Democracy Is a Design Process

From Reefer Madness to the Wisdom of the Collective

November 26, 2013

Partner, NBBJ

In the fall of 2012, Massachusetts voters legalized medical marijuana. As the parent of three children, I was very disappointed in the vote; I felt the liberalization of drug laws would put them at peril and might begin to send the message that it was OK to get high. I opposed this new form of access, for a society that hardly needs access to one more substance that makes us fat and lazy and drug-dependent. I already lost a brilliant family member to addiction. In my worldview, more drugs are bad.

Sure, there are medical conditions that seem to be relieved by this drug. But I was convinced that there were already legal, regulated narcotics that could ease the pain and suffering of my neighbors while not seemingly legitimizing this street drug. Disappointed on Election Day, I forgot about the issue and then watched as Washington State and Colorado struggled with even more liberal mandates from voters, illustrated on the news with video images of recreational drug users and worried public safety officials explaining — badly — the rules for the legal use of grass. I called the most sober colleague in our Seattle office one morning and asked if he had gotten high on the way to work; he did not think the question was funny, explaining that he adhered to the office’s “no smoking policy.”

Now, one year later, the Commonwealth’s new law needs to be put into effect in my city. Medical marijuana dispensaries need to be actually sited. I sit on Cambridge’s Planning Board. We shape zoning laws governing allowed uses and development details. Despite my personal inclination towards prohibition, the law is clear: No local regulation can be created that would make the siting of these drug stores impossible. (Other communities have overtly delayed the buildings with the call for “more study.”)

Then comes the night of the hearing. Proponents are present to testify. My neighbors are there. City health officials are there. Elected officials are there watching how we handle this as we sit in the 1890s Council Chambers — lofty ceilings with oil portraits, mounted on acres of proto-psychedelic patterns of 19th century wallpaper, generations of humorless, scolding mayors staring down with disapproval on our deliberations. And my convictions are contrary to everyone’s. The Cambridge Community Development staff are recommending sites at the entrances to our city — so now we will be known as the city of drugs to the hundreds of thousands who commute through here on the way to work in downtown Boston — Potland or Grasstown, with an address on the “High”way to Boston!

I know a lot about zoning regulations. I have decades of experience in public hearings; my head is full of future filibusters — words as hard as cannonballs. But the details of the rules coming from the State are … thoughtful and rigorous! The police, health officials and teachers have all been heard, and their concerns obviously shape the regulation. And all with a compassionate and caring focus on our neighbors who may be relieved of suffering and pain. I am humbled.

As a designer, I imagine the future where there is none. When I was asked to imagine the siting of medical marijuana dispensaries in my city, I pictured a future of the McDonald’s of head shops across from my 15-year old daughter’s high school. Or worse, a culture of permissive public and pervasive drug use. Instead, I am reassured by the careful recommendations of the health and planning boards, by thoughtful people who are committed to the betterment of our town through careful design. For instance, dispensaries must be designed to be somewhat withdrawn, instead of advertising their wares openly. Their names cannot contain clever puns on marijuana euphemisms (unlike, say, the title of this post). Only employees or customers with a prescription will even be allowed on-premises. This isn’t a matter of narcotics retail, I begin to realize — it’s a matter of access to healthcare.

As I listen and contribute to the deliberations, I reflect on just how closely the process of democracy resembles the process of design. Government when it works is beautiful, as beautiful as our sparkly building elevations and plans. When government works, it works as we designers work, with the approximation of a better future, which is then forged and built with multiple points of view.

Great building design and construction is too complex for one individual to conceive of and manage alone. Great city-making is no different. Cities are indeed more complex than individual buildings, and the conversations around them need to be longer, more thorough and nuanced. For this reason, I am more convinced than ever that designers are uniquely well suited to political discussion, and the outcomes of this civic design process can be some of the most satisfying and beautiful we can engage in. At its best, democracy is the public display of love.

In an age when corporate money has an inordinate influence on our politics, we need designers to get involved in government — to help us imagine just how wicked beautiful this place could be.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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