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Letter: Planners vs. Searchers

To the Editor:

The critical knowledge that defines a place like Old Town is so special that it cannot be found anywhere but in the minds and hearts of those who live there. Searching out diverse, non-city appointed, residents to be a part of the startup design team that imagines the first design framework is crucial to producing a viable and unique expression of place. Doing this would immediately filter out those elements that are commonplace and emphasize those that resonate with the people who know it best, the locals.

A recent book talks in depth about the importance of searching for local knowledge, and how the general principles of planning are never as awesome as the collective, local accord. Planners’ insistence that they know best is often seen in the way generic design, frequently inharmonious, pops up in the midst of complex urban areas. A stove pipe mentality can create false confidence, sense of final solution, and myopic pride of product. James Scott, a political scientist, calls this “an invitation to practical failure, social disillusionment, or most likely both.” The waterfront’s development process and the generic model we have before us couldn’t be described more accurately.

This prescriptive and stubborn development approach is the most notable feature of the City of Alexandria’s recent “planning” efforts. And despite its repeated failure — most spectacularly on the waterfront but also with Beauregard — it is now being relentlessly pursued for defining Gen-On’s 25 acres. Once again, the critical first step in creating a design vision is being handed off to a consulting company for a mere $350,000. In the realm of great design, this is not much. In fact, for that amount of money unless you have truly exceptional internal staff, you will probably get a cliché.

What is missing at the start is engaging the wide variety of local intelligence, and the community’s shared vision of place and itself. The city further increases the odds of achieving maximum mediocre by deliberately sidestepping the considerable bank of local skills that citizens would bring to this early design.

As Scott would have us understand, a consultant’s general principles cannot create even a rudimentary vision of a distinctive place, because the place those principles reflect is so complex and “non-repeatable”, e.g. parking and traffic flows in a historic district bounded by a river, that failure to express its unique nature is guaranteed.

In essence “searching” is fundamentally ferreting out a large dollop of local intelligence and adding it to create a exclusive and extraordinary expression of the place. Instead of using a single outside “planner” viewpoint to arrange and emphasize the generic and then shoehorn the particular character of Alexandria into it, we could — from the start — make a landscape that is ours alone.

Let’s talk about it and change the way we do development from “planning” from the outside in, to “searching” from the inside out to knit a more resilient and remarkable locale.

Kathryn Papp