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Garbage bags of trash are seen piled up around a trash can that’s painted gold to look like a trophy.
Addressing neighborhood shortcomings doesn’t need to be a reality show.

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Design competitions won’t solve your city’s problems

Contests to fix everyday urban issues create spectacles instead of solutions

At the end of last year, New York City’s sanitation department announced the winner of an 18-month competition to design a “next generation” litter basket. The winning design of the BetterBin contest is a nice-enough-looking metal-and-plastic receptacle by Group Design, intended to be lighter, more durable, and better defended against illegal dumping of household trash.

But if you walk the streets of New York City, you’ll see an array of trash can designs, from stylish to utilitarian, already competently gathering the city’s refuse. The real problem is not poorly designed trash cans making corners messy, but the adjacent sidewalks being blocked by piles of plastic bags awaiting curbside collection—a problem that might be better addressed by moving garbage out of pedestrian thoroughfares.

If local leaders truly want to get trash off the streets, they might give residents a better way to dispose of their household waste, including the many models made for sorting recyclables that are found on every corner in numerous European cities. They might also take a closer look at the city’s trash collection system, which has long suffered from corruption and safety problems. Can New York City’s litter be so different that no existing product or policy can address the mess? Does any city really need to reinvent the trash can?

New York City’s American Idol for garbage is the latest in a long string of efforts by city leaders to jury, select, study, brand, pilot, and prototype shiny branded™ solutions to urban problems instead of picking a perfectly serviceable solution already in existence.

Blame the remnants of Kickstarter urbanism for sparking the latest civic craze. When the crowdfunding platform was young, it crawled with creators seeking attention for their pop-up projects, from underground parks to streetside libraries. Projects that treated urban ills as startup opportunities in need of disruption raised the most money—never mind the actual construction costs, local regulations, or existing zoning.

In their bureaucratic eagerness to present a neat fix to the public, city competitions end up ignoring what the public might actually need.

Take the competition to design a “powerful and enduring symbol” of Silicon Valley in San Jose, California. The five-acre site is part of a much larger city park in need of a makeover that would better serve the densifying downtown neighborhood. A Chicago initiative to design a more affordable version of Chicago’s signature bungalow resulted in a handsome two-flat that’s currently being built for under $300,000. Yet two years later, developers in the city are not building enough starter homes, of any design, to make the city financially accessible. Denver’s public works department solicited designs for scooter-parking corrals in an effort to “reclaim” streetspace for people. Why is the city not giving scooter users safer places in the street to ride them?

It’s true that a number of beloved American icons, including the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Chicago’s Tribune Tower, have been the result of competitions. But as the tools for producing renderings have been democratized, and the strictures on competitions loosened, many design contests have become unwieldy free-for-alls, with the most outrageous entries generating the most publicity. Such designs have a social media allure, of course. But they also create a distraction.

Even back in the early days, competitions were considered publicity stunts—vanity projects for local leaders seeking to bring global attention to their cities. Now leaders are extending a legacy-making mentality once reserved for museums and skyscrapers to basic infrastructure. Not only does infrastructure not require a flashy game-show solution, the game-show approach might produce the wrong final product for the constituents in need.

A Swiss Army knife showing a lamp post, umbrella, and USB charging cable as some of the blades.

In November, the Los Angeles mayor’s office announced a competition to envision a better streetlight design for the city that adapts the traditional stanchion for more modern tasks. “We want the streetlight to operate as something of a Swiss Army knife without necessarily looking like one,” reads the press release. Required elements for LA’s new lamp include not one but two lighting fixtures, an LED strip, a cultural placard, and a shade sail. Suggestions for optional blades include EV charging stations, solar panels, air-quality monitors, cameras, real-time traffic sensors, and digital signage.

LA may well need some of these elements on sidewalks. But the previous mayor embarked upon the “largest LED streetlight replacement project in the world,” swapping out more than 140,000 lights by the time he left office in 2013. So not only does LA not necessarily need to be relit—and, in fact, the city already has an encyclopedic roster of attractive street lamp designs to choose from—it seems like a streetlight isn’t the best way to perform many of these ancillary tasks. Planting more trees near existing lights, for example, would provide many more benefits than appending shade sails.

City leaders often claim that an “open ideas” framework allows anyone to propose a previously ignored solution to an urban problem. But the truth is that these competitions are rarely breakthrough opportunities for new voices.

Submitting a thoughtful, well-researched entry to a competition requires a certain level of privilege. A practitioner must not only have enough well-paying clients to subsidize the extra hours needed to devote to developing a submission, they must also be making enough money in the first place to cover additional expenses from working overtime, like child care. On top of that, many competitions require paying a fee just to enter—with no guarantee of compensation if the winning concept is (ever) implemented.

The idea that competitions are exploitative is not new, of course, but it’s one that has become more urgent over the last few years as the design industries organize for better labor conditions. Why are city leaders who are pushing to raise the minimum wage, or who require their own departments to use unionized workers, soliciting free ideas from potential design contractors and, in many cases, students, instead of paying them fairly for their work?

But the most urgent argument against competitions is that they use up time and energy that our communities can no longer spare. Last year was the second hottest on record. Human dependence on plastic is poisoning our water supply, despoiling natural resources, and clogging landfills. Our most common mode of transportation kills 40,000 people per year, and blankets cities with toxic air. A person making minimum wage can’t afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in any county in the U.S.

What the users of streetlights and trash cans, bus shelters and bike lanes, parks and public bathrooms need is not a new model bedazzled with charging ports and Wi-Fi, but something that works and can be installed citywide today—if not yesterday.

Deferring action by launching a competition not only takes up precious time, it takes the onus off city leaders to make an executive decision that should be inevitable. Remember when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched the Genius Transit Challenge, soliciting ideas to win $1 million to fix the New York City subway? In addition to sucking hours away from his staff, the competition resulted in six months of stalling when the governor might have deployed obvious, much-needed solutions.

Meanwhile, a group of New York Times journalists posed the same question—how would you fix the New York City subway?—to a handful of experts, who outlined many of the same ideas as the winning proposals. For free.

Ideas that have been proven to work elsewhere don’t need to be juried by a panel of thought leaders. They don’t need to be disrupted. They don’t need to be prototyped. They just need to be done.

While we believe in the power of good design for cities, we also believe in the power of good enough design—installed as soon as possible, at a price municipalities can afford, that improves quality of life for the greatest number of people. We need leaders with the political will to place an order for the best product on the market, not perpetuate this fantasy of city exceptionalism.

Many urban problems require the simplest, sturdiest solution. Let’s stop posing questions—and start building the answers.

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