Lean Startups and the Rise of Iterative Placemaking

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View from M@dison Building rooftop overlooking Grand Circle Park, in Detroit, Michigan.

Sometimes, when people hear “Code for America” they might assume that we fellows are all computer programmers, but quite a few of us have backgrounds in architecture, urban design, city planning, community organizing, transportation, and housing policy. And we are metaphorically tied to technology—after all, software engineers use terms that were adapted from the building trades, such as “architecture” or “development.” Even versions of software are called “builds.”

Now that computers and the internet are ubiquitous in our lives, urban enthusiasts have begun re-incorporating the language of technology back into cities, describing buildings and infrastructure as hardware, and its citizens and its activities as software.

Here at Code for America, we’ve adopted a Lean Startup software development strategy: experiment, fail early, learn quickly—then iterate, and repeat. Urbanists are learning from this as well, for instance, in the grass-roots rise of Tactical Uranism and DIY Urbanism. Long-term master plans, it turns out, are like year-long software cycles: they don’t adapt well to changing circumstances, don’t benefit from a constant feedback loop from various users and stakeholders, and a lot of resources can be spent on a project that’s already deeply flawed by the time it’s released.

When I started looking into Lean Startups and agile development, I realized that it’s essentially the tech version of Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper (or LQC), a strategy for local incremental planning promoted by the Project for Public Spaces. And when they announced their first Placemaking Leadership Council to discuss and formulate the next steps around these ideas, I eagerly jumped aboard.

Attendees gather for keynote talks at the Project for Public Spaces Placemaking Leadership Council.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Detroit with 250 other like-minded placemaking leaders, practitioners, and activists, in an workshop-style gathering where groups formed around diverse topics such as “Architecture of Place” or “Place Capital” or “Healthy Communities.” I joined the “Place Governance” group to discuss culture change in government processes and improving engagement within the community—if that sounds familiar, it’s because these goals are exactly in line with our fellowship program and the mission of Code for America.

What transpired over the course of a few short days was inspiring. Placemakers spoke not of singular, one-off projects, but a continuous series of small-scale interventions and modifications to public space toward a larger goal. “We need to think about iterative placemaking,” said Prema Katari Gupta of Philadelphia’s University City District, when talking about the success of the 30th Street Station Plaza.

So Daniel Burnham’s age of “no little plans” may be dead, but at the same time, iterative placemaking doesn’t just mean small—it’s a back and forth process that involves both grass roots do-it-yourself mentality and a concerted effort by governments to embrace it. It means having to completely rethink enforcement and entitlements, and it means having to create metrics to measure the results of each step, learning from it, and informing the next iteration.

Breakfast workshop session on determining metrics for placemaking projects.

“Placemaking is more of a circular, iterative process than just something that happens from the bottom-up.”

—Multi-Use Destinations working group

I’ve seen many pilot projects by municipal agencies over the years, but with broad and sometimes unreachable standards of success, complaints will doom a project to failure, rather than enabling it to be a learning opportunity for future steps.

But with solid metrics in place, an experiment doesn’t need to be a rousing success. During a breakfast group activity where we role-played a multi-disciplinary group in a generic city to determine metrics of a fictional placemaking project, we attempted to determine what good metrics are. While difficult to do well, this work is absolutely essential to the iterative process.

Place Governance working session.

“It’s Placemaking, not Placemade. It’s a process. You are never finished.”

—Place Governance working group

The issue I have with the word “planning” is that it can imply that your role is fulfilled even if you never build anything. What planners should value, then, is executing. If we can think beyond our roles as “urban planners” and more as “urban doers,” we’ll have already begun an iterative placemaking process.

What if, instead of writing “draft” plans, you put out a beta of a park? What if, instead of plotting out the “phase 2″ of a project in 2018, “version 2.0″ was a collection of features based on community feedback that could be implemented by next year? I, for one, am excited to see what possibilities lie in wait for civic technologists to collaborate with placemakers.

You are here (at the M@dison coworking space).

Event photos courtesy of Natalia Radywyl and Project for Public Spaces. Detroit photos Instagram’d by the author.

 
Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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