Gainesville residents are excluded from urban design decisions

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Everyone who uses digital devices, websites and apps has had both useful and frustrating experiences with the digital world. User experience is known in the Silicon Valley vernacular as UX, and it’s meant to foster positive, frictionless experiences with digital technologies.

The term UX has evolved and been amplified over the past 20 years by proponents of “design thinking” as taught in business and management curricula. IDEO’s Tim Brown says the design company has started hiring anthropologists and sociologists to understand how “real people” interact with products, so that buyers of the products are more likely to use them.

Brown and others have presented the concept of learning what “real people” want as a Silicon Valley invention. It’s not.

As early as the 1960s, in response to urban decay and calls for civil rights appeals, schools of architecture became active in their host cities. Their goal was to counter the massive destruction of black communities, as entire neighborhoods were demolished to make way for the interstate highway system.

Block after block of housing was destroyed rather than repaired. What policymakers called “urban renewal” became known in the black community as “urban displacement.”

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A key part of the community design movement was understanding what people living in historic and radically underserved black communities wanted: how could urban situations be improved? Demolition and removal were frequent responses from policy makers. Were there other options?

To understand the underlying issues, schools of architecture have started working with social scientists. More importantly, the students and their professors began to listen – really listen – to neighborhood residents. It became apparent that the “user experiences” of community members were not being taken into account.

This was the birth of “User Experience,” a powerful, “analog” version of today’s UX. Community design centers emerged as places for this empathetic exchange between local community members and urban design experts.

In Gainesville, we had a community design center for over a decade. Beginning in 1999, the Florida Community Design Center was supported by the City of Gainesville, Alachua County, the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce, and individual University of Florida faculty members. With UF students, we designed projects for the Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street neighborhood, the Waldo Road corridor, East Gainesville, the Innovation District, and Depot Park with its surrounding neighborhoods.

We met with residents and policy makers in convenient places – in churches, community centers and at the Design Center. We have organized workshops, round tables, walking tours and exhibitions. We presented proposals to the community and to people in positions of power. We developed consensus and eliminated differences.

However, starting around 2015, the city of Gainesville embraced UX 2.0. The city commission hired IDEO to rename the city and has since hired consultants who rely on digital tools to communicate with residents. Computer screens have become the shields of the city, controlling discussion topics, speakers, and the flow of ideas.

The current full planning effort, for example, can only be found on the city’s website if you search for the brand term “Imagine GNV.” A computer, projector, and specialized software are required to participate in the legally mandated community outreach effort, dubbed “Conversation-in-a-box.”

To participate in the town’s meeting on affordable housing, residents needed computers, internet access and Zoom accounts.

For a new downtown strategic plan, the consultants used “word cloud” software so that participants could share their 25-character ideas in a single window (“Dynamic! Miscellaneous!”), while everyone everyone was conversing simultaneously in a second Zoom window on their computers.

Recently, the city promised a workshop with those interested in the St. Michael’s Church site. The workshops are interactive. New ideas, often outlined rather than verbalized, emerge. Participants work towards a common goal, rather than taking sides. Instead, citizens were subjected to another City Commission Zoom-format meeting, with three-minute speaking limits.

Unsurprisingly, the digital outreach efforts described had disappointing, unenthusiastic, and unsatisfactory turnout.

Twenty years ago, we worked hard to inspire busy Gainesville residents to help shape the city. We used accessible tools and listened carefully to neighbors’ concerns and dreams. We have faithfully incorporated their ideas into our proposals. We recognized that everyone in a city is impacted by urban design decisions, whether they commissioned the urban design proposal in question or not. We all “use” our cities.

Today’s Gainesville user experience is the opposite – inaccessible to most and, even worse, largely ignored. Gainesville leaders embraced the trappings of the high-tech economy but lost its inspiration.

As a result, in Gainesville, UX 2.0 ushered in Urban Abduction 2.0.

Kim Tanzer lives in Gainesville. She is a former UF architecture professor who also served as dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture.

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