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To explore the complexity of large-scale public design projects, I conducted a 2-year ethnography of the Orange County Great Park (OCGP) in Irvine, California. The OCGP is one of the United States’ largest, long-term urban planning and design projects, and one that is faced with major problems of contestation and uncertainty. The OCGP planners and designers are faced with extreme challenges: it is an expensive ongoing production for which they must keep resources coming in, while simultaneously maintaining and building public engagement, and keeping hope and belief in the project alive.

My multi-method ethnographic approach included: participant observation; interviews; and archival research of public records, popular media material, and designs. Through these investigations, I found three important elements in the approach to the planning and designing of an extremely long-term project. First, future-oriented, coherent narratives stabilize the project. The extensive and prolific storytelling by the designers and planners creates narrative coherence, holding the stories of the park together to counteract the threats, fluctuations, and uncertainty of the park project. Second, a new concept of design models emerged: living design models. These are active models, open to the public, that through ongoing use, create a recursive relationship between the community and the project. Third, I developed a new concept of myth: living myth. Myth diverts attention away from conflict and encourages people to believe in the project. Living myth emerges through lived experiences, and it grows and changes as a project develops over time. 

Through these elements, the planners and designers do more than build a park—they also construct publics, build community, and offer value-based visions of the future. Coherent narratives, living models, and living myth engage the public in the future and in an idealized version of the present through a more imaginative design and planning process. This imaginative process helps people connect to the OCGP project through values, emotions, and experiences, rather than rational means.