Shiny, happy people. In fact, the shiniest and happiest the all-star consultants can superimpose on our aspirations.

Shiny, happy people. In fact, the shiniest and happiest the all-star consultants can superimpose on our aspirations.

You're looking at $50 million proposal to improve Minneapolis' Nicollet Mall. As it stands today, it's one of the nation's best pedestrian malls. That's why it struck me as odd that the Minneapolis Downtown Council and the City of Minneapolis were looking to completely renovate it.

Anyone who has read Jeff Speck's Walkable City will quickly notice that the biggest impediment to improving Nicollet Mall is not the aesthetic of the street, but the buildings themselves and their poor frontages. This fact is apparently lost among the decision-makers whose Board of Directors is a self-selected group of downtown building owners, property managers, and corporate stakeholders.

The irony of their push for a publicly-subsidized Nicollet Mall redesign is that the single biggest problem with the street are the buildings themselves. Those advocating for urban improvements are precisely the ones who are creating the problems. And not surprisingly, no one besides the decision-makers seems to even consider this a project worthy of limited funding.

It would appear only a handful of people want this redesign, but it just so happens those handful of people are the one's with enough political connections to get the City to subsidize their want. We are witnessing the continuation of a failed top-down, 'Power Broker' system:

  • Strategic political pressure is put on elected officials by influential insiders.
  • The city starts the process by hiring the best outside ‘star’ consultant to tell us the things we likely already know.
  • Consultant drafts renderings with the best design software money can buy that includes the finest superimposed human silhouettes unpaid interns can draft.
  • Minimum public engagement requirements are hit by having people fill out online surveys while business and political insiders, not the countless thousands of daily users or small business owners, continue drive the bureaucratic process forward.

Where projects are funding from State and Federal sources, local input is limited to ensure the process goes as quickly as possible. Local political leaders go along with the process, despite it’s flaws, because it isn’t local money. It is something for nothing and, at that price, something is better than nothing.

In the planning profession, we spend a lot of time talking about the virtues of Jane Jacobs’ works but pay her little respect in practice. Our planning projects, and the leadership that supports them, still hold to modernist planning practices that have been long criticized. Our leadership, despite good intentions, continues to develop projects that accommodate those who do not live in the city all while paying lip-service to public input, diversity, and the little slices of chaos that make places great.

It begs the question: Are we still in the era of top-down modernist planning?

I think the answer is “sort of”. We have made improvements, learned from our mistakes, and we certainly aren’t tearing down entire neighborhoods for freeways. Yet, in many ways the same general mentality still holds true.

We think we’re doing the right thing. We create neighborhood groups and then gave them limited power. We let them create their neighborhood plan, then we immediately ignore it. In the end, lobbying their local City Council member might be their most powerful tool. We’re better than we once were, but that’s not saying a lot.

The big-budget process of creating most places are little different than the works of Robert Moses.

The big-budget process of creating most places are little different than the works of Robert Moses. And, as we historically seen, these top-down approaches tend to give us sterile places. For example, the new Nicollet Mall renderings more closely resemble the Mall of America than that of a real city street. It is not the beautiful chaos nor the street ballet urban-dwelling humans crave. It'll be $50 million spent and it'll have a little return on investment because it doesn't solve the real problem of the street.

There is certainly a brick that needs to be fixed here and there. Add some climate-appropriate trees. The sidewalk heating system might need some updates and some fountains re-tooled. The Mall was reconstructed in 1991. At the time, a sidewalk heating system was installed – and it’s not worked since. And guess what? It doesn’t matter – the Mall still works because snow shovels still work (and they are much cheaper).

Instead of spending $50 million, we can take a page out of the Project for Public Space's handbook. The main problem is that the buildings need to do a better job of addressing this pedestrian elements of the Mall. It needs more cafes, more food trucks, and more informal activity that integrates with building programming. If anything, Nicollet Mall needs more small storefronts, more diversity, and a little more chaos. It’s as simple as that. It adds to the diversity of the environment and gives people something to enjoy. Large monolithic towers may look good from afar, but often do little for the street.

These nuances are lost when the top-down approach invades our planning. It's expensive and gives us a low return on investment. It's the type of system that would spend $50 million without realizing that they were trying to solve the wrong problem.

Bring some Strong Towns to your social spaces.