It Takes a Village to Raise a Mayor

Smart mayors who get the value design and its ability to transform communities don’t just grow on trees. They are the product of lots of different advisors and their thinking is shaped by organizations like the Mayor’s Institute on City Design (MICD), an initiative founded in the mid-1980s by the American Architectural Foundation, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). At a session at the 2011 ASLA Annual Meeting, MICD director Story Bellows, Mitchell Silver, director of planning, Raleigh, North Carolina and president of the American Planning Association (APA), Mark Dawson, ASLA, Sasaki Associates, and Mami Hara, ASLA, Wallace, Roberts & Todd and Philadelphia Water department, discussed how MICD has helped educate and empower mayors. They also covered the role the various design professions play in advising elected officials, and how they are all more effective if they work collaboratively.

The Value of Design Professionals in City Design

Some 873 mayors from 500 communities have gone through MICD’s program in the last 25 years. In sets of eight, mayors are expected to bring a major issue that confounds them. The problems are then discussed with design teams comprised of eight expert architects, urban designers, landscape architects, and planners. The goal, said Bellows, was to give mayors a “great set of strategies,” and a deeper understanding — that “design is more than just pretty parks.”

For APA president Mitchell Silver, it’s important to educate elected officials that great cities “don’t just happen by accident.” In 1959, Raleigh became the first city to create a research park. As a result, beginning in the 1990s, the city became a top place to do business and live. In addition, part of the process of education is explaining to elected officials the true nature of demographic change. “We have to understand who were planning and designing for.” Building in diversity for different generations is crucial. “Their values drive consumer preferences and what the community looks like.” It’s increasingly important for planners and design professionals to design for a younger generation as well: “We can’t be building a polaroid community for a digital generation. Communities fail if not designed for the right demographic.”

Silver made the point that planners and design professionals are crucial to ensuring that communities guide development efforts. “Do you want communities to define character of new development or have new developments guide the character of the community?” He said people know if something isn’t authentic so it’s very important to get that right. Silver pointed to Savannah as an example of a city that understands this, and “builds off its local anatomy.”

Furthermore, planners can also value by using land differently. High-rise residential buildings in downtowns provide a much better return on investment, tax-wise, in comparison with a sprawled-out suburban development. “By not investing in downtowns, mayors will be saying I will raise your taxes.” He also tells his own planning staff it’s the role of planners to “create an experience,” but it can’t be done alone – it must be a multi-disciplinary process with landscape architects and other design professionals, and mayors are also demanding this as well.

Mark Dawson, ASLA, a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates, said MICD has helped “elevate the understanding of key objectives” and the “value of landscapes.” He added, however, that it’s important to forge an understanding with communities. “Sometimes this is rewarding. Other times this is very hard work. It can be a struggle, but once the communities informs the designers and the designers inform the communities, solutions are found.”

Mami Hara, ASLA, WRT and interim chief of staff at the Philadelphia Water department, now works with elected officials, including federal and state representatives. She creates briefings for the Philadelphia mayor on green infrastructure. She said, funnily, that it really “takes a village to raise an elected official.” Like anyone, they use an iterative learning process and glean things from many different advisors. So it’s important for landscape architects, in the context of MICD programs and elsewhere, to collaborate with other designers to build consensus and “circle the wagons” so elected officials feel compelled to make the right decisions. As with anyone, elected officials get things better if they connect their ideas to personal experiences.

MICD’s Recommendations Put Cities First

Recently, MICD convened 300 attendees, including some 50-60 mayors, the heads of the major U.S. federal departments, and leaders of philanthropies, to discuss how to “set the agenda for cities for the next 25 years.” Key recommendations that came out of a 2-day series of workshops included:

  • Break down government barriers and silos
  • Government needs to change the 20th century regulations that stand in the way of innovation
  • Support and reward innovation
  • Direct funds towards cities instead of states
  • Incorporate urban design into the structure of government.

In the area of design and transportation, MICD recommendations included:

  • Create a new, more sustainable federal vision that can be translated at the state and local levels
  • Generate revenues through local transportation and services
  • Level with the American people about the true cost of transportation
  • Shift thinking away from single-modal and towards multi-modal transportation and balanced transportation systems.

