Editor’s note: Do you ever wonder what it’s like for city staff when there’s an abundance of enthusiasm for new ideas from neighborhood advocates? Here is a candid take from champions among the City of Charlotte staff. This conversation was spurred in response to their recent work to support and measure the impact of a community-led pilot plaza in the Historic West End.
Two Charlotte planners’ take on encouraging community-driven placemaking
Charlotte has some wonderfully creative and passionate neighborhood advocates! As city staff we are fortunate to have relationships with “doers” and “makers” in our community who want to improve their neighborhoods. We love the creative, inexpensive, collaborative, and flexible public space solutions that our neighborhood advocates bring to us. Unfortunately, our current customer experience sounds a lot like this:
Neighborhood Advocates (NA): Here’s our idea! What do you think?
City Officials (CO): Sounds great. Are you sure you can’t do this on private property?
NA: We’d really like to use public space to create a neighborhood amenity.
CO: Ok, well how are you going to deal with handicap access and long-term maintenance?
NA: No problem. We’ll handle it this way…
CO: How can we be sure that the neighborhood is on board?
NA: The neighborhood association vetted the idea for us. In fact, we just got a local business on board to help sponsor the project! We can have 10 letters of support by tomorrow if you’d like.
CO: Ok, well we’re not sure how we can allow this to happen in our current permitting system. Give us a few weeks to discuss with our supervisors and the different city departments that might be involved.
NA: It’s been a couple months. Any updates?
CO: We’re still not quite sure what to do with this. Here’s another list of questions from our supervisors and co-workers for you to think about.
NA: Alright. We’ve answered all your questions. Can we move forward?
CO: Yes, you’ve answered all our questions, but we really need you to submit all this information together in some kind of application package. You might need to hire an engineer or a lawyer to get it all together.
NA: Really? Ok. What should that look like?
CO: Let me confirm what we need. I’ll have to get back to you. Are you sure you still want to do this?
NA: YES! I thought you liked the idea?
CO: We do! We LOVE it. We just have to cover all our bases…
CO: Ok, your materials look good, but we’re still not sure we can allow this.
NA: Why not?
CO: We’re afraid it might set a precedent and open up a can of worms for us. What if everyone wanted to do it? We’re also waiting for the Transit Agency, Charlotte Fire, Stormwater Services and Risk Management to get back to us. Just give us a few more months.
NA: Never mind. This isn’t worth it.
5 Points Plaza before // Image Credit: Gehl
5 Points Plaza before // Image Credit: Gehl
Hurdle after hurdle, it’s easy to see how that conversation frustrates our neighborhood leaders. We share that frustration as city staff! This certainly isn’t negligence nor is it a lack of enthusiasm for the fun and creative ideas that people bring us. Charlotte city staff are intelligent, thorough, risk averse, and professional, and even relentlessly gracious and personable throughout sometimes frustrating interactions. They are simply doing their jobs to protect the city and the public in the best way they can.
The outlook of city staff is not the problem. The problem is that city staff aren’t equipped with processes to deal with creative placemaking requests in the public right-of-way. We don’t have an easy way to say yes, so we are forced to handle individual requests on an ad hoc basis and scramble to figure out answers to difficult questions.
Over the past couple years Charlotte has been involved with Gehl in a fascinating effort to survey and transform public space in Charlotte’s West End neighborhood. That experience with Gehl, and with Charlotte’s fantastic neighborhood advocates, has allowed us to take a second look at our ad hoc response to placemaking initiatives in the public right-of-way. It has also exposed our city staff to the innovative solutions that have been developed in places like Memphis, NYC, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Boulder.
Charlotte city staff now has a working group in place to deliver a placemaking manual for Charlotte – a tool that will put city officials and neighborhood advocates on a more even playing field. Instead of jumping one hurdle after another, we have outlined the work required to be done upfront, based on our experience with the Five Points pilot project. Our manual will allow us to be more nimble and responsive by establishing a framework for all kinds of placemaking/pilot projects. Ultimately this effort will allow us to say “YES!” more quickly, more confidently, and more often when people bring us great ideas. Through our partnership with Gehl, we are moving toward an experience that will (hopefully) sound a lot more like this:
NA: Here’s our idea! What do you think?
CO: Sounds great! We’re thrilled you want to help us enliven our streets! In fact, we’ve already thought about some locations where that idea could work really well.
NA: Wow! Is there anything else we should be thinking about?
CO: Everything you need to know is in our placemaking guide. Just let us know if you have any questions while you prepare your application.
NA: Thank you!
5 Points Plaza after // Image Credit: J’Tanya Adams
5 Points Plaza after // Image Credit: Monica Holmes
Monica Holmes – City of Charlotte, NC: Urban Design
Scott Curry – City of Charlotte, NC: Department of Transportation