Onward we fail

Earlier this year, a new crop of perspective students came to Boise to meet with Jaap Vos and in hopes of becoming Boise State’s newest planning students.

Photo Courtesy of Jaap Vos- Derick O'Neill speaks with current and prospective students for Boise State's Community and Regional Planning Program

Photo Courtesy of Jaap Vos- Boise City Planner, Derick O’Neill, speaks with current and prospective students for Boise State’s Community and Regional Planning Program

Recently appointed Boise City Planner, Derick O’Neill, joined the students in an open lunch at the programs downtown classroom.

Derick was kind enough to say a few words, and a few of those dealt with the mistakes planners make. Understanding that planning is a process, Derick said mistakes are okay, as long as we learn from them and “fail forward.”

Failing forward has a good ring to it. It’s much like teaching your children to learn from their mistakes. But mistakes in the city aren’t as simple as the lessons of childhood.

As a child if you touch something too hot, you burn your finger and learn to be more careful around hot surfaces..

As a planner, if you don’t properly plan for traffic and build development that causes traffic congestion, you are looking at lots of unhappy citizens and years of struggles to get traffic flowing in that area.

The consequences of a plan can also take longer to establish, and once the steps have been made there is no going back. You might miss those historic downtown buildings, but there is no bringing them back once they have been bulldozed.

Downtown Boise prior to the construction of the Boise Center on the Grove. Much of downtown was bulldozed in the 1980's for a mall that never materialized. Photo courtesy of Karen Sanders from the Downtown Boise Association

Downtown Boise prior to the construction of the Boise Center on the Grove. Much of downtown was bulldozed in the 1980’s for a mall that never materialized. Photo courtesy of Karen Sanders from the Downtown Boise Association

Keeping in mind that what doesn’t work for one city, may still work for another, let’s see what lessons there are to be learned from the missteps of others.

When design goes wrong

One of London’s newest skyscrapers, known as the Walkie Talkie Tower,has come with some unforeseen consequences.

Walkie Talkie Tower. Photo via flickr.com 2013

Walkie Talkie Tower. Photo via flickr.com 2013

Like a child burning ants with a magnifying glass, the curved nature of the structure has reflected and magnified the sun’s rays onto the streets around the structure, and warped the cars and bikes parked below.  City officials have been forced to close parking in the areas affected, and developers are considering applying a film that will diffuse the light when it is reflected.

Unfortunately, this could have been avoided if developers had “failed forward.” The architect, Rafael Vinoly, also designed a hotel in Las Vegas, NV, that caused severe burns to hotel guests when light reflected off the hotel and into the pool area below.

While officials say this should only last a few weeks out of the year, it is still an issue that could have been avoided. No one wants to lose parking spots in the core of a city.

Bike shares- A tale of two cities

The bike share system in Paris has been in place since 2007.

Velib- Paris' bike share system.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, 2013

Velib- Paris’ bike share system. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, 2013

A recent report indicates that in 2012, over 9000 bikes were stolen or damaged. Of the 23,800 bikes provided or promised, only 14,000 remain in service.

Go north across the English Channel, and we find London’s bike share has been much more successful. They have seen only 143 thefts since it was implemented in 2010.

London's bike share. Photo from http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2595573

London’s bike share. Photo from http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2595573

What did London do that Paris didn’t? How can their lessons help us “fail forward?”

The difference in success may have come from the differences in size. Paris sought to extend their bike share out into the suburbs, but it’s in those suburbs that the majority of the thefts took place. Meanwhile, London’s bike share is limited to the central area. Video surveillance may also have helped. Most of London’s public spaces have CCTV cameras, making it easier to catch criminals.

Lesson? Keep it small and close to the core, and find a way to monitor the bike share stations.

Forward failing we go

These may seem like two small examples, but any lesson to be learned is as important as another when it comes to our cities. With limited funding and the sheer permanence of the built environment, it’s the little things that matter. In a downtown core, where parking is a key issue, having a building that reflects light and requires parking bays be closed can have large consequences. Consequences that could have been avoided by paying attention to past mistakes.

Let’s say we want to give the people in our suburbs more transportation options and it comes down to a bike share or extending bus services. Bike shares certainly are trending. One could argue that the health benefits of biking due to increased physical activity and lower carbon emissions make this a no-brainer. But let us remember the tale of two bike shares. It might be that expanding buses is the right plan, if we consider the vandalism and theft of the bikes in the suburbs of Paris.

Failing forward is a good way to look at the planning process, but there is no need to fail where others already have. Allow the lessons learned by other cities to guide us forward as we work towards bettering our cities.

2 thoughts on “Onward we fail

  1. Good article Malori. I too thought the term “failing forward” was a little curious — especially given Derick’s provenance as a private-sector developer.

    One thing you might want to consider are the demographic realities in Parisian suburbs. Unlike what we typically find in the U.S., the suburbs of Paris have a very high concentration of poverty and disenfranchised minorities (many residents emigrated from Muslim former French colonies). In 2005, two years before the expansion of the Parisian bikeshare program there were significant riots in these suburban areas. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2005_French_riots

    And yet it seems even eight years later, the situation has not improved considerably. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/21/paris-suburb-riots_n_3631376.html

    If there’s a causative effect between the disenfranchised populace in Parisian suburbs and the level of bike theft in these areas (which I think likely), it’s very hard to come to the conclusion that a bikeshare program in Boise would result in a similar level of thefts – or conclude that the only deterrent would be to have the same level of CCTV surveillance as downtown London.

    London is one of the most surveilled metro areas in the world, yet there have been few studies indicating the heavy use of CCTV has resulted in lower crime rates. The report linked to in this article by Big Brother Watch (a UK civil rights watchdog group), actually found that the one study that had been conducted (regarding the deterrent power of CCTV’s in schools) found no data to support the conclusion: http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/home/2012/09/the-class-of-1984.html

    There are a number of things that can be done to make our suburban areas both more sustainable and pedestrian friendly — and a bikeshare “may” be one of them. I suspect though, there are quite a few suburban residents who already own their own bikes. And, teasing them out of their cars (after they’ve driven them to the suburban shopping center or strip mall) with a free, or low-cost bike ride might not have a very big impact.

    I think one of the more tangible efforts will take the form of a change in land use regulations, paired with a social & political movement that encourages the redevelopment of underutilized, suburban greyfields.

    Here, we have to make a distinction between downtown Boise and the urban conditions found in its more-suburban, car-centric areas (like the land use pattern found at just about every one of city’s section line roads). Each area will have to have its own unique context-sensitive interdiction. Though the shoppers or workers near the intersection of Fairview & Milwaukee might never even be bribed into taking a bikeshare ride — the fact that there are dedicated bike lanes the entire length of Milwaukee might induce some nearby residents to ride their own bikes to work or shopping.

    • I agree that there is a lot more to bikability than what I wrote on. But for the sake of “failing forward,” I think it would be pertinent for city officials to touch upon those things you mentioned when implementing the bike shares. Any regular citizen can google “bike shares” and they would likely find the articles I did. If they were already in the fence about the project, those articles might be enough to push them to the negative. It would be helpful for implementation if there was a type of education initiative. Flyers, forums, or pamphlets to show how this could work for us, when it didn’t necessarily work for others.

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