Monday, October 28, 2013

Leading by Example

Maurice Cox, FAIA (right) delivers the keynote presentation at the inaugural Making Great Cities forum (photo by Michael Soraci, Assoc. AIA)
A diverse audience packed the Center for Meeting and Learning at Lane Community College’s new downtown campus on Friday, October 19 to attend the first of the Making Great Cities series of community-wide forums about design excellence at the building, urban, and metro scales. Produced by a new and creative partnership(1), Making Great Cities promises timely, meaningful, and defining dialogue about how to improve our built environment. 

Design Excellence Committee program coordinator Kaarin Knudsen, Assoc. AIA, set the evening’s table by citing Eugene’s recent progress on the urban design front. She noted how most of us today recognize it’s less about if change will happen downtown and more about what this change is, how it is occurring, and the impetus it is building. 

The successes of recent developments in our city’s core hint at the possibilities. The sidewalks are bustling with pedestrians for the first time in decades. Recently vacant storefronts are filled once more. New businesses are choosing to make downtown their home. Happily, the notorious “pits” are filled in and a fading memory. As Kaarin observed, now is a propitious time to broaden the discussion about what it will take to make certain downtown Eugene’s future as our metropolitan area’s vibrant urban core is assured. 

Michael Fifield, FAIA expounded on the role design excellence plays in the making of a great city and introduced the inimitable Bob Hastings, FAIA, who in turn introduced the evening’s keynote speaker, Maurice Cox, FAIA. 

Maurice is the former mayor of Charlottesville, VA, a past member of the faculty at the University of Virginia, co-founder of the national SEED (Social, Economic, Environmental, Design) Network, and is now director of Tulane University’s City Center Initiative. During his fruitful appointment as Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts, Maurice oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, and Your Town: The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design. At the NEA, he helped to provide professional leadership in architecture and design at many levels of government for a diverse collection of communities. Maurice’s history of forging real ties between design education, the political realm, and the public has garnered him broad respect as a community designer and leader of the public interest design movement. 

The primary message Maurice delivered in Eugene was that architects must act as leaders to ensure design excellence is at the center of any discussion about the future of our cities. He quoted Thomas Jefferson, who famously declared that “design activity and political thought are indivisible.” Fundamentally, it is Maurice’s belief that exercising leadership is the way to build a constituency for design excellence and influence a community to confront its adaptive challenges—those gaps between a community’s values and the current reality that cannot be closed by routine behavior. 

Perhaps the most significant of these adaptive challenges is identifying who needs to be at the table during deliberations about the future of our cities. The people who most need to be there are perhaps not the first we would think of. Maurice pointed out it is precisely those whose behavior and beliefs must be changed that would benefit the most by being a part of the discussion. Engendering a culture that values design excellence does not happen in an echo chamber. 

Translating a vocabulary foreign to most people requires leaders committed to that task, designers who enjoy the process of engagement. A designer in the public arena—as Maurice has been—has an opportunity to engage and bring together everyone who has a stake in the future of a city. This creates a dialogue that can touch on the benefits and not just the risks of change. 

Maurice enjoyed 17 years in Charlottesville, both in academia and the political arena, plenty of time during which he would make his mark. During his tenure as mayor, he advanced a platform premised upon developing a public appreciation for design excellence. Maurice’s measure of success is the extent to which citizens come to understand design excellence is synonymous with quality of life and a basic democratic right as opposed to something that should only be available to those that can afford it.

How did he do this? Maurice created more venues for design leadership in Charlottesville and then exploited those to the fullest extent possible. He worked to change his city’s values structure such that more people than before view design as a public issue and believe design excellence makes good fiscal sense. 

