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I noticed a couple of raised eyebrows in the elevator at City Hall when I pushed “4” the other morning. To see anything but a cavernous, carpeted room on the fourth floor these days, you need lots of imagination.
But even the empty space means something to the two UC San Diego professors working to set up the city’s new Incubator for Civic Imagination, a program the mayor hopes will boost the city’s effectiveness in planning neighborhood projects and engaging residents.
The professors say the now cubicle-free space is emblematic of what they’re hoping to do in the city. They pledge to tear down walls and make room for big ideas like the ones they’ve studied in progressive cities around the world like Portland, Ore., and Medellin, Colombia.
Few specifics are widely known about the incubator, sometimes referred to as Mayor Bob Filner’s Civic and Urban Initiatives program. It’s also been referred to as the mayor’s think tank. And San Diego’s civic innovation quotient hasn’t been especially exciting compared with its peers.
But in their first robust media interview last week, Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman outlined a few more concrete plans for the next several months.
They’re working with a $950,000 budget, about two-thirds of which is earmarked for six staff members they’re looking for now. Two of those staff will be designers, in charge of making compelling visuals to help communicate neighborhood plans. (Cruz hates when the crucial job of communicating a plan or a policy to a neighborhood is outsourced to an offsite graphic designer.)
Two more workers will be tasked with engaging and educating community groups and residents. A crew of interns in fields like architecture, public policy and public health will pitch in. And two staff will coordinate and oversee the whole team.
“There has been a deficit, not only of innovation and creativity inside the institution, inside of government, but also a deficit of facilitation and mediation in communities,” Cruz said.
Cruz and Forman outlined a few projects they want to see accomplished by the end of 2013.
In the next few months, they intend to transform the fourth-floor City Hall space – the emptiness of which Filner said served as a symbol of the city’s failure to plan well for its neighborhoods. They want to make it into the open-style workspace they imagine for design and collaborative meetings. They also want to make it a place where public community workshops and lectures can happen.
“Part of our excitement is a new space for innovation and collaboration inside city management … that space of creativity that enables cross-departmental collaborations,” Cruz said.
They’ll pull off at least two neighborhood demonstration projects by the end of the year, they said. Once they hire staff, they’ll choose which projects to tackle in which neighborhoods. “We really haven’t decided yet” which neighborhoods, Forman said.
Those projects could include new uses for vacant lots, a pet interest of the professors.
These aren’t just beautified park spaces, Cruz said. Rather, he said he wants to see “intelligent, pedagogical, economic, social programming co-produced by communities and community organizations.”
The incubator will produce a “compendium” of underutilized vacant lots and spaces across the city, then figure out a streamlined process for getting something done there.
So if a team like NewSchool of Architecture and Design students wants to propose something in a vacant lot, the city bureaucracy will have an established process for those people to go through. The incubator could “vet and fast-track” the best projects, Forman said.
“Let’s just visualize where the hell these places are, and then at the same time, we want to engage, and we already have, the most progressive and active social, arts and cultural, environmental organizations working in neighborhoods,” Cruz said.
Another initial demonstration project might be a community kitchen, a lending library for tools or a place where neighborhood craftspeople can come to work.
“Of all of the demonstration projects, that’s one of the most exciting for me,” Cruz said. “Neighborhoods are a place of social, economic production, and we’ve been disregarding them.”
A few other projects they are working on:
- Recommendations for programs and ways the city can work better with Tijuana.
- Bringing in mayors and planners from well-planned cities to lecture in San Diego.
- Rounding up and implementing the best findings from old civic plans.
- A “mobile City Hall” like one Cruz’s friends worked on in Berlin that will go out to neighborhoods to answer community questions and help process ideas and projects.
- Reorganizing the first-floor lobby of City Hall to create “a place of public display” to display visualizations of projects and policies. That might look kind of like the demonstration Cruz built with a nonprofit in San Ysidro.
The bulk of the money will pay staff but Cruz and Forman want to leverage the other $336,762 or so – and the city seal – to pull in more grants from foundations.
Both Cruz and Forman called the non-personnel budget “modest.”
They acknowledged that they chose that breakdown, a move Forman said “was essential to assemble the very best team possible, with the skills, talent and vision to begin working on our ambitious agenda with the idea that funds would flow once we demonstrate early successes.”
Besides raising money, there are real challenges inherent in an effort to engage more people in neighborhood decisions, and to move away from the “paradigm of sprawl” that Cruz detests. The city’s new planning director, Bill Fulton, will play a key role in helping organize and implement the ideas that come from the incubator, they said.
The incubator might raise grants to dispatch landscape architects or planners to help neighborhood planning groups envision their future.
But that’s a hard job. How will that person woo longstanding neighborhood leaders and convert them to the principles of transit, density or anything else the city planners want to see?
Cruz acknowledged that confronting “opaque and reactive” dynamics is a challenge.
Perhaps community planning groups could get on a bus together and go see good examples of mixed-use development projects – without being patronizing, Cruz said.
“Field trips to look at the way that ‘courtyard housing’ from the ‘20s performs, or the way that (a) Little Italy project … performs,” he said.
I had to ask: What impact does the ongoing sexual harassment scandal surrounding Mayor Bob Filner have on the incubator? Filner gave this idea a platform in City Hall and enlisted Cruz and Forman.
But once the City Council signed off on the incubator’s budget, it became a city-wide project, not just a mayoral talking point, they said.
“It’s an opening, it’s a space to do great work,” Forman said. “And it was a great idea. It’d be a shame to waste this opportunity.”
“This is about the future of San Diego,” Cruz said.