Rethinking Our Approach to the Design of Mountain View

Yes! I performed a mental fist pump just reading the title, People Focused Design: Making Mountain View a Great Place to Live. Thank you, Bruce Liedstrand for bringing up the concept. I applaud the notion that design ought to center on people. It should be a given starting point in any design project, especially one that deals with the public realm.

The public realm is what unifies a city, gives it character and diversity. The design of the public realm is the physical manifestation of how a city prioritizes the shared needs of their community. It includes buildings that house public functions, like schools, libraries, and City Hall, as well as open spaces and parks. Often overlooked as components of the public realm, but having an enormous impact in our experience of a place are the streets, the sidewalks, and to a large degree, the buildings that front those streets. Regardless of whether a building is private or public, regardless of the building’s use, the height and massing of a building, its architecture, the relationship of the ground-floor to a public sidewalk or street, etc.- they all act in tandem to create the experience of our public spaces.

Think about any great city. Though there are iconic structures, I’d bet that your experience walking the boulevards, residential streets, plazas, and parks, and your exposure to the people are a significant, if not the primary reason, that makes that city great in your mind. It is the shared spaces, the public realm, that provide the greatest sense of place.

The same holds true for our city. The public realm is what we collectively know as Mountain View. How these spaces interact with each other and how we interact with those spaces should be the starting point for any project. Perhaps we should consider the design of the city in terms of a weaving of public spaces.

Someone recently posed to me what I thought were excellent questions:

Where do you take your out-of-town family and friends when you want to show them Mountain View? Why there?

In 2009, my husband and I chose to live in Mountain View over other neighboring cities after seeing the downtown, but it was the potential for the downtown to become even better that excited me. I recently learned a bit about the history of Mountain View, and fully appreciate the effort in the late 1980’s to redesign Castro Street, laying the foundation for a wonderful public space.

There’s a lot to be proud of in our city, but lately I have been less excited by the direction of our downtown. I am not alone. I hear grumblings of frustration from neighbors and friends. I’m told several downtown businesses are suffering, the landscaping and sidewalk upkeep too. Many are dismayed that historic buildings have been, and are, slated for removal. A couple of the newest downtown buildings are designed to subtly push the public rather away rather than invite them in. Parking is a grievance. Is this the experience the community wants?

Typically, a city evolves slowly over time. Even a single development project can take time. If it has a not-so-great outcome, it usually doesn’t impact the city for a couple years, and even then, not to a great extent. However, we are living at a moment when an enormous push for development is occurring in an incredibly compressed amount of time, stemming from many small and large, and even powerful companies. Collectively, the developments in the pipeline for Mountain View as a whole (maybe 70 or more?) will greatly impact our city for the foreseeable future. These developments can change the entirety of our city, make or break our sense of what Mountain View is. It is imperative that we make incredibly smart and educated decisions.

I do not envy the Council members. The weight of their responsibility is great. I believe they have the best intentions for the city, and have moved the city in a positive way on many fronts. However, we must aim higher.

I know Council is always open to hearing our voices, but there seems to be a disconnect between what the community seeks and values for our shared spaces and what we are getting in terms of new development. If people-focused design starts with understanding what the community wants, it begs the question,“ How we can improve the dialogue?”

When we dig deep into the questions of how to design our public realm with people at the focus, we inevitably get tangled in issues such as parking, retail, infrastructure, safety, transportation, schools, etc. Just as our lives intersect and overlap as citizens of Mountain View, so do all the issues that relate to our daily living. Each is a challenging topic in its own right and requires specific input by experts in each field, but they cannot be addressed in isolation. Similarly, we cannot address each development in isolation without first having a comprehensive plan for the overall design of our city. These all need to be examined in whole in order to provide a framework so we can better address the parts.

We rely on Council to be to be the voice and hand of the community, to ensure that decisions made today are part of a well-planned strategy for the future of our shared city, a future that considers its people at the core. A lot of change is coming fast. We need to do better and we need to do it quickly, even if it means taking a step back to reassess our approach to designing our city.

It is too much to expect the council members to be experts in every field in which they govern. It is my hope that they are humble enough to seek expertise in order to examine what hasn’t worked as well, and then enlist professionals versed in people-focused design to help face the wave of development that seems to be upon us. Designing for the whole is a problem-solving process that requires all our available experts and resources to come together. Mountain View is planted in an area that prides itself as a center for innovation and creative thought. I imagine that if we pool experience, common sense, and creativity, between the will of the city and its people, we could sow some pretty ingenious ways to address these mundane issues.

Joyce Yin,
Concerned Citizen, Architect, and Urban Designer

One thought on “Rethinking Our Approach to the Design of Mountain View

  1. Mary says:

    Knowing that some city council members have been heavily funded by developers (and even continue to receive funds post election), at a minimum they should recluse themselves from any development decisions. It is dismaying to hear such members talk about a “mandate for development” when less than 40% of eligible voters even voted. To my knowledge, Mountain View has no architectural review board that would help to retain our heritage, even among neighborhoods where square-faced concrete blocks are replacing our beloved historic homes.

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