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Observing Place: Creativity & Experiment in Planning

Posted By Administration, Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ashlee Tziganuk, PhD Student
Arizona State University

“It is through creative movement back and forth among experience, reflection upon it, experimental observation, reflexive awareness of such experiments, and the cautious application of specific techniques to individuals and groups that the most promising and dangerous possibilities emerge” (Connolly 2006).

It is sometimes easy to forget about our creativity in academia – in many ways it is discouraged. From the expected publications, research, and practice, the pressures of academia often subdue the ideas that may have the most creative potential. Since beginning graduate school four years ago, I no longer have the energy and mental capacity to engage with my own personal creative hobbies, nor do I feel as though I am allowed to be creative within the confines of academia. For the first time in my career, I’m asking myself what happens when I drop expectations (real or imagined) and allow creativity to seep into the work I spend so much of my time engrossed in. The answer comes in the form of a thought experiment unique to urban planning. The purpose of the experiment is simple – taking time to observe, feel, and experience a place that was interfered with, manipulated, and planned for.

Why undertake such an experiment? In many ways it is to better understand whom or what we are planning for. So often we enter into places with an outcome already in mind. Single-family homes here, mixed use over there – when does the place speak for itself? When do we listen to the people, objects, and non-humans of place? Creative thought experiments bring out the nuances of place, evolving planners from passive to active participants. It is my hope that my own creative experiment sheds light on the benefits of thought experiments in academia and in practice, showing that pushing our typical, restrictive boundaries can result in our growth as planners and in the communities we help develop.

Rather than overthinking the location of my thought experiment, I let the exceptionally nice weather pull me outside into Civic Space Park in downtown Phoenix. The moment I arrive at the park, my eyes are pulled toward the sidewalk. A young black man is embarking on a joy ride in an old person’s scooter – the mood is playful. At the same time, a cop lurches in on a Segway, eyeing the man on the scooter, his presence emanating a cartoonish dominance. Yet even through the seemingly comedic actions of both parties, their interaction reveals a power dynamic at play. In a moment of suspension, I wait for the cop to reveal his imposed authority. The moment is quickly shattered as the cop moves on to survey the rest of the park, leaving this open public space feeling constricted and unwelcoming. Lesson number one: experimentation has the potential to reveal subtle issues of place that could go unnoticed otherwise.

Photo Credit: Ashlee Tziganuk

A few minutes later, a man who appears to be transient comes up to me laughing: “You think I could trade my agave water for a sandwich at the café? It is called fair trade”. I laugh along with him, painfully aware that I do not know how to interact with him beyond this level. As he walks away, I begin to pay close attention to the transient population in the park. How are people without a home using a place that was never designed for them? Is it naïve of me to assume this is not their home? I think back to Stewart (2010) and the “sensory labor of attuning as a homeless person” (450). Lesson number two: part of creativity in planning includes moving beyond the conventional academic and practical approach, involving perspectives beyond the researcher or planner.

Photo Credit: Ashlee Tziganuk

I ponder the history of Civic Space Park with an emphasis on the evolution of the place over time. Interestingly, the place’s prominent changes in function relate to the park’s adjoining A.E. England building. What was once a local car dealership in 1926 eventually became an electrical equipment company. The building is listed on the Phoenix Historical Property Register and was renovated in 2008 (A.E. England Building 2017). Today, the building houses a café, art galleries, and events, but physical traces of the past do not appear evident. Is this the beginning of a new Phoenician identity, or is it an “inscription of memory on space” that is “caught up in regulatory regimes which determine where and how things, activities, and people should be placed” (Edensor 2005, 833)? Lesson number three: though planning is a progressively oriented field, remnants of a place’s past, including its history and people, are vital in securing a sustainable future for place.

The lessons drawn from these observations are captured within the park’s defining sculpture, entitled Her Secret is Patience. The mammoth, suspended sculpture resembles the shape of a cylinder, illuminated at night with cool colored lights in the summer and warmer colors in the winter. Inspired by Arizona monsoon clouds and desert plants, artist Janet Echelman sought to provide a piece representative of place (Her Secret is Patience 2017). One Arizona editorial writer proclaims: “Yes. This is just what Phoenix needs: a distinctive feature that helps create a real sense of place” (Park’s details 2009). Looking back on my observational lessons, I find this statement questionable. Who is this $2.5 million sculpture really providing a sense of place for? Does it accurately reflect the people, objects, and non-humans of Phoenix? Perhaps the commonly overheard descriptions of the sculpture as a jellyfish and tornado hint at the answers to these questions.

Photo Credit: Ashlee Tziganuk

This creative thought experiment shows there is so much a planner can learn from taking the time to observe places they may plan for. It is only when we turn ourselves into active participants of place that we can begin to make informed decisions about its future. This is not to say, however, that the planner’s observation is law. I have tried my best to remain self-aware of my status and position as an academic and future planner holding potential positions of power. When am I the cop and when am I the man on the scooter? How can we continue to push the boundaries of academia, adopting more creative approaches to ensure we’re planning for our communities to the best of our ability?

Works Cited
A. E. England Building. (2017). Retrieved April 17, 2017, from

DeSilvey, C. (2017). When Story Meets the Storm. In Curated decay: heritage
beyond saving
, 47-72. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Edensor, T. (2005). The Ghosts of Industrial Ruins: Ordering and Disordering
Memory in Excessive Space. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), 829-849.

Her Secret Is Patience. (2017). Retrieved April 17, 2017, from

Park's details, sculpture a nod to city's future. (2009).

Stewart, K. (2010). Atmospheric attunements. Environment and Planning D:
Society and Space
, 29(3), 445-453.

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