Communities by Smart Design: Mayors' Effort Spreads to the Governors

By Peirce, Neal | Nation's Cities Weekly, August 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Communities by Smart Design: Mayors' Effort Spreads to the Governors


Peirce, Neal, Nation's Cities Weekly


"Gee, I wish my colleagues back home could see this," Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, S.C., recalls thinking as he admired the handsome old urban forms and new design initiatives of European cities on a 1984 trip organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

So Riley, now acknowledged as the dean of major American city mayors--he's served continuously since 1975--is determined to do something about it. Noting his belief that a mayor, through decisions he makes, is" the chief urban designer" of his city, Riley urged creation of what became the Mayors' Institute on City Design, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Twenty years later, close to 700 mayors have attended Mayors' Institute sessions held every 60 days in cities across America. "And the concept hasn't changed," notes Riley: a small number of mayors come, without staff, meeting with teams of experts in architecture, city planning, historic preservation and the like. Each mayor presents a design challenge he's facing; the others challenge and help guide him to solutions.

The mayors leave, as Riley puts it, as "zealous apostles of good urban design," understanding their power to make physical design decisions that will shape their cities for generations.

Or as Mayor David Cicilline of Providence, R.I., recently told me: "The Design Institute is spectacular--the most valuable two and a half days I've been mayor," helping him conceptualize the design challenge of extending his city's famed new Riverwalk.

Says Riley: "I can take you from Anchorage to West Palm Beach, from Honolulu to Boston, and show you parks and fountains, new downtowns, restored Main Streets, affordable housing skillfully designed, splendid public grounds, and so much more that has been shaped by a mayor's participation in the institute."

But today it's not enough, however exciting, to help "mayors hitch their stars to design and become stars," says Jeff Speck, the NEA's director of design. The task is how to design metropolises--whole regions--which means tapping the vast decisionmaking powers of state governments.

So a Governors' Institute on Community Design was announced July 12, again with NEA sponsorship, this time jointly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Three recent governors are leading the effort: Maryland's Parris Glendening (D), who made "smart growth" initiatives a central theme of his administration, Christine Todd Whitman (R) of New Jersey. President Bush's first EPA administrator, and Maine's Angus King, an independent.

Many people's first reaction might be--what do governors have to do with urban design? …

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