A NEXUS FOR CHANGE
Over the past twenty-five years Concordia has been focused on the development of an integrated community planning and design strategy. We have come to call this strategy nexus planning and design. The nexus maximizes community life outcomes and benefits for everyone through an alignment of the community’s physical, cultural, social, economic, organizational, and educational assets and needs. Our work has been applied to educational and community development projects in some of the nation’s most challenging rural sites and urban neighborhoods. Most recently our nexus planning tools were used to shape a rebuilding plan for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The core principle of nexus planning is systemic alignment. One example of this alignment was first explained to us by Dr. Leonard Duhl, an early founder of the international Healthy Cities movement, who has been a friend and mentor for more than twenty years. Dr. Duhl is both a medical doctor and urban planner. As a medical doctor, he observed that living bodies and cities have many common characteristics. For example, the living body has a system of veins and arteries that distribute cells and nutrients to a wide group of component parts. Cities have highways and roads that serve a similar function. Bodies have neurological pathways that carry electrical impulses that contain vital information for coordination and growth. Cities have telecommunications infrastructure to address many of the same needs. Bodies also have organs that are arranged in a way where each depends on the other for survival. If any one of these organs is unhealthy, the whole body suffers. If one organ fails to perform, whether or not it is the all-powerful heart or the lowly liver, the whole body will be threatened with sickness or death. In cities, these organs are difficult to define, but at Concordia we have learned to visualize them through a system of six components that comprise the physical, cultural, social, economic, organizational and educational domains of the community’s most vital assets and needs.
The first of these six interactive planning domains is physical. It includes all of the community’s built and natural resources, including structures, highways, electronic communications infrastructure along with natural resources, such as parks and recreation areas.
The second category of assets is contained within the community’s cultural domain. Included in this category are programs and artifacts related to individual and collective values, including ethnic, religious and aesthetic diversity.
The third domain incorporates a wide range of the community’s social assets and needs. These include all aspects of well being, including programs related to health and human services.
The fourth component of this integrated system of community resources falls within the economic domain, encompassing programs that balance all forms of financial, human and environmental capital.
A fifth domain incorporates all of the community’s organizational programs and services – everything from family units to specialty clubs; city and county school boards, special interest groups, and a myriad of other private, civic and political entities. The domain of organizational activities also includes the mechanisms through which community issues are deliberated and implemented.
The sixth domain of the community nexus incorporates all of its educational resources and learning assets, including everything from prenatal clinics to pre-kindergarten, elementary and high schools and all post-secondary programs for continuing education, workforce training and lifelong learning.
Although each of these planning domains incorporates a different set of assets, it is the interactions among them that drive the community system as a whole. As with the case of the human body, when the nexus of community resources is operating at its full potential, it means that the community’s systems are working in a healthy and synergistic mode. It is here that educational assets can connect with social services to improve student achievement and graduation rates; where public green space can be integrated with under-utilized human resources to support micro-gardening and healthy food alternatives; or where cultural resources can be effectively integrated with social assets to create programs such as health clinics for impoverished musicians – and on and on. These and other related interactions combine to form a living web, where each component of the total system is reinforced through a network of open source information and transparent communication. When the system is operating in full swing – and in tune with the heartbeat of its community, all of its parts support the collective whole at the same time that the whole is strengthening each of its individual parts.
Applying the same six nexus domains to the common edge of architectural design can address creative challenges at a different scale. For example, the physical domain of architecture can be used to manifest harmony and order in the universe. Tools like numerology and sacred geometry, as well as their some contemporary counterparts like bio-mimicry, algebraic topology can be engaged to shape and harmonize physical space. A similar set of design tools exists in the cultural domain of design. These include the use of symbolic shapes, narrative storytelling or poetic citations similar to those that have been integrated into building design throughout history, along with Innovative applications of public art, music and historic context. Architectural manifestations in the social domain address the need for equity and justice. These can include things from affordability to accommodations for the infirm and disabled, healthy and ecologically responsible materials and advocacy for fair trade purchasing and building practices. The economic domain of design embraces the balance of resources that are needed to maximize financial, environmental and human capital. At the heart of these concepts is the search for things like equity, quality, durability and life cycle cost-to-value relationships. Design decisions that address the functional and aesthetic needs of specific groups and community interests are accommodated within the organizational domain. This category also includes self-organizing and collaborative processes of design decision-making, and the degree to which various components of collaboration are implemented through small and large group participation. Finally, the educational domain of form making can manifest the concepts of mathematics, geometry, science, language, history and social behavior as part of a more holistic and generative architectural language that ties these knowledge resources to their many user constituents. As with the six domains of planning, these architectural design interventions often work in tandem to create architectural alignments that at Concordia we have dubbed “design harmonies.”
The work of nexus planning and design is most effective when it is delivered thorough a collaborative process that involves students, parents, educators, business partners and others who have a genuine stake in the final outcome. This dialogue can occur through any or all of three democratic planning techniques. The first of these techniques allows for stakeholder contributions through proxy. Here elected or appointed officials assume the responsibility for interpreting some of the wants and needs of their assigned constituents. The second model increases stakeholder involvement to a level that we call community participation. Here stakeholders are invited to contribute ideas and opinions through blue ribbon committees or public hearings. In this case, pre-determined scenarios are usually presented with a request for individual comments that are then adjudicated by the appropriate governing authority. The third option for democratic decision-making is through community engagement. This model involves extensive levels of collaboration and partnership with community stakeholders through all aspects of the planning and design process. Here large groups of participants representing a cross-section of the community assemble at various intervals to review data, investigate options and make concrete recommendations to the public and private governing bodies charged with carrying out their collective will. This model usually results in greater ownership of the final outcomes, and more often than not a more effective support system for funding and implementation. Although the community engagement model is sometimes considered to be more expensive or time consuming, the open dialogue it fosters encourages the resolution of issues without combative and costly delays that often result from isolated in-fighting, lawsuits or protracted debates.
But whether the community outreach process is implemented through proxy, participation or engagement, certain time honored principles of collaboration always apply. Noted jazzman Wynton Marsalis describes these as the principles of swing. Marsalis writes:
Swing demands three things. It requires extreme coordination, because it is a dance with other people who are inventing steps as they go. It requires intelligent decision-making, because what’s best for you is not necessarily best for the group or for the moment. And it requires good intentions, because you have to trust that you and the other musicians are equally interested in making great music and are not guided by ego or musical shortcomings that haven’t been addressed .….. Our current lack of respect for the swing can be likened to the current state of our democracy. Balance is required to maintain something as delicate as democracy, a subtle understanding of how your power can be magnified through joining with and sharing the power of another person. When that is no longer understood, it becomes a battle to see who is the strongest, who is the loudest, who can get the most attention.