Jake Levitas is a civic designer, organizer, and activist based in San Francisco. Cross-posted from Medium.com.
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 Outdated permitting processes are keeping a large swath of promising projects in art, design, technology, and other modes of expression from ever becoming part of the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?
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:
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.
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