Civic Innovation
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Civic Innovation

fruit fence by chacha sikes, an urban prototyping project

Better Permits, Better Cities

How Hacking City Policy Can Improve the Public Realm

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody. - Jane Jacobs

Cities are at their best when they change with their citizens; when, to quote Rebar principal Matthew Passmore, “a city’s evolution keeps pace with its own cultural evolution.” Unfortunately, cities are often preventing themselves from doing just that - from being responsive enough to their own changing dynamics to continue existing as accurate reflections of and platforms for their own cultures. Outdated permitting processes are keeping a large swath of promising projects in art, design, technology, and other modes of expression from ever becoming part of the urban landscape. Along the way, cities are missing opportunities to add economic and cultural value in a time of constrained resources.

In other words: cities can be more healthy, engaging, beautiful and productive if they make it easier for citizens to contribute to making them so.

Historically, projects that alter the public realm have been generally divided into two camps: those that play by the rules (city-sanctioned installations, community murals) and those that don’t (graffiti, vandalism). Recently, this dichotomy has been disrupted by projects that make practical and aesthetic improvements to public space - but don’t always ask for permission. This approach is driven by citizens with the passion to improve their cities and the impatience to not wait through the full public permitting process to take action. But what if that process weren’t so intimidating, time-consuming, and costly for the average city resident? Could we make cities better, faster?

Why Civic Design Policy is Like Rocket Science

In between powerful ideas and powerful change lies powerful bureaucracy.

Internally, city governments are tasked with ensuring that public infrastructure and funds are used safely and responsibly. Permits that utilize these funds or resources are, for good reason, a big part of this.

But from an outside perspective - for community members, designers, artists, architects, makers - the process of getting a project approved and permitted by city departments might as well be rocket science. The entire tactical urbanism movement exists largely as a band-aid solution for citizens who lack the resources, time, or patience to navigate this complex approval system, and prefer taking matters into their own hands to create local change. A key question moving forward is how this process can be opened up to look less like rocket science, and more like the DIY science kits that turn kids everywhere into excited, engaged brainstormers. How can we make the permitting process sexier to better engage the average citizen?

The first iteration of Urban Parasol at the 2012 Urban Prototyping San Francisco Festival. (Credit: Inhabitat)

Let’s get into the details a little bit. Say you want to install an Urban Prototyping project like Urban Parasol in your city - attaching a modular shade structure to a light pole. In San Francisco, the light pole you’re attaching to is managed by SFPUC, the sidewalks people are standing on underneath your structure are managed by SFDPW, and the street thoroughfare your overhang stretches above is managed by SFMTA. You might need permits and approvals from all of these agencies before you even think of hitting the street - and often, existing permits aren’t set up to handle these types of ideas.

While you’re at it, you might want to talk to someone in the SF Arts Commission, City Administrator’s Office, Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, or your local Community Benefit District about gaining local support for the project. Then you’ll need to make sure it doesn’t make the area less beautiful, more dangerous, or more prone to attract noisy late-night revelry in the eyes of the neighbors nearby. And finally, you’ll also need a way to pay for the material costs, and find a way to get your work paid for if you’re not planning to donate your time as a civic volunteer. All of this work is on top of the citizens’ principal focus of creating the best public art piece, design intervention, or interactive installation they possibly can - which is a huge job in itself.

Understandably, it’s hard for most citizens who want to contribute to know where to begin. The process isn’t made easier by the fact that most government websites are difficult to navigate (though there are exceptions!), and most departments don’t have a liaison dedicated to making this process easy and accessible for the community.

Better permits will allow artists and designers to focus more on what they’re good at - creating great civic projects - while allowing city planners to focus on their own invaluable strengths - navigating the crucial regulatory nuances of City Hall that can make these projects a reality.

Why It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

Cities want to help, and the barriers aren’t as big as they seem.

Here’s the good news: the obstacles to getting public design projects approved, built, and installed are actually not as complicated as they seem - and they’re pretty much exactly what you would think they are. In speaking with city officials in several San Francisco agencies recently, they all outlined the same five barriers as the root causes of bureaucratic slowness and difficulty. I’ve listed these below, along with some basic steps toward getting around them:

1) Liability + injury potential: Perhaps the biggest obstacle from a legal perspective is determining who is responsible if someone is injured or otherwise harmed directly or indirectly by a project. Most projects need someone to cover liability associated with them, which sometimes means working out a deal with the city or a local business owner who already has a policy in place. This can be tricky but certainly isn’t impossible, and could be streamlined by the city to make it even easier - for example, by creating a guide that helps citizens understand the liability process and their options for getting approved.

