October 1, 2003
He remade Milwaukee: now Mayor John Norquist will try reforming cities around the U.S. in his new role as leader of the Congress for New Urbanism.
By the time he steps down in January, three months before the end of his forth and final term, John Norquist will have been mayor of Milwaukee for more than 15 years-the longest tenure of any current mayor of a major American city. He’s leaving not just the job, but also his beloved Milwaukee to take the presidency of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), which is relocating its headquarters from San Francisco to Chicago. Norquist helped found the traditionalist urban-planning organization a decade ago, and its principles-curbing sprawl and encouraging dense, pedestrian-friendly city centers-have deeply informed his administration’s policies and initiatives.
Though his final term was marred by a sexual-harassment scandal that led him to announce last year that he wouldn’t seek reelection, the legacy Norquist leaves Milwaukee is a remarkable one. “His imprint here will be felt in the form of beautiful bridges, a new generation of walkable neighborhoods and street-friendly facades, and the unbuilding of an ugly freeway spur,” architecture critic Whitney Gold wrote in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “That’s not fluff; it’s the stuff of livable cities.”
Metropolis associate editor Jonathan Ringen recently spoke to Norquist about architect Santiago Calatrava, the future of Lower Manhattan, and why the perception that New Urbanists are opposed to Modernism is just a big misunderstanding.
Of all the topics that Metropolis covers, New Urbanism is among the most polarizing. Why do you think that is?
I think there are a lot of people who are disgusted by sprawl and attracted to urbanism but can’t believe that there could be an organization that actually has some clear remedies. It’s a little bit arrogant to come up with a name like New Urbanism. The name Congress for New Urbanism refers back historically to the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), which was the organizational vehicle of the Modernist city planners. The town-planning structure that existed before that-the street, the block, the fabric of the city-was wiped out and replaced with Le Corbusier’s The City of Tomorrow. Sprawl is basically a creation of that.
So the Congress for New Urbanism comes along and wants to undo what CIAM did. And it takes on sort of an anti-Modernist cast when it does that. I don’t think the CNU is against Modernism, or against modern architecture, but rather against the Modernist city planning that was promoted by CIAM. So you get confused and think CNU members are against Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava.
Does New Urbanism differ from the classic Jane Jacobs-style urbanism?
Not at all. The CNU worships Jane Jacobs. She met with CNU at the Toronto Congress. Jane Jacobs is open to anyone who wants to embrace her ideas.
What are the CNU’s tools?
Public debate; promulgation of codes; the practice of architects, engineers, and planners. Hope VI was a creation of the CNU through [Clinton administration HUD Secretary] Henry Cisneros. Hope VI is now under attack. The Bush administration is trying to take it out, but I don’t think they’re really attacking the ideas or the principles behind Hope VI. I think they are partially attacking it for the name, Hope—Hope, Arkansas, the birthplace of Clinton [laughs]-and partially because they want to improve it. At least that’s what they’re telling me.
What’s an example of the way the principles of New Urbanism informed the work you’ve done as mayor?
Here in Milwaukee we have a bridge over the Menomonee Valley called the Sixth Street Viaduct, and it needed to be replaced. The DOT wanted to build a big bridge without sidewalks: It would have looked like a giant freeway lane. This bridge connects one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the state with downtown. There’s pedestrian traffic, bicycles. You don’t need to build this thing to be an interstate. After an 11-year struggle we got the DOT to back off and let the city design the bridge. We have 14-foot sidewalks and a bike lane on each side, and the bridge is beautiful. It has cable stays. It looks like the bridge they just put up in Boston. And it cost less than the bridge that the DOT wanted to build.
The Sixth Street Viaduct and projects like it are clearly great for the city center. But there’s another component of New Urbanism, greenfield development [entirely new communities on undeveloped land, like Seaside, Florida], that I think our readers are more ambivalent about.
Most of the development in the United States, 90 percent or something like that, is new development on the edge. If we ignore that and just concentrate on infill, the edge city will never repair itself. New development needs to be informed by the principles of urbanism. It would be a mistake for people that care about cities and urban design to assume that any greenfield development is bad-because it’s going to happen, and if it doesn’t improve it will overwhelm whatever infill we are doing in the cities. You can actually put in limits that preserve land and encourage density: Those are things most CNU members would support. [Florida architect] Andres Duany is the principal critic within the CNU of growth boundaries.
He’s been the public face of the movement.
Well, yeah. He’s deeply respected, but he now types on the bottom of his e-mails that he is not speaking for the CNU or its board.
What specifically will your role as CNU president be?
To try to organize the efforts of CNU members so that they can fulfill the goals of the organization, which are to embed the principles of our charter and undo the damage that was done by CIAM. Some of the members are public employees, some are architects and firms, some are planners, some are engineers-they’re not going to be focused on [the CNU] every day.
How do you think your expertise in municipal politics is going to be of service to the CNU?
Well, aside from being in elected politics, the job put me in the position of being a town builder. So I can see things from the construction side, the design side, and the political side instead of from just one narrow perspective.
Is legislative change the main tool the CNU has?
