13 October 2006

IDEO’s urban pre-planning [Metropolis Magazine]

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Revitalization 18th & Vine
“Eighteenth and Vine—Kansas City’s historic but down-and-out jazz district—had a vision problem,” reports Andrew Blum in Metropolis Magazine. Then the Kansas City−based Kauffman Foundation came in and made it possible for the neighbourhood’s Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation to hire IDEO’s Smart Space practice to help develop a vision for the neighborhood.

“In 2000 IDEO had begun supplementing its industrial-design work with a growing interest in designing spaces, including hospitals, schools, and hotels. A couple of years ago that scale shifted again, to the point that the work of IDEO’s Smart Space practice, led by architect Fred Dust, now looks a lot like urban planning—but not in any conventional sense. Instead of doing massing studies or land-use plans, laying out infrastructure, writing zoning codes, or proposing blockbuster museums, IDEO’s Smart Space group articulates the spirit of a place but leaves its realization to the clients: developers, park conservancies, or hospitality companies.”

[The IDEO team applied] “the multidisciplinary method they bring to nearly all their projects. […] Part anthropology (with IDEO’s trained anthropologists), part site exploration (with IDEO’s trained architects), part documentary filmmaking (with IDEO’s trained media artists), their approach is to seek the qualitative essence of the community from the perspective of the community.”

Blum juxtaposes the traditional urban planning approach with the idea-based approach taken by IDEO, which he sees as related to branding, marketing and “honed in the corporate world”.

“The firm deliberately dodges all the “technical” parts of urban planning: arranging infrastructure, determining financing, and navigating the public process. Instead it practices urban planning as branding: define the spirit of a place and then let others articulate that spirit—whether in bricks, mortar, tax breaks, or billboards. IDEO claims accountability only for its ideas.”

“It’s not clear that works, mostly because it’s too early to tell—but also because the team at IDEO is messing with the DNA of the planning process. They’re changing it from a concrete process of infrastructure and building to an imagined one of narrative and identity; they’re exchanging the idea of a place for place itself. In an urban realm already threatened by privatization—not just by developers but by a broader trend toward place-making as marketing—IDEO’s approach could be seen to further erode the idea of city-building as a democratic process (if it ever was) because of the way it applies the shiny language of marketing to the gritty mixed-up world of the city. As IDEO emphasizes, its communication skills have been honed in the corporate world, and its “user centered” approach is often cast as a particularly empathetic version of market research.”

Despite this initial criticism, Blum goes on to laud the allure, freshness and independence of the IDEO approach and praises their skill in interpreting the voice of the people.

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