“Pilot Projects”: Ready for the scrap heap of now meaningless buzzspeak?

Throughout my professional career, whenever a new or innovative approach is taken on a development project, its title automatically defaults to that of ‘Pilot Project.’ It occurs so often that I am changing my title to ‘Pilot Project Pilot’ as I would then be involved with pretty much every development proposal out there. Due to overuse, I suspect that conventional ‘Pilot Projects’ will fade away, just as the terms Smart Growth, Watershed Planning, and Lifestyle Centers have.

Pilot Projects exist to test and measure, rightly intended to explore a new approach or innovation as a model in order to further refine requirements and identify any gaps before full implementation can take place on a larger scale. All that sounds great, but far too often I now see ubiquitous Pilot Projects as being:

  1. An easy way out if things don’t go as expected (“We didn’t have to do it…”).
  2. An easy way to stop a project as little is invested (“We didn’t have much invested anyway…”).
  3. A political buzzword for NIMBYs signaling that nobody is really making a commitment (“This is just a test. If it had been an actual development…”).

My frame of reference for the term losing its meaning is when the city of San Diego’s General Plan update process selected five (5) pilot village projects in 2004 — part of our ‘City of Villages’ Strategic Framework — to let people see how ‘smart growth’ would be built. A lot of effort and time went into choosing the projects, discussing and promoting them, and then letting them sit fallow to this day. The plan passed in 2008 without a City of Villages plan or any pilot projects, and thereby our city still struggles with finding appropriate infill development models to build upon.

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Time is of the essence these days as innovation and new development approaches are necessary in our 21st century context of expensive oil, global market crashes, and the near-religion of sustainability. Cities are inventing Innovation Departments and Officers to lead static municipalities out of regulatory silos in order to move more easily into our brave new world. These trends illustrate a planning culture shift from long-term data-driven Planning-by-Numbers (Land Use + Density x Average Daily Trips = Traffic Mitigation) towards more ‘Tactical Urbanism’ projects to be built for immediate civic returns.

Conventional Pilots are too often framed as soft-openings for projects we fear would make profound change, such as downtown redevelopments in the 80s, Transit-Oriented Developments in 90s, and Smart Growth projects in the 00s. But today, in an about-face change to business-as-usual, innovation is being ‘piloted’ by things like parklets, community farms, and pop-up incubator spaces. These small-scale projects give rise to concerns that cities, in their new quest for innovation, will adopt short-term attention-span thinking that tip-toes into the change necessary to compete and survive right now, this minute, at the expense of larger imperatives.

Maybe we should have tested these types of development before we built them across our nation, only to spend the last 30 years tearing them down. (Pruitt-Igoe)

Maybe we should have tested these types of development before we built them across our nation, only to spend the last 30 years tearing them down. (Pruitt-Igoe)

I recommend we go ahead and drop the ‘Pilot’ moniker and attempt to be honest about the need for allowing innovation outright. Success can be found in the rise of open source data sharing, such as Code for America’s mission, which takes a more proactive, hacker-esque approach to creating new civic dialogue platforms with our smartphones and web-based spaces at a city-wide scale. Private organizations, such as Mike Lydon’s Street Plans Collaborative, Fred Kent’s Project for Public Spaces, and Jason Roberts’ The Better Block, have taken a variety of low-cost interventions and turned them into place-proven models.

Perhaps the greatest innovation these new municipal Innovation Officers could adopt will be the ability to tune into, leverage, and build upon these grass roots efforts.

Howard Blackson

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Comments

  1. Lisa Nisenson says:

    Pilot projects are still incredibly important (the new Times Square was one of the most wily pilots in planning history). Tactical urbanism came about from several factors, and those projects are getting a range of people interested in planning again.

    One of the greatest challenges with planning is the concept of failure – what if it doesn’t work? Tactical urbanism (and the business complement in the Lean Startup movement) looks for a “minimum viable product” that can be tested, measured, improved and scaled up in increments. In today’s environment, there is little stomach for wasting taxpayer dollars on failure. Pilot projects were initiated to limit the fallout. Like you write, however, pilot projects lost their purpose of testing and fine tuning what works towards a goal of great PLACEMAKING (my iPad capitalized this word – nicely played).

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