An article today in the NYTimes:

‘Design Thinking’ for a Better You

… got me thinking about a post from Gordon some time ago, which I sadly can’t google just now, on whether or not it is possible to learn from the past, or whether we are doomed to have the same urban fight over and over (about density, about infill, about prettymuch any NIMBY topic you might imagine).

Can design thinking help get the city ‘unstuck’?

In the words of Dr. Roth, design thinking helped me “get unstuck.”

To get started, design thinkers focus on five steps, but the first two are the most important. Step 1 is to “empathize” — learn what the real issues are that need to be solved. Next, “define the problem” — a surprisingly tough task. The third step is to “ideate” — brainstorm, make lists, write down ideas and generate possible solutions. Step 4 is to build a prototype or create a plan. The final step is to test the idea and seek feedback from others.

I can’t help but notice that it seems often that seeing planning from afar, the first 3 steps are no problem … I’ve participated many times in them myself, but step 4 is where things seem to fall apart. I understand that ‘every piece of architecture is a prototype’, but this just means that in effect we skip step 4 altogether and hit step 5, without any visible way for anyone except the final user to see whether something works or not.

Thinking about one way this could be used (by no means the only one), in North Vancouver I have noticed that they have been using temporary bits of rubber on the roads for all kinds of things – one such example appeared here last year … and whenever I see drivers parked almost on the bike lane on Richards, or cutting the corners and using the bike lane as a passing lane on Carrall, I can’t help thinking how having a little bit of rubber would help the city test out different path designs in a soft and easy way, to see what works and what doesn’t.

A larger example of this is Jeremy Lerner’s ‘overnight‘ conversion to Bus Rapid Transit in Curtiba – but with low impact infrastructure at first, to get in, move fast, test things, and see what works.

Conversely, where there are good models to follow, we shouldn’t be afraid to follow best practice. Thats the reason for listening to feedback – otherwise every design just happens in isolation, and the NIMBY view keeps getting a toehold in the conversation. Traffic engineers, for instance are often maligned as having a myopic view that only car traffic matters, and smooth flow. Learning from elsewhere (even from traffic engineers elsewhere), however, can yield great things.

One of the big factors leading to the ‘best practice’ book of street/road/highway design was that poorly designed roads were getting people killed, and the lawsuits resulting from these deaths/injuries became a liability that cities/states could not afford. (here’s a list of some such suits:

One thing that comes up often in reference to bike paths is how their inherently poor design makes them less safe. I have had the same conversation with many people about the Richards Street Path and the Carral Street one which suggest that my impression is not uncommon. This impression is that I have more issues at the some of the intersections of these ‘safe’ streets than I do the surrounding ones with no facilities whatsoever. I say some of the intersections because each one varies in design greatly, and some are fine, while some almost seem to encourage danger.

I wonder if the spectre of lawsuit, or the actual suit itself will be of similar significance in the best practice AAA’ing (All Ages and Abilities) of bike paths?

Whats the Price Tag on the failure to follow best practice? What is the cumulative Price Tag of fighting the same urban design fights over and over, is there any point where things can hope to become common wisdom so we don’t always have to reinvent the urban wheel?
“Design thinking on the highest level is a way of reframing the way you look at the world and deal with issues, and the main thing is this idea of empathy,” Dr. Roth says. “If you have tried something and it hasn’t worked, then you’re working on the wrong problem.”