To generate new models of development, recommendations were:

  • Take advantage of existing building stock
  • Make under-utilized land more available for redevelopment
  • Get the federal government to assist with brownfield remediation and reuse
  • Encourage developers to “provide necessities”
  • Prepare for market shift to urban development.

To more towards 21st century cities, recommendations focused in on:

  • Revisit ways to evaluate success. What about public health?
  • Leverage new technologies to engage the public
  • Focus on operational elements. Maintenance is critical
  • Find new models of public engagement.

All agreed that perhaps the central recommendation was directing funds towards cities, not states. Hara said “sometimes the federal government trusts cities and sometimes they don’t. It’s important to gain and keep the federal government’s trust by being consistently responsible with the use of funds.” Cities need to prove their capacity to manage their own development, but aren’t many already doing this? As Mayor Michael Nutter said at MICD’s summit, “give me the money. I know what to do with it.” Silver added that in one closed session, Nutter also stuck it to some  of Obama’s top appointed officials, saying “if I behaved like the federal government, I’d be fired.” Silver said the focus on cities is crucial, but funds should really go to metro areas more broadly.

Another point of agreement was the need to undo the legacy codes stifling innovation. Silver said codes turn into “bloated homeowner association documents.” There needs to be a shift to “form-based codes.” Still so many things he wants to do in Raleigh are technically illegal.

There was some disagreement as to whether small-scale projects really add value. Hara believed that small, grassroots projects are an “important trend today,” given “single, large-scale projects are harder to do.” Pragmatic design is the new approach, but mayors are still pushing the boundaries. Dawson agreed, asking the question: “what is small scale?” He believed these projects are easier to scale up. However, Silver thinks it’s time to go big scale. “We need to press the reset button. America is demanding big solutions to big problems. I don’t want ‘It’ll do’ to be good enough.” 

No More Divide and Conquer Among the Design Professions

Design professionals must better sell their own value. “It can’t just be an attractive landscape. A project has to transform a place.” Parks do create more value but their value must be communicated in economic terms, “the currency of today,” said Silver. Hara agreed that landscape architects think they are providing great value, but they may be the only ones who do. “We can synthesize all the elements that go into urban systems better than anyone, but we have to learn the language people on center stage, the bankers and financiers, use. Our language is not mainstream.” Silver said designers and planners are actually more critical to public health than doctors, and have more impact and responsibility. “The bumper sticker should read: Landscape architects: We make you healthy.”

One irate planning professor, who stormed out of the room after delivering his missive, put it to Silver that “landscape architects have eaten our lunch, and have taken over the role of planners, while planners have been regulated to code enforcement.” He wondered why planning organizations have been talking about revising codes for 30 years but have made so little progress? Also, public finance is tapped out, so when will planners get serious about leveraging private financing? Silver said there were a number of reasons landscape architects have begun to take the lead in creating master plans, but largely agreed, saying he was elected APA president to fix this. He added: “Planners are in the public sector. We can’t approve codes.” He also called for expanding the use of private-public partnerships (PPPs). But his big point was that all design professions need to collaborate.

While the architecture, landscape architecture professions and “social reformers,” who later became planners, were born around 1909, their divergence has been to their detriment. “We need more collaboration between urban designers, architects, engineers, landscape architects, and planners. They all need to be at the table. It can’t be the destructive divide and conquer approach among the design professions. We have to work together.” Hara added that consolidation among government departments reflects this attempt to become more multidisciplinary. She and Dawson also called for the rise of new hybrid “landscape architect / engineers” who can add credibility. Silver said “plan-gineers” are already doing great work on transportation infrastructure in Raleigh.

Lastly, another audience member, Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA, principal at WRT, also called for the formation of a new “Institute of Community Design,” saying that community-driven design presents an enormous “untapped opportunity.” “More and more communities have to realize their own visions in the absence of coding.” In other words, elected officials don’t have the monopoly on cities. It may be important to grow the efforts of communities themselves.

Image credit: City of Raleigh Moore Square Redevelopment / City of Raleigh

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