How can we leverage the power of design and engagement to make better main streets?

Joining CUI host Mary W. Rowe for our ongoing series of candid conversations – How can we leverage the power of design and engagement to make better main streets? – are Anjuli Solanki, Program Director of The STEPS Initiative; Jason Robbins, Principal Architect at JC Robbins Architecture and 1st Vice President of the RAIC Board; Devin Segal, Director of Landscape Architecture at Fathom Studio; Mitchell Reardon, Experiments, Urban Planning & Design Lead at The Happy City; and Mark Lakeman, Founder of City Repair.

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. Public art is critical to the recovery

According to Anjuli Solanki, public art is essential to the vibrancy of our public spaces, and throughout the pandemic, artists have been developing interventions in the public realm, from creative safety markers and ways to mark safe pickup zones, to animating empty storefronts and sites for future development.

2. Thinking beyond “the container of design fetishism”

Mitchell Reardon described the importance of thinking beyond the “container of design fetishism” where the product is more important than the process that went into its development. This has led to the development of projects that do not create a sense of meaning and belonging to communities. Mitchell believed that this is a fundamental challenge which can be improved through prolonged community engagement. 

3. Shovel-ready implementation

According to Jason Robbins, there is always a tension between pushing for shovel-ready projects and good design, and working within the constraints of project budgets, while advocating for community benefit. Architects must meet the expectations of their clients, design shovel-ready projects, while also providing immediate value for communities and stakeholder groups.

4. Design decisions have never been neutral

According to Mark Lakeman, architects, planners and designers should work actively to ensure that their projects do not “reinforce the structural inequities embedded in the colonial grid.” Great creativity has been unleashed during the pandemic—blocking off streets, expanding patios onto sidewalks, and more. There is great opportunity to make these interventions permanent, and to continue to push to treating streets like the cultural spaces they have always been.

5. The opportunities and limitations of online engagement

COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to facilitate consultations with a wider range of stakeholders through online conversations. However, we must be mindful of the limitations of online interactions.