By Matt Golas
PlanPhilly Managing Editor
As the design pros and concerned public work together to conjure a lasting vision for seven miles of Delaware River waterfront I need to consider something elemental first.
What do we mean by the word design.
Merriam-Webster defines it as “deliberate purposive planning.”
That concept is fairly simple if you apply the broadest possible range of meaning.
At face value, cavemen considered design when they placed the fire near the cave mouth and used charcoal to draw images on the cave walls of animals they hunted.
So design is deliberative. The opposite of accidental.
OK. Then why do accidents occur in the design world?
You’ve seen them.
The bridge looks beautiful but doesn’t meet the vehicular needs of the two cities it connects.
The parking lot next to the big box store can hold 1,500 cars but is never more than half full.
The highway off-ramp empties onto an even busier road and backs up like bad plumbing.
The trees that were planted 10 years ago and once beautifully framed the back yard, now block that fantastic view everyone loved of the park.
At night, the lights in the skyscrapers on the riverfront look magical when we view them from miles away. By day, the monoliths are grossly out of scale with the human activity that takes place in their shadows. Through their mere presence, they destroy the connection between the river and the community it runs through.
These situations developed because we failed to properly evaluate the myriad values that the environment, politics, finances, social issues, human preferences, the art world and the geography of the sites themselves impart on the planning and design process.
In a nutshell, these scenarios never had to play out.
That’s because, oddly, all we needed to do was identify the inherent problems in a site before we set to designing and building and living in the product we created.
Sounds cart-before-the-horse counter-intuitive doesn’t it?
Yep, but it works.
In their straightforward book simply called Site Planning, Kevin Lynch and Gary Hack tell us the old masters of architecture approached the creation of a site plan in much the same way oil painters saw their subjects as they layed out their palette.
“Its aim is moral and esthetic: to make places which enhance everyday life – which liberate their inhabitants and give them a sense of the world they live in.”
Lynch and Hack also make it clear that was the mantra of the old art of design and planning. You see the big picture because you scrutinize and measure all the small details that connect in a continuum and form the whole.
Today, when that careful contemplation is not valued, the resulting product can be different. According to the authors; keywords like “shallow, careless and ugly” represent the product produced by much of present society’s site planning because design often only exists on a foundation of political, economic and institutional realities.
So, as we work on the future of our riverfront, let’s get back to Lynch and Hack’s most intriguing premise: defining the problem.
Then lay out some examples, using the present project on the Delaware River.
Q. “For whom is the place being made?”
A. The citizens of Philadelphia.
Q. “For what purposes?
A. To value the working river, access, recreation, open space, the environment, scale.
Q. “Who will decide what the form will be?
A. The people will engage each other and discover their vision.
Q. “What resources can be used?
A. Match the hopes and dreams of the people with the skills of world-class architects, urban planners and landscape designers.
Q. “What type of solution is expected?
A. A waterfront plan that endures the test of time.
Q. “In what location will it be built?
A. Seven miles of diverse, multi-use Delaware riverfront.
There is a practical application to this approach facing the citizens of Philadelphia as they look at seven miles of Central Delaware Riverfront and try to imagine what that stretch could look like if we appropriately connect the dots that are human behavior, quality design and structure and environmental requirements.
According to the experts, the best design practices for the Delaware River revisioning process will come out of the answers we find for questions that emerge when we examine problems integrated into the site planning structure, such as, what to do with the working port? How do we ensure public access to the river? What’s the best way to remake of the character of Delaware Avenue as it gets Boulevard status? How do we make sure the connections back to the neighborhoods that are adjacent to the river are healthy? How do we guarantee the quality of development?
And out of these larger issues we will have to find answers to problems that are at the core of the exercise.
For instance, William Penn established the public realm in Philadelphia by growing the city out and around five public squares that were pure public space. A problem now might be finding a way to let the public control the public realm. Developers may want to control that space but we should identify that inclination as a problem, make it clear what is public and private and move on through the process.
Another area of problem identification is being able to work within the realities of riverfront development that is already set in stone.
The casinos that may be built along the seven-mile stretch are a good example. A problem solving approach is using communication and outreach to see where compromises can be reached in terms of public access to the river around casinos as well as transportation and infrastructure tradeoffs that may have to be made because of increased traffic in high density areas.
Lots of questions.
A need for answers before we can move forward with a plan.