Urban Charrette architects and planners have designs on the future of Tampa

click to enlarge CITY FOLK: An early planning meeting for Urban Charrette, held in Tampa in August. - Courtesy Urban Charrette
Courtesy Urban Charrette
CITY FOLK: An early planning meeting for Urban Charrette, held in Tampa in August.

We've just elected a president who announced his VP pick by text message, culled millions of dollars from individual donors via the Internet and gave his victory speech in a public park to a quarter-million supporters, as people rejoiced around the globe. Some would suggest we're no longer in the age of the Internet but the (considerably more complex) age of connectivity, immersed in a network culture that entails not only constant technological "on"-ness but also a heightened awareness of interdependence on geopolitical, social, cultural and environmental levels.

For further evidence, look to the growing popular interest in the aesthetics of interconnectivity: a rediscovered devotion to locally grown food, the resurgence of community-based visual and performing arts projects, the fleeting and abbreviated pleasures of Twitter or social networks. Think, too, of the increasing urgency of rehabilitating city cores, developing mass transit and encouraging contextually appropriate density in architecture, planning and design. With all due respect to the individual, this century belongs to the group.

This week, Tampa's own Urban Charrette — a coalition of young architects, urban planners and others with related passions — hosts an ambitious, community-based effort to create a plan for sustainable neighborhood design in the city. Thanks to a $15,000 grant from the American Institute of Architects, they will host a team of seven expert facilitators from around the country with expertise in what makes cities and the people who live in them thrive. In addition to urban planners and architects, the group includes a mayor (of Montpelier, Vt.), an affordable-housing advocate and a choreographer.

On Wednesday evening, a public input session officially kicks off the effort, dubbed Connecting Tampa. (During the day on Wednesday and Thursday, the expert team will meet with stakeholders in themed sessions on the arts, transit-oriented development, bike-and-pedestrian culture and other sustainability focus points; as of last week, those groups were already booked to maximum capacity.) After an intense, three-day charrette — or collaborative design workshop — with an emphasis on listening to local residents, the visiting team will present its recommendations for a sustainable Tampa to Mayor Pam Iorio on Friday before an evening presentation to the public. But Friday is just the beginning. Following the team's visit, Urban Charrette embarks on a yearlong effort to engage Tampa's neighborhoods in exploring the tenets of sustainable design and, where applicable, the specifics of the team's recommendations. (At this point, the possibilities are literally limitless and, depending on the neighborhood, could include everything from starting a community garden to advocating for tax credits for mixed-use developments.) And here's where UC differs from other urban planners and architects: Rather than dry informational sessions, their outreach plans hinge on neighborhood block parties, downtown events like last April's Ecolution and social networking on sdattampa.com. (In fact, one of the visiting team members, choreographer and community artist Deborah Reshotko, sees her role this week as helping UC think even more "outside the box" about how to engage the community in fun, collaborative ways.)

Process is everything for the Tampa group because the existing establishment has only half-heartedly connected with the city's residents at street level — my conclusion, not theirs — and that's why this scrappy group of under-35-ish designers now sits at a table with reps from the City of Tampa and the city-county Planning Commission. (Both organizations are supporters of and participants in Connecting Tampa.) Ultimately, UC aims to bring people and neighborhoods into the process of designing Tampa who have felt that their voices don't matter. And, yes, the backdrop of all this is Urban Renewal and the decay of historically non-white neighborhoods divided by highways (the past), as well as the ability of cities to compete in the context of globalization and interdependence (the future). That's why I'm calling their effort Obama-esque — not necessarily in politics but in form.

In addition to Reshotko, the team — led by Wayne Feiden, planning director of Northampton, Mass., and architect Marcia Garcia — includes Mary Hooper, the Vermont mayor; Kristin Bennett, a Colorado Springs-based transportation planner; Michael Snodgrass, head of Neighborworks in Lincoln, Neb.; and Antonio DiMambro, a Boston-based city planner and architect.

When I spoke with DiMambro last week, he emphasized making an effort to bring as few preconceived notions to Tampa as possible — no "templates" of sustainable design — beyond reading several briefs, including the Planning Commission's latest comprehensive plan (available at plan2025.org), which describe the challenges faced by the area. How to solve those challenges — like transit, affordable housing, quality of life — is ultimately up to citizens and their leaders, says the designer, who produced a 2001 study at the behest of the Dallas Morning News urging the Texas metropolis to adopt a transit-based nodal structure instead of aimless sprawl.

"The most important thing is that you have leadership that understands and has a long-term vision and a set of short-term actions that can be implemented immediately," DiMambro says. "People need success to believe in the system."

On Friday, Mayor Iorio will hear the results of Connecting Tampa, and at least one City Council member — Linda Saul-Sena — has been involved with the effort since its conception. But the people who really need to lead this effort (and their leaders) are the citizens of Tampa. Join the Urban Charrette and Connecting Tampa in person this week, online and at a future event in your neighborhood.

They can't do it without you.

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