Maurice described 10 strategies he backed to promote this agenda: 

1.  Pace change and the community will make courageous choices
  • Use public process to build a community’s capacity to accept change
  • Take the necessary time to build trust
  • Establish a constituency for design excellence
2.  Encourage elected leaders to be visionary and think long-term
  • Educate elected officials about the art and design of cities
3.  Lead with public investment and private investment will follow
  • Raise the bar 
  • Serve the public interest 
  • Award young, fresh-thinking design firms (less than five years) with public commissions
4.  Change the rules of development
  • Implement new zoning ordinances 
  • Allow high density to happen
5.  Foster neighborhoods’ unique identities
  • Engage neighbors in the rewriting of the rules for development
6.  Make a place for designers in the civic life of your community
  • Encourage architects to serve on planning commissions, design review panels, or pursue political office (during his administration, Maurice appointed 24 Charlottesville designers to boards and commissions) 
  • Use public art to delight and provoke thought. If you use public art to delight and provoke thought, citizens will reengage in public life. 
  • Provide a “neutral ground” away from City Hall and city departments to serve as a forum for community discussions and education about design excellence
7.  Engage young people in solving problems & design the best places for them
  • Build a youthful enthusiasm and expectation for design excellence
8.  Lead by example
  • Embody the best design thoughts in the development of public spaces
9.  Hold design competitions
  • Engender a culture of design excellence 
  • Use student design competitions as testing grounds for new ideas
10.  Design according to your community’s values
  • Enlarge the community’s capacity to accept change
The results in Charlottesville have been remarkable. Among the successful projects the city developed over a period of years (not overnight) are the central Charlottesville transit hub, and a vibrant pedestrian mall boasting highly patronized performance venues, shops, and restaurants at street level with residences above.
Maurice drew comparisons between Charlottesville and Eugene. Like others in the audience, I found the urge to make such comparisons irresistible. Both cities are college towns of not dissimilar sizes, but it is the differences between the two that are more noteworthy. 
Unlike Eugene, Charlottesville’s development is not constrained by an urban growth boundary. Oregon’s enlightened land use legislation serves to preserve irreplaceable natural and agricultural areas in the vicinity of its towns and cities. The absence of similar UGB regulations in Virginia could result in uncontrolled sprawl but Charlottesville’s emphasis upon growing up, growing better and the virtues of urban density counter the lure of spreading outward. 
Charlottesville formed a “Design Task Force” comprised of respected architects, academics, and citizens to vet the design of key public projects. Eugene has yet to take this step; a sea change will be necessary before I can imagine there will enough support for such a concept in our community. 
Local architects established the Charlottesville Community Design Center, which elevated the status of design and served as a common ground for progressive ideas about how to improve the city from physical, policy, and social perspectives. The Center successfully bridged the gap between aspirations and reality while building the public’s trust in the power of good design. It emphasized the inclusionary aspect of design processes and promotes designers as facilitators, problem solvers, activists, and advocates. AIA-SWO objectives for its nascent design center, the Octagon, are similar. Charlottesville’s experience serves as an example for Eugene’s design community to emulate. 
The late U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan greatly influenced Maurice’s thinking. Moynihan was a champion of the GSA’s Design Excellence Program for federal architecture. He believed the quality of design is a public issue and a political fact. Maurice cited Moynihan to remind us that good design for all people has far-reaching ramifications. He is sustaining Moynihan’s legacy while also doing his part to advance public architecture and urban design. 
Charlottesville’s Freedom of Speech Wall, the result of an open competition for a public art piece. Photo by Daniel Rothamel [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Without a doubt in my mind, the AIA-SWO Design Excellence Committee absolutely made the correct choice in selecting Maurice as its speaker for the inaugural Making Great Cities forum. Broadening the discussion about design excellence and its value to Eugeneans is precisely the message the audience gathered needed to hear. Our city may be on the verge of viewing design excellence as a political imperative. If the Making Great Cities series continues to present speakers of the caliber of Maurice Cox, I’m confident we’ll cross this threshold sooner rather than later.  

(1)  Led by the AIA/SWO Design Excellence Committee and including the City Club of Eugene, the University of Oregon, local community groups, Lane Transit District, and the City of Eugene.

No comments: