Monday, December 5, 2011

A History Plaza Is Not a Sprinkler System: Confusing Technical and Value Decisions in the Central Park Remodel Process (29)

In reflecting on the history of the proposal for a history plaza in Central Park, I have begun to think the problem is that a history plaza is not a sprinkler system, but that it has been treated like one.

This is to say, the history plaza idea got defined as a technical decision of park remodeling when it should have been viewed as a serious issue of values in public policy.

Let me explain this distinction and then apply it to the case of the history plaza.

Decisions in government matters are--simplifying for clarity--of two types.   In one type, an official policy is forged out of diverse viewpoints. There is open presentation of divergent alternatives and conflicting values are accommodated. A course of action is achieved by some manner of voting.

In the other type, a policy matter is thought to be technical, meaning that the first and basic decisions are assigned to (ceded to?) presumed specialist experts. These experts devise a science/technology driven course of action and present it to policy-makers. Because only one course of action is presented--the technically best course of action--decision-makers decide to “approve” or “adopt” the proposal or not. Commonly, approving an “expert proposal” is not a problem. The City Council “consent calendar” is studded with decisions of this second type.

So what does this have to do with the current Central Park remodel?

1.  The Central Park remodel process has proceeded on the technical decision model. A landscape design firm was contracted, came to Davis to observe and interview, went away, and then came back with an expert plan.  The images accompanying this post include examples of technical elements of that plan. (The plan was devised by Royston, Hanamoto, Alley & Abey--aka RHAA.)

 2.  It seems to me that the bulk of RHAA’s plan is, in fact, technical in character. Or, at least, I certainly hope the design of, for example, the public restroom is driven by effectiveness and efficiency standards rather than by the politics of competing visions and values.

3.  The technical decision model would have worked just fine if all the decision-situations RHAA faced in fact fit it.

4.  Alas, at least one set of decisions did not--and does not--fit. As the RHAA people moved through the work of remodeling Central Park, they of course came to the WPA utility facility and to the question of what to do with it and with its current location. In complete good faith, I believe, RHAA designers likely said  (in my imagining): “Aha! Because we are demolishing a building next to a history museum, let’s put in a plaza and call it  a history plaza. Even better, let’s put a colored-concrete map of Davis exactly where the building stood.” And this they did.

5.  With these actions, RHAA moved from the category of making technical decisions to the category of making value decisions.  In my view, they went far beyond the proper scope of their work when they began to tell us in Davis how we are to regard and conceive Davis history. It is as though the expert specialists who proposed lawn sprinklers at 3rd & E in Davis were also empowered to propose Natsoulas’ "The Joggers" at the same comer. It is an excellent proposal, certainly, but not appropriately the work of irrigation contractors.

6.  This might not be so bad if the City processed RHAA’s history plaza proposal as a value rather than a technical decision. But it did not.

7.  Instead, the plaza/colored concrete map was (and is) the only plan presented. Giving the RHAA proposal the status of singularity served to clothe it in the mystique of technical justification and therefore of superiority and inevitability (the silent signals of “this is the best”). 
As Anne Brunette reports in her chronicle of the process (published in Post # 26 on this blog), this one plan was presented to various audiences, including commissions and the Council itself, as having the same status as, for example, upgrading the park fountain.  “Do you want your malfunctioning fountain upgraded?”  “Well, of course.”

8.  Information presented in a technical decision frame tends to cue the same frame--the same mindset--in viewers.  Presenters and viewers are trapped together in that frame. They may be uncomfortable about what is happening but find it difficult to articulate what is amiss. (This, at least, was my first response to the RHAA plaza proposal.)

(The slowness of Davisites to begin to resist RHAA’s plaza is testimony to the power of frames. Resistance is made even harder by the “this is obvious” confidence exuded by some city officials.)

9.  So what is the problem here? What is wrong and why should we care? Why not let an anonymous RHAA designer at a Mill Valley corporate headquarters decide how we express our sense of history and identity in Davis?

10.  The answer is: Because this place is ours, not RHAA’s, and we have both the responsibity and the right to decide through deliberation if we want a  “history plaza” or not and what will be on and in it.  A plaza in that location is about who we think we are. Only we can best figure that out.  We cannot--or ought not--cede representation of our local history and our artistic sensibilities to an out-of-town landscape corporation.

11.  If we are to have a history plaza (itself a value question), a value-decision process should start, I think, with a request-for-proposals for conceptual treatments. The proposals should be publicly deliberated and a democratic selection made.  There are several ways in which that process can be organized and I am ready to trust the City Council to devise a valid course of action.

12.  Fortunately, it is not too late to do this. The point of no return is close, but it has not yet been reached, I surmise.   

13.  As everyone knows, a WPA financed building constructed in 1937 now stands on that site. In my view, any plan for adaptively reusing it should make it an element of a more general Davis history plaza. And it should compete with other plans for the area.

14.  My main argument is that there should be an open process that leads to valid deliberation and a fair decision. If such a process takes place, it might well conclude with adopting the RHAA proposed color-concrete map of Davis. So be it.  If that happens, that plaza will at least then be an authentic expression of Davis, not the “hypocrisy plaza” it is now.

15.  I must follow the logic of value versus technical decisions to another outcome. Events could develop such that the Council votes to have no plaza at all. I do not favor that, but I recognize that political divisions might make it the most reasonable resolution. Let’s hope it does not come to that.