Olympic Champions

Jason Prior embodies a growing trend in place making: the merging of landscape architecture and urban planning. Trained in both professions, Prior heads EDAW’s European operations out of the London office and spearheaded the planning effort behind the city’s successful bid last year for the 2012 Olympics. The scheme—seen largely as an upset—was smartly packaged, […]

Jason Prior embodies a growing trend in place making: the merging of landscape architecture and urban planning. Trained in both professions, Prior heads EDAW’s European operations out of the London office and spearheaded the planning effort behind the city’s successful bid last year for the 2012 Olympics. The scheme—seen largely as an upset—was smartly packaged, presenting the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with a less monolithic model (proposing to reduce, for example, the 80,000-seat stadium to 25,000 after the games). Locally it was sold as a tool for regenerating an industrial part of East London called the Lower Lea Valley. In an attempt to gauge community sentiment and build a case for the Olympics, Prior’s team did about 70 public consultation events in three months. Consequently the bid generated largely positive feelings in London.

Prior and his team have shown an adroit touch in other cities as well. In the wake of a 1996 IRA bombing in Manchester, EDAW was brought in to rethink the shattered city center; less than ten years later the area has witnessed a total transformation. Currently working on a scheme for Belfast, Prior spoke to executive editor Martin C. Pedersen recently in New York about 2012, the challenge of New Orleans, and the importance of team building.

The prospect of the Olympics generated mostly positive feelings in London. In New York people were ambivalent about it at best. Why do you think there were such different reactions?
From our perspective the case was made very early on that it was going to be a tool to regenerate a part of the city. That in the end this would be about the classic measures of urban regeneration and city design. So the objective in going after the games was always seen as part of a wider, community effort. And in the early work, we did 70 public consultation events in three months, going straight out into the communities, asking them what they wanted out of this thing.

Why do you think London was chosen?
It was Paris and London in that final frame. What we did ultimately was make a strong pitch that this was about a broader arena in sports development, about building an audience for the future. To some extent, Paris set its stall out early and said, “We’re very efficient. It’s all here already. All we have to do is build the Olympic village.” It’s a nice, safe argument, but then London could say, “We’re going to provide a bigger legacy, which can then be identified with an Olympic message.”

Eventually the International Olympic Committee wants to host the games in Africa or South America. How did that enter into your thinking?
We talked a lot about how you could use this form of development to demonstrate how the Olympics might be much more sensitive to place and local economy, how you could reinterpret the brief to fit different types of cities. Secondly, we were very clear that a lot of those Olympic components should be models of sustainable city development. You don’t have to do a Beijing and flatten a huge area of the city, move everyone out, and then say, “Here’s the great, splendid edifice.” We were saying that the interventions can be much more subtle.

What’s your role as master planners in choosing architects for 2012?
We don’t choose them. But we briefed all the architects and then left others to make those decisions. I was very reassured when those decisions started to come out. That here we have those big ideas about sports and landscape captured in buildings. That’s not to say that we want a common language of design through this thing, but what we don’t want is an internationalist collection of buildings plonked down all over the place. Ultimately our job is to create a new quarter of London, and we need some semblance of a joined up theory of design that makes that happen.

For the Olympics you’re working with architects like Zaha Hadid and Foreign Office. How do you corral them so that their pieces are cohesive when the games are over?
It’s not about corralling; it’s about establishing a core set of philosophies and approaches. I’m not a great one for explicit design guidelines. You hire great architects and let them do what great architects do. We’ve been able to craft a brief and a direction. One of the jobs of the landscape architects will be to position and create a context for buildings.

A big part of your job as planners involves team building. How do you find the right creative partners?
As an urban-design/landscape practice, we never deliver the buildings. That’s not what we’re interested in. We would never deliver the engineering. Our big city projects are about assembling a team. And I’m also a firm believer that teams ultimately do better than a monolithic appointment. So we look for people who can think across disciplines and build a common agenda. We’re interested in working with people who are prepared to celebrate the complexities of the city. Then there’s a big personality issue. I’ve got better things to do than manage superegos. Of course we have fights and debates, but it has to be from the basis of what we’re trying to do.

In this era of sustainable buildings and landscapes, engineers seem increasingly important. Why?
The technological challenge is greater than ever because we haven’t been able to get people to change the way they live their lives. They still want to drive their 4x4s and flush the toilet three times a night. So you need to work with designers who can embed those processes deep within the buildings, deep within the environment. You’re asking for a 5 percent shift in the performance of people and a 75 percent shift in the performance of the systems behind them. To do that without asking everyone to walk around in space suits requires some very smart thinking about how we embed those systems. We usually select our engineers before we select our architects because the urban planning lives or dies by the relationship between your infrastructure architect and engineers. They have to share a common purpose.

You have some experience with cities in crisis. If you were made planning czar of New Orleans, what would be your first step?
There are two distinct but ultimately overlapping issues there. First the get-real-about-the-natural-systems issue. When you have a city in a location where the environment is on your doorstep, you had better understand those natural relationships. Then you ask the question, How will you attempt to build your way out of trouble? Are you going to put up barriers and hold out the environment, or will you create a more symbiotic relationship with your environment? Then there’s an equally powerful politically driven agenda, which is the socioeconomic and cultural context of the city. People live here. This is where they’re from, where they’ve invested their lives. What do they want out of it? You need to understand all those imperatives and ultimately bring them together in a debate: “People, this is what you want from your city, and this is probably what nature is telling you.” That’s the debate. But you’ve got to make time for the debate, and often that is not best had within months after the calamity. There’s too much trauma around. You need to take time to sit back and think about it.

When you begin work in a city, what do you do first?
We tend to walk it. In Manchester we rented flats and moved in. The hardest job is spending enough time to capture a bit of the soul of the place. If we’re lacking in certain skills and perspectives, we often make certain that our first consultation is provided by local firms. It’s arrogant to believe you can walk in there and