2) Citizen complaints: Many projects can be derailed due to concerns from locals over issues like noise, aesthetics, traffic, or safety. Working with the community and conducting preliminary testing and meetings before a full installation can go a long way toward easing the public’s mind and garnering support for a project.

3) Funding + procurement: Procurement requirements - standards for the entities and people that can provide services to and receive funding from the city - can be a barrier for individual citizens and smaller organizations to create real projects that take advantage of city improvement funds and other public funding. There are a few easy ways to help remedy this: designers and artists can work through nonprofits and firms that are already city vendors; the city can make it easier for citizens to both become vendors and/or connect with existing vendors; and the city can also fast-track projects with external funding (from grants, individuals, or crowd funding) to increase the value they are able to capture from outside City Hall.

4) Lack of interagency dialog: Every city has a web of responsibilities that is often spread across a complicated web of departments and individuals. However, most cities lack an interagency review board or task force to streamline the process of approving public design projects. Others make it difficult for departments to simply talk to each other, making it harder to find the creative regulatory solutions sometimes necessary to bring projects to life. We’ve started forming an Urban Prototyping Task Force in San Francisco to help get the ball rolling on these issues, and a culture of dialog can also be taken much further when it is promoted from the top by a visionary mayor or planning director.

5) Lack of a good public interface: As mentioned above, there’s generally no central government touch point for citizens who want to design for the public realm. Ideally this touch point should be a combination of 1) well-designed and accessible informational resources and 2) dedicated staff members to support them and interface with the public directly. In San Francisco, we’re fortunate to have the SF Better Streets initiative - a simply fantastic effort that gets closer to this interface than anything else I’ve personally seen.

Finally, most city staff members I’ve met with are just as frustrated with the typical regulatory process as we on the outside are - and they’re actively looking for great new citizen-led projects and the means to take them forward. This may be somewhat unique to San Francisco, birthplace of the parklet, but my sense from speaking with officials in other cities is that the broader culture is changing - the permits themselves just haven’t been able to catch up yet.

Where We Go From Here

We know the problems - so let’s start tackling them together.

If the good news is that barriers to permitting civic design projects are well-known and surmountable, the better news is that many cities are already heading in the right direction. San Francisco’s groundbreaking work creating the parklet permit has been well-documented, and Boston’s City Hall to Go program is another great example of making city services and processes more accessible to the general public. Even more importantly, the conversations between City Hall insiders and outsiders - those in need of city approvals and those providing them - have become much more frequent and robust in recent years - a welcome change from the sometimes stereotypical bureaucratic Iron Curtain. Technology and new forms of engagement are only making these interactions easier.

To be clear, “hacking” the permitting process - rethinking it to make it more efficient, effective, and attractive - isn’t necessarily going to be easy, fast, or fun. It took about five years to formally establish the parklet permitting process in San Francisco. If we’re going to hack city policy successfully, our best tool is the continued dialog between citizens and government. Understanding each others’ needs and contexts is the first step to change, and it’s already starting to happen today.

Every citizen can be a part of this change by tracking down supportive officials in the right departments, sharing successful project examples, and organizing open discussions (like this one) to promote understanding and (most importantly) action. Together, we can ensure that better permits will create better cities.

The process model for Urban Prototyping, inspired by the tactical urbanism approach of “short-term action, long-term change”.

We’re trying to address a lot of these issues and concerns through our work with Urban Prototyping. Our first UP San Francisco Festival saw the creation of 23 prototype projects, some of which are already starting to be replicated in other cities around the world. The process to create each project has been completely documented through Instructables, where the projects have been collectively viewed over 50,000 times. We plan to build this into an open Urban Prototyping Library which serves as a sort of physical civic GitHub.

At a higher level, we’re planning to spend the next few months open-sourcing our model of bringing ideas from prototypes to city-approved pilot projects. We think using large-scale, city-supported festivals to publicly test and gain visibility for projects will help create better outcomes for cities while not stifling the creativity of their greatest asset - their residents. To ensure the best ideas live on, host cities would commit to piloting at least 2-3 projects from their festival, in partnership with City Hall. Together, we hope the components of this model can help take this movement from a scattered collection of compelling ideas to a global force for change.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your feedback on UP, and your ideas for how we can all make permits just a little bit sexier.

The first iteration of Clip + Slide, a proposal to create interactive urban slides, at the 2012 Urban Prototyping San Francisco Festival. (Credit: Brian L. Frank / Wired)




New ideas for improving cities and city governments, including physical infrastructure, technological resources, and public services.

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Jake Levitas

Jake Levitas

Creating cities where all people thrive. Urban planning, design, resilience, equity, and innovation. UNC MPA/MCRP Grad 2020.

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