Public Engagement – The transparency of the sometimes-controversial public projects
Before we even begin to design a project, we often get tasked with how to inform communities and the public on why such facilities are needed. This can be of paramount importance due to the need for public funding or decisions on making necessary changes to the community fabric and preserving the history, safety, and knowledge within.
Designing for peace of mind
For instance, most people do not even know where their county jail is located until it becomes a topic of conversation. However, it doesn’t make the messaging any less important. Communities want the safety and security of a space to raise families, walk streets alone, and enjoy minimal disruptions to everyday life. As we venture into promoting public safety and justice projects, most clients and communities have three main concerns.
1) Where is it going to be located?
2) How much is it going to cost?
3) What will it look like/how big?
These three questions are important, but the initial thoughts behind them are all wrong – majoritively negative.
For the first question, people love the “NIMBY – Not in my backyard” statement. We understand the need for these facilities. Still, suppose we place them around residential areas. In that case, people immediately fear property loss value, degradation of schools, increased crime in the immediate area, etc. During the majority of its existence, a facility has been primarily located in downtown metropolitan areas. However, with the cost of property and construction on the steady rise, these sites inhibit the growth necessary for a full-service detention center, therefore causing government officials to look to more rural settings.
The second question provides an even harder appeal to the public because the government usually relies on tax increases to help pay for such facilities. Public safety and, more importantly, keeping hardened criminals off the streets, is everyone’s job. Let’s face it, this is not the most glamorous job in the world, and a well-designed facility can be the difference to individuals walking off the job or that their safety and security are valued for helping protect the innocent. More demand is being put on rehabilitation and treatment options for individuals, and we all want to produce law-abiding (and tax-paying) citizens to be a part of our communities.
The third question is somewhat tricky. It’s a balance between most counties not wanting “Taj Mahals,” but needing a facility that functions well, is planned for the future, and if it has a more public-facing component like a court facility, the look does need to match the need. Courthouses are historically the focus of the town square, and some of these courthouses date back to the 18th century. Again, jails are more about function than look, and officer safety is paramount in our designs. We work with all officials to develop a solution that meets the county’s budget, the Sheriff’s expectations, and pride in the community as a necessary facility.
As architects, we experience various outcomes but most positive outcomes come from transparency to the public, a consensus of government officials, and a strong support system for public safety.