation of the host community.

“We knew we didn’t want to run into what we ran into before,” with a similar project, Palanker said. After a process of soliciting input, building support, developing and revising plans that stretched into years, Renaissance found itself stymied by a dozen or so “squeaky wheels” who persuaded the local government to withhold approval. For Bristol — a city of 61,000 about 20 miles outside of Hartford — Renaissance decided to turn to Neil Takemoto, an urban designer who had been focusing on helping cities attract the creative Millennials known for bringing life to urban areas.

“The first rule is, if you want to attract them, you have to involve them,” said Takemoto, managing principal at CSPM Group (CSPM stands for “crowd-sourced placemaking”). Involving them — and other interested residents — meant doing more than presenting an all-but-finished plan for public comment. And it meant doing even more than holding a design charrette, the iterative design process whereby local stakeholders give immediate feedback to an evolving plan over the course of a week or so.

While the charrette is well intended,” Palanker said, “it is very hard to have a truly inclusive process. Even if you do it really well, you’re only engaging a very small portion of the population.” Crowd-sourced design, as Renaissance and others have deployed it, is about building a community of people who have an active interest in the form a project takes, and who remain engaged well beyond the early stages usually thought of as the “design” phase.

“People really are co-developing the project,” Takemoto said. “In the process they are helping with market research, by showing the kind of housing, businesses or other amenities people such as themselves would like to have access to. And by showing strong public support, they are helping the permitting process.”

Ideally, crowd-sourced design begins early in the conceptualization of a development project. And although much of the exchange of ideas and information will happen in the virtual world, it begins by using the Internet to recruit participants to meet-ups where they can engage with the developers and each other in the flesh.

In Bristol, where ESPN and the hospital are the largest employers, residents were being asked to give input on the redevelopment of 17 acres, including a failed, urban-renewal era mall, that the city had assembled in the heart of downtown. Takemoto and Renaissance began by hosting a happy hour in November attended by “maybe 20 people,” one of whom suggested Bristol Rising as the name for the new community of participants they were creating. The name stuck and became the handle for the virtual gathering site on the web. BristolRising.com today has more than 2,000 members. The developers treated the site as more or less a blank slate, but set a key ground rule: The plan would have to meet the “triple bottom line” by being economically feasible as well as socially and environmentally responsible. City officials also said they wanted a mix of housing, businesses and public space to recreate the walkable downtown that was lost in its 1960s makeover.

“After that first meeting we threw it open to collect ideas of what key public features people wanted to see there,” Takemoto said. “We posted those ideas and said whichever ones get 200 ‘likes’ would advance to further study.” The three winners included a central piazza — an open plaza surrounded by buildings; a San Antonio-style river walk; and an arts center, while ideas such as a skating rink fell by the boards. Ultimately, the piazza turned out to be the most popular and promising, and progressed to an economic feasibility study.

The developer team used the same process to seek input on retail and housing options. On the restaurant/retail side, desire for a gastro-pub was so strong that a local entrepreneur immediately began work on opening one; likewise for an organic grocery. On the housing side, two-bedroom apartments proved in high demand. The plan ultimately included 150 units in the first phase, which will break ground soon. Meanwhile Bristol Rising has produced 180 letters of intent to rent there.

To further raise awareness and invite more resident feedback, the developers and Bristol Rising held two “pop-up” piazza events, drawing more than 15,000 people each, Takemoto said. “We wanted to show what kinds of things could happen there.”

The events included a public market with food and crafts vendors, artists painting, kids’ games and other festival style activities. “When elected officials see 20,000 people downtown where there had been nothing, that’s a powerful thing,” added Palanker. The resulting plan won unanimous, bipartisan approval from the city council.

The Bristol experience of grassroots social networking was so positive that Renaissance went on to use it, successfully, in two historically development-averse communities on Long Island. The first was in the town of Huntington, on a project called Huntington Station, a mixed-use project adjacent to a commuter rail station — and to a neighborhood of single-family houses. “That was a tough assignment because residents had been resistance to apartments and multi-story buildings. They felt it was incongruous with their suburban history,” Palanker said. “These suburban towns know they need the tax benefit of development, but no one wants the higher density housing.”

During a year of crowd-sourced placemaking efforts similar to those in Bristol, residents were able to explore and come to terms with, not just designs, but also the economics behind what it would take to get the amenities they preferred. Participants got comfortable enough with the notion of multi-story buildings that support coalesced around bringing in a boutique hotel — something that Renaissance initially resisted as unlikely to “pencil out” financially. “Because they wanted it, we did a feasibility study and found that, gosh darn it, there is a market for it today.

“They also found a strong market for apartments over storefronts, which many in the community had assumed would be unpopular. As in Bristol, the resulting plan there also won unanimous city approval. In a state like New York, where approvals take years and often never happen, to have this key approval to break ground within 18 months is unheard of,” Palanker said.

Crowd-sourced design is taking other forms as well. Sometimes the “crowd” is not laypersons, but a swarm of professional designers, either collaborating or competing with one another to find the best solution. The Cambridge, Mass., startup Arcbazar chose the latter model when it launched in 2010, aiming to give ordinary homeowners the chance to have architects across the Internet compete for their remodeling or similar projects, at a time when there were precious few gigs for architects.

“For a kitchen, renovation, say, homeowners provide the square footage and basic parameters, upload some photos, and we open the competition worldwide,” said Ana Batista, co-founder of Arcbazar. Arcbazar suggests an “award” amount based on square footage, complexity and time allotted, but clients are free to offer whatever they like. The top three proposals receive 60, 30 and 10 percent of the award, respectively. “Homeowners who would otherwise have had to design their projects themselves at Home Depot or with a contractor get a wide range of possible design options,” said Batista. “These projects allow designers to build a portfolio. We have recent grads and young architects trying to build an office, or retired architects who still want to keep the juices flowing.”

Not everyone in the architecture world welcomed competitive crowd-sourcing with open arms. “The moment we started there was a tweet from Dwell magazine calling us the worst thing to happen to architecture since the Internet,” Batista said. “After that we had hundreds of registrations from designers. … The truth is, we pick up the projects that never would have gone to an architect’s office.”

Arcbazar’s style of competitive crowd-sourcing also can be combined with community crowd-sourcing, as Somerville, Mass., did when it was looking for ideas for the adaptive reuse of the abandoned Powder House School. The city used Arcbazar to set up a design competition, eliciting numerous responses that city staff then culled based on pre-established criteria. Those that cleared the bar were put out for residents to evaluate, and those with the most “likes” rose to the top of the city’s consideration.

Sometimes crowd-sourcing means allowing community members to vote with their wallets. In September, Portland, Ore., launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise $100,000 toward creating a shovel-ready design for a 38-acre park for off-road biking, called Gateway Green. As of press time, donations had nearly reached the $100,000 target, with Kaiser Permanente and Coca Cola jumping in to offer matches when they realized how much community support existed.

“Whatever form it takes, crowd-sourcing will increasingly shape the built world we inhabit,” Takemoto said. “It may be the ultimate extension of the democratic process.”