“We Are Experts Too”

People know more about their communities than any architect, planner, or developer can ever know. Now there’s a chance they’ll be heard.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in late October when a full house assembles at the Center for Architecture in Manhattan. Experts in architecture, urban planning, graphic communication, digital imaging, and community activism have their say, each adding his or her remarkable knowledge to inform the process for producing the center’s Public Information Exchange (PIE) program, scheduled to debut in 2007 in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the American Institute of Architects. As ambitious as the city whose growth it will document, PIE will focus on future development in New York; it will solicit professional and community feedback, and in the process create a database on how the twenty-first-century metropolis evolves in the footprint of the old city.

Fittingly, as thoughts turn to the past century and a half in architecture, James Sanders—architect, author, and founder and director of the Center for Urban Experience—puts PIE into historic context. He traces the ways new buildings and zoning changes have been sold to the public. In the nineteenth century, realistic renderings of shadow and light on Beaux Arts drawings foretold a future based on a classical past; Hugh Ferriss’s moody massing studies for the New York Times in the 1920s created interest in setbacks that would bring light into dense urban streets; the 1961 zoning code was rendered in line drawings of flat-roofed skyscrapers set on plinth bases showing no urban context and no detail whatsoever. These methods of communicating architecture were followed by pictorial narratives that took the viewer through a neighborhood, cinematic storyboarding and camerawork, and digital images with increasingly complex levels of detail—all the way to today, when materials and forms are rendered in such high fidelity that it’s hard to tell fantasy from reality.

Our familiarity with digital games, where whole cities are depicted down to the puddles on the streets, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which provide useful facts on any location, is creating a new context for the public discussion of architecture and development in the twenty-first century. The highly accessible information these new systems provide promises to enrich the public dialogue by making us potentially smarter and better informed than previous generations. But what I remember best from that event is not the high-tech wizardry but a single human voice.

Menaka Mohan, the new coordinator for activities around the South Bronx River Watershed Alliance and the South Bronx Greenway, shows us a photo of a Sustainable South Bronx meeting, where a young woman holds up a poster reading, “We live here and we are experts too.” In her neighborhood 33 percent of the city’s commercial waste is processed, there are four electrical power plants, 11,000 trucks drive through residential streets, and one in four children has asthma. Her experience dramatizes how our high-tech visualizing methods are incomplete without on-the-ground research and dialogue, without the voices of the community, without knowing the needs and aspirations of the people who live there. Nobody aspires to live on a dump and suffer respiratory diseases. This is what PIE’s designers will have to keep in mind as they develop their ambitious and increasingly sophisticated public information systems.

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