Why Implementation Matters

Jerold S. Kayden

“To design is human, to implement, divine,” I have argued in loose adaptation of Alexander Pope’s well-known aphorism. By implement, I mean the carrying out of a design or plan for the city through a specific set of tactics and techniques that I sometimes analogize to a three-legged stool with legs of law, finance, and politics. Without implementation, the city doesn’t happen.

My argument arises out of an empirical observation: Many design practices and pedagogies, operating under the banner of urbanism, shrink from serious intellectual or professional engagement with the very tactics and techniques that make things realistically happen in cities. Such disengagement deeply disadvantages design professionals who would want their visions to shape the built environment.

Since this all sounds obvious enough, why would anyone designing the city have an allergy to learning about and wielding implementation tactics and techniques? Answers are varied. For some, implementation is understood as a separate operation. First we do the design or plan, and then we think about implementation, if we think about it at all. By making implementation a serial rather than simultaneous or iterative operation, implementation intellectually and professionally is separated from the act of designing. For others, thinking about implementation is too constraining on the design act, grounding it in a finite, mundane world that crushes creativity, imagination, critique, and speculation. Implement­ation sullies design purity; to abjure its consideration is nothing less than a declaration of inspirational independence. For still others, implementation embraces the dirty business of money and politics, a necessary evil best left to lawyers, financiers, and policymakers.

I disagree. Of course I disagree. How could it be otherwise? I am a planner and lawyer. I teach zoning, public-private real-estate development and finance, and other implementation subjects. But I trust this does not render my argument less worthy of consideration. To begin with, it is not even new. The practice and pedagogy of urban design has always cycled between morphology and implementation. One need only look at curriculum requirements and course syllabi from past decades to appreciate this cyclicality. Back in the day, Jonathan Barnett’s silver-jacketed Urban Design as Public Policy1 was deemed no less important in the requisite body of urban design knowledge than Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s Collage City.2 New York City’s Urban Design Group, created during the administration of Mayor John Lindsay and City Planning Commission chair Donald Elliott and composed of designers Jaquelin Robertson, Alex Cooper, Richard Weinstein, Myles Weintraub, and Barnett himself, was the para­digm for designer fascination with implementation. Incentive zoning and special districts were the order of the day, and the designers reveled in the cleverness and innovation of their implementation strategies. Barnett and Weinstein happily contributed chapters to an important book titled The New Zoning: Legal, Administrative, and Economic Concepts and Techniques,3 coedited by lawyers Norman Marcus and Marilyn Groves.

More recently, the New Urbanists recognized that law could be friend or foe, and that only by engaging deeply with law could the change they sought be obtained. Under pressure from New Urbanist practices, traditional Euclidean zoning in hundreds of suburbs across the US has given way to New Urbanist–crafted or –influenced traditional neighborhood development ordinances. One does not have to agree with all of the New Urbanists’ design and planning approaches to applaud their realization that law could prevent or promote their goals. New Urbanist championing of form-based zoning is merely the latest example of their implementation IQ. Indeed, form-based codes represent a marriage of morphology and implementation that could excite even the most implementation-phobic designer. In a way, law here is a morphological code for urban massing and masses.

Examples demonstrating the importance of imp­lement­ation are plentiful. Land tenure patterns often inhibit the type of formal and informal settlements of hous­ing and infrastructure that can be designed. Reorder­ing tenure through land readjustment, for example, can foster new designs and plans that potentially yield benefits for all parties. Land value capture strategies—whether labeled valorization, betterment, or tax increment financing—can pay for the public infrastructure that moves a plan from shelf to reality. Take a look at Bogotá’s transportation projects or San Francisco’s Transbay extravaganza. Affordable housing designs often derive from require­ments of public subsidy programs. Carol Willis has a point when she playfully riffs with her book title Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago.4 John Costonis’s classic Space Adrift: Landmark Preservation and the Marketplace5 marries law and finance through a pioneering transfer of development rights scheme.

Knowing about, operating within, or pushing the boundaries of constraints arising from law, finance, and politics need not diminish creativity, any more than properties of gravity and building materials diminish creativity. Indeed, constraints can be generative of creativity. Examples abound. Arnold Schoenberg’s introduction of compositional rules in the 1920s known as twelve-tone serialism placed restrictions on the range of compositional possibilities, yet it unleashed a revolution in the sound of music. Love or hate it—and many still do not forgive Schoenberg for making even brilliant traditionalists like Copland toe the compositional line—it is indisputable that new lines of music were created.

How may the revaluing of implementation be implemented? This short written plea is but one drop in the bucket. Revaluing implementation as part and parcel of designing cities requires the self-interested recognition that power and influence attach to those who implement. Passivity with regard to instrumental engagement will doom designers to less relevance. The idea that an architect, landscape architect, or planner could graduate from any school without meaningful knowledge about land use and environmental laws, real-estate development and finance, public institutions and finance, and the politics of development should be unacceptable, I would hope, on its own terms. But the carrot is often preferable to the stick. Designing within law is one thing, designing law is another. That revelation should inspire designers: By actively participating in the invention and crafting of the very rules that, wholesale, shape the built environment, designers can have a greater impact on city design. Henceforth, the project will be known as “implementationism” (said tongue in cheek).

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1