Education, Next Gen, and Documents That Suck: Exclusive Post-CNU21 Interview With Brian Wright of TPUDC
Brian Wright, TPUDC
This is a transcription of the downloadable audio interview, available here.
Hello and welcome to Global Site Plans’ exclusive interview with Brian Wright. I’m Aascot Holt.
Brian is the Founder and Principal of Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative. We chose to speak with him via phone in the wake of the Congress for the New Urbanism’s twenty-first congress, during which his company maintained a booth. He is a confident but humble Southern gentleman whose efforts began new urbanism’s relationship with millennials. For more about Brian, please check the blog post for a link to his bio. [Go to the “About” tab, then click the “Learn more about our founder” link at the bottom of the page.]
Aascot Holt, Global Site Plans
You created the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Next Generation. Is Next Gen going in the direction you envisioned for it?
Brian Wright, Town Planning and Urban Design
Yeah, it’s actually great. I started it, I don’t know, like ten years ago or something. I wrote the manifesto. I got people excited and thinking about it and talking about it. We had our first congress and then I kind of stepped away a little bit because what I wanted to do was make sure that it was something that wasn’t just led by an individual and their interest in doing it, that it was really something that the entire community got behind and it would either live or die based upon people’s acceptance of the concept.
It was interesting: at first, there was a lot of resistance to it from some of what I call, “The boundaries of pioneers of new urbanism.” Some of the most well-established firms really embraced it and got behind it: DPZ and [other influential firms]. They were always [an] encouraging group, which is nice. But others were like, “What the point of this? It’s just these young upstarts trying to kind of mess around in what we’ve been doing here for so long.” So that was a little bit frustrating. And then, people who not in the boundaries and pioneers generation but didn’t kind of want to see themselves as “Next Gen,” thinking that it’s somehow an age-related thing. They also didn’t embrace it really and in fact, they began their own thing, I can’t remember what’s it’s called. The beauty of it all is that since then, it’s been fully embraced by CNU and the fact that it’s been pulled in as an official part of the congress each year, has been pulled in as part of CNU. It has taken on a life of its own and continued to move forward with the initial group that I pulled together.
They took it and ran with it, and each year there’s new people. So, if you hadn’t have researched it, you wouldn’t know that I was the founder of it, which is kind of cool. There’s no figurehead per say. The direction is great, they’re pushing the boundaries, there are people now who were just working at firms who have their own firms now or consulting, and so they’re doing great work and that’s being presented. All of the [CNU Next Gen] sessions… Andres Duany in one of his plenary sessions talked a lot about the future of the movement and the Next Gen stuff, so it’s really infused the entire culture of new urbanism. So, I’ve been really excited about its turned out. So, yeah, I’m pleased.
Alright, excellent! When I was at CNU21, it really felt like this interesting and almost a little bit secret- everybody was doing cool stuff with Next Gen, and it’s over at this other hotel- it was really cool. It’s definitely a really interesting atmosphere. I went to a couple of events over there that were hosted by Next Gen, and it had a great energy, so I’m really happy that you’re pleased with it.
The best thing about it is that you have people who would come to a CNU [congress] and not know where to plug in- they’re new to new urbanism or whatever, you know- they’ve found a place they can get involved and it really… I mean when you read the manifesto, the whole point of it was to prepare the future leaders of the movement. Part of that preparation is getting to know each other and starting early rather than late. So, it’s been really nice to see people who used to kind of walk the halls of the congress, you know, not knowing anyone and now everybody’s kind of hanging out and paling around.
Andres Duany said that the model of architecture schools is crashing in his plenary at CNU21. He said, and I quote, “I don’t care about college… what counts is the firms,” in reference to where job applicants are applying from- their work experience. He said that he would rather educate and certify students independently through the Congress, completely bypassing universities. What are your thoughts on that?
I completely agree. I tell people I went to “DPZ University.” So, it’s kind of funny that he’s using those words now to describe the process. I think [that] for the longest time, the model was- not just at DPZ but at other firms- the average person when I worked there would be around two and a half to three years and then you’d move on. That’s exactly what I did. Yeah, I learned stuff in college that’s useful and valuable. But now, having my own firm, when I’m looking for talent… I mean, just happened yesterday. A girl sent me her resume and I opened it to see where she was from and that- I mean, I didn’t even read it at all. I immediately emailed back and said, “Send me your portfolio,” because how you did in school and your GPA and what your degree is in and all that stuff is only marginally relevant to me. What I need to know is what somebody’s abilities are, how they can present themselves and their work, [and if] they have the skills that we need. Can they operate the software that we typically use? You know, all of those kinds of things. I know that unless they went to Andrews University, Notre Dame, or University of Miami, then they’re not going to be where they need to be and we’re going to have to teach them what we need them to know. So, I whole-heartedly agree and see it everyday in practice. There are only a few universities who are willing to embrace the principles- certainly in a new urbanist practice- that we all live and die by and work by every day. There are so many students, especially in architecture schools, that are trained to, you know, be the next Frank Gary or whatever star architect, that their usefulness is really not there out of school. What I find is, most students get out of school and are very disappointed with their life and with their career because they were trained to be the star and the vast majority of them end up designing houses in suburbia as their career. So you end up feeling unfulfilled with the dream that you were sold in university. There are only a few students that come out of any school that we would even be interested in having as part of our team.