Well, you get a lot of legislative change-like smart growth laws-passed in states like Maryland and Oregon. Wisconsin has one but it doesn’t really bite for several more years now. But if you pass legislation and don’t really have the tools in place, the practitioners aren’t going to end up doing it right. So it’s not just a question of legislation, it’s a question of professional habit. If you look at old Midwestern cities that people love-the Main St. in Greensburg, Indiana or Decorah, Iowa-if you look at these cities that have beautiful Main Sts., did all these places have sophisticated architects that figured out how to create them? Did they have New Urbanist architects back in the 1880s and ’90s, when these streets were being built? No, they had pattern books. Some of these towns were created without even having an architect. They just had builders that would buy pattern books and create these streets that people love even yet today. And that’s one of the things the CNU is creating. Not the organization so much as the members of the organization. If you want to build urbanism, it is becoming a lot easier to do it. People are uncomfortable with sprawl, but they need a clear model to compare it to.
So how you are you going to go about initiating this pedagogic strategy? Is going to be done through universities?
Well, it’s already happening. I’m just picking up the ball. But yeah, one of the things we are going to try over the next few years is organizing students. At first informally, but maybe we’ll get formal chapters of students to organize within the architecture schools. Some architecture schools don’t teach how to build buildings in context. Every creation in the studios is, you know, a special building like an art museum or airport. American people, people all over the world for that matter, they need houses and communities and neighborhoods. And getting architecture and planning schools to focus more on building in context would be a huge breakthrough. We probably can do it through our student chapters. We have student members who are active and really believe in the principals of New Urbanism. They’re starting to demand help to form chapters, so I’ll be focusing on that.
Metropolis recently did a story on the spread of CNU chapters on college campuses.
This has happened without the CNU organization doing it. It’s been the students creating it, demanding it, declaring themselves chapters. We would have to go out and enforce copyright law to suppress them. But it’s a good thing-it’s like the swarm taking over. It can be a real challenge because the organization has to protect its intellectual content to some extent. But yeah, the students really want to explore this sort of thing.
How important are your urban-planning and design efforts to your constituents? Are they aware of the CNU?
The average person in Milwaukee hasn’t heard of the CNU, but some of the ideas are quite popular. The public is repelled by ugly urban sprawl. They don’t like it, and they don’t quite know what to do about it. And organizations like the CNU, Smart Growth America, and the National Historic Trust help people understand how they can change the things they don’t like.
You don’t have to be someone who knows all the architectural terminology that Frank Gehry would know to benefit from the CNU. It’s about ordinary people benefiting from design decisions, as opposed to having architecture restricted to building monuments. That’s what you have in New York right now. The big architectural issue is Libeskind building this giant tower to honor the World Trade Center-but what about people who want to sell stuff and live in Lower Manhattan? What about the guy who wants to have a pushcart selling hot dogs?
What would your vision for Lower Manhattan be if the CNU was allowed to come in?
Silverstein, the guy who owns [the lease], would be the most important person you would deal with other than the people that live in Battery Park and the neighborhoods around it. What would work for them? It’s good to have some kind of monument, but how does it fit in the fabric? Do you really need to make it look different and strange compared to everything else in the neighborhood? Instead of trying to master plan the whole thing, if you just put basic guidelines on the buildings it could build out over years like the rest of the city did.
You’ve mentioned Gehry a couple of times. The Bilbao strategy, smaller cities commissioning high-profile institutional architecture, is increasingly common in the United States.
It will work just as well as the ballpark strategies have worked. It’s not a very good strategy because it will degrade with each generation. For Bilbao, I don’t think they had that strategy before they did it. I think they declared the strategy after it was built. Gehry didn’t build that thing out in a cornfield someplace-he built it in the middle of a city, and he didn’t tear the fabric of the city apart. It’s a success on its own even without an economic-development strategy attached to it.
In the case of Milwaukee, our art museum board had the opportunity to go after Gehry. They ultimately chose not to because they didn’t want to just be, ‘Let’s have a Gehry in Milwaukee.’ So they went with a guy who didn’t have as big of a reputation-Calatrava. And the amazing thing about Calatrava is how he connected [the museum] with the fabric of the city. He walked around Milwaukee for several weeks before he even started designing it, looking at the site from various angles-including going out on Lake Michigan. The museum’s not built in spite of the downtown or as a stark contrast; it’s built to fit into the fabric. Sure, there are people who have traveled here because of it, and it’s a fabulous creation, but the benefit is mostly to the people of Milwaukee.
One of the legacies you leave Milwaukee is a school-choice initiative. Are nondesign ideas like school vouchers going to be advocated by the CNU under your leadership?
It’s not directly a design issue, but it does affect the health of neighborhoods and where people live. If you have money and kids, you leave town and you go to a public district in the suburbs. That’s school choice by geography. It really hurts central cities and tends to generate the kind of development pattern that CIAM and separate zoning created. So we’ll probably take a position in favor of [vouchers]. It’s not our main focus, but it is definitely a pro-urban idea, and it also helps to not have the CNU stereotyped as left- or right-wing.
A year ago you declared that you wouldn’t run for reelection. Do you have regrets about unfinished business? Would you run again if you thought you could get reelected?
No. I’ve been in for 15 years now. That’s long enough—longer than most mayors.
Is your successor likely to follow in your footsteps?
Well, we’ve changed the city zoning code. We’ve embedded all kinds of regulation that supports urbanism. The general public doesn’t know the CNU, but they certainly know that good design creates prosperity in neighborhoods. Transit is more popular than it was, although we still have a long way to go. Urbanism is much more popular in Milwaukee now than it was. I think that will live on. But nothing succeeds like successors, and there’s no point in trying to hang onto the past. On to other things.