Your firm, Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative, doesn’t have a formal office space. Instead, you’ve chosen to allow employees to work from home in their respective cities. Why dismiss the traditional office? What are some pros and cons to that set-up?
Well, what I learned when I was at DPZ is that we did the bulk of our work during charrettes, so we’re all coming together wherever the project was to do it. What I found was, some of us would be coming from the DC office, some would come from the Miami office, someone would come from Charolette maybe, and that would be the team. Then I realized that it wasn’t often the case that I could actually ride to the airport with one of my colleagues from the office because we were also coming from different cities even though we worked in the same office. So, when I was starting my firm I realized that if I want the top talent in the world to come be a part of what I was doing, I couldn’t expect them all to move to Tennessee. Recognizing that technology is as it is these days, and all of the things we can do to connect remotely and the fact that my practice was all over the country, it would be a rare instance that I would have to actually have a meeting at an office. So, I’m usually going to my clients and we’re doing charrettes for our projects and so it just made sense to me to not do that. This was eight years ago, so this was pre-recession, and so it turned out to be a fortunate accident for me to sort of hit upon this model because in the end, it really made us recession-proof. We didn’t have a lot of the overhead that the other firms that really suffered through the recession had. It really was a great model and it’s proved to work well. Some of the efficiency of having an office comes after the charette, when you’re working on documents and producing things. There is some benefit to being face to face for that. So what we’ve done is we’ve begun [having] charrette[s] [for] the product as well. So, we finish the charrette for the client and then we’ll usually come back together either immediately after or shortly thereafter to pull it all together as a team. We’ve got great people who are self-motivated and entrepreneurial in their own right. You can’t just want to be an employee and be told what to do all the time, so it takes a certain caliber of person to operate in this system. But, when you find the right people, it’s magic. Now, the downside is sometimes you miss out on the camaraderie of just being in the presence of other people. While we don’t have a bricks and mortar office, per say, where I’m going to go have meetings, we actually have a studio that I’m standing in right now and there’s one other person in here with me and at some point later in the day, there will be a third person. So, in this location, we have the opportunity to have that camaraderie. But, others on my team- and certainly when I started the firm, when it was just kind of me and my people scattered around- it gets to be a bit lonely. But if you’re not a very social person, it works great. But that’s really the only downside that I can think of, which is pretty minimal.
So many New Urbanist plans fall short of development. Why is that?
One of the things that we figured out was especially when things were booming with private development… So often, these great plans are done, you have a great charrette, you get citizen input, everybody’s excited about what’s going to happen, and then oftentimes, when the project gets executed or implemented by the developer, the firm that created a vision often in many cases is no longer involved and they just turn it over to the local engineer or somebody that they know. What happens is, the original intent and the vision becomes eroded and diluted by the new hands getting involved and not having a continuity of thought and a consistency of vision through the process. So, that was one of the major points that we would focus on and even down to… The clients would underestimate the importance of their entire team being entrenched in what their project was all about. So we would actually go on in and train their sales agents; the people who are selling the properties, the houses, or whatever about new urbanism and what this project is and so they were selling to the right type of buyers and they were making sure that in the end, you have happy customers. Even the guys who were out there operating the excavating equipment what we’re trying to do. Training whoever becomes the local engineer… Just comprehensive, holistic team training was hugely important to make sure that these projects move forward because without it, each person’s operating individually based on their own set of biases and their experiences and their career. In most cases, it will be the first time that someone has ever worked on a new urbanist project, so they wouldn’t even understand what was so special about what they were doing and why we needed to… small, microscopic… why that tree needed to be preserved instead of being bumped into the by the bulldozer. That level of execution, down to every little detail and the handicapped ramps, and curb returns and all kinds of things. Just kind of getting it right at every level because there are so many things that you can do to get a project right that don’t cost you any extra money, they just take a little bit of forethought and care and maybe doing it a little different than you’ve done it before. So we really focus on the implementation side of things as being a key component to [keeping] a project on track. Now, when it comes to municipal projects, when we’re doing master plans and form-based zoning for cities, a similar thing happens. There’s not much you can do about it. When you do the master plan, you have the charrette and all of that, you write the document, that document is there and it guides the future with each of the concepts in that master plan should be implemented by others. A landowner who owns property that the master plan shows a new intervention happening on or city-owned parcel that the city’s going to undertake and do something with. So, each of those concepts moves along on their own and has their own process of creation. Many times, say like in Burlington, Vermont where we’re working, we proposed a transformation of their city hall park and the city hall park has its own charette process that follows up [with] what we’re doing and moves it forward. So, it’s not as noticeable on a municipal project if it doesn’t turn out as it was envisioned as it is on a private development project because you’re getting in at such a fine-grain level in private development that you cannot get into with municipal projects.
If you wouldn’t mind, please explain what a magazine-style plan is and why you believe it is superior to the traditional plan format.
What we’ve found is, kind of back to the last question about execution, for the municipal planning level, every city has what we call, “the million dollar shelf,” where they have plans and studies that they have spent millions of dollars commissioning these things and the vast majority of them sit on the shelf and are never executed or implemented or thought about again until you do the next planning process and they ask for consultant to familiarize themselves with their old plans, and then you move forward. So we’ve been trying to figure out why that happens so often, and many times, it’s because the documents are crappy. [chuckles] They just, they suck: no one wants to look at them in the first place. They’re boring. They’re unapproachable. They’re black and white. They’re, you know, created in Microsoft Word, or if somebody’s really being cutting edge, they created it in Publisher. And you can see these documents that are so uninspiring that it’s no wonder they’re sitting on the shelf. So, we’ve always really firmly believed that the documents were important to the success of a project, even in our private development projects. From the earliest days, we would get our documents… with and-stained leather, with gold foil embossing and just really trying to bring the document back as a central focus of the project like it used to be. When you see historic plans, the documents for them were amazing. So now taking it sort of to the next level and incorporating everybody’s shorter attention span- from the citizens to the elected officials to even the planning departments- wanting to make a document that works for everybody. In the end, I’d like the citizens… I’d like every citizen in the city to have this city master plan sitting on their coffee table and people come over, and they’re like, “Oh, what’s that?” and they pick it up and they look through it together like, “Oh, wow, can you believe [that] this is what we’re thinking for our city.” So we decided to focus on [creating] documents like the documents that we loved to read, and this happened to be cutting-edge magazines like Fast Company, Wired, Inc., you know all these different kinds of magazines that are kind of cool and hip and funky. We had the opportunity when we were working for the city of Burlington [Vermont] because they have a really open mind to doing things differently and like to set themselves apart that we asked [Burlington] if we could design their master plan document as a magazine using these different styles as our jumping-off point, and they thought it was great. So, we set about to do it. Of course, we had to do the charrette and come up with a master plan and all that goes into it, and then we set out to do the graphic design for the document and literally laid it out like a magazine and it has been hugely successful. The citizens have, of course, just as we hoped, were all excited about it. It flew through the approval process. It was actually just approved this week. [It was unanimously approved by] the city council. The next day, we found out it won Vermont Plan of the Year from the Vermont Planners Association. It’s just been remarkable. The response we got while we were at CNU was that those who saw the document sitting up at our booth… it’s clear that something is changing and people are getting excited about it. There’s no question in my mind that using a magazine format, using interesting graphic design, using infographics, instead of just boring data studies and all of [these sorts of things] makes a huge, huge difference to the document’s success.
When I looked at that [magazine-inspired plan] at the booth, I realized that that was the very first plan that I had ever seen that didn’t just copy and paste a table from Excel.
Right. Right. Yeah, we couldn’t bear it. It’s just beyond us to do that. [chuckles] We put in so much of our own blood, sweat, and tears in these documents- I want it to be something I want to look at, too. We’re not just trying to meet our requirements of our contract and move on. We really want to push the boundaries and create something special with each project. The other example we had up there [at the CNU21 booth] was our comprehensive plan for Londonberry, New Hampshire, which we did subsequent to
the Burlington document and Londonberry was a much more conservative, conventional community. I knew that the all-out Burlington model wasn’t appropriate for them, so we had to figure out… How do we take this same concept, same visually eye-catching, easy-to-read, accessible, infographic[-heavy style] and turn it into something that is suitable for that community as well. Understanding your client and the community you’re working in, and tailoring the document to meet them where they are insteadof where you wish they would be is key and important as well because you can [create] a document that can turn people off as well, even if it’s not boring. So it really takes a lot of looking into who your client is, who the city is, and making sure that you’re calibrating everything you do- not just the plans but the document as well.
Thank you for listening. This was Aascot Holt for Global Site Plans.
What are your thoughts on the future of higher education? How will this affect the urban form? Tell us in the comments below!
Credit: References linked to sources. Headshot provided by Brian Wright. Quote blocks created by Aascot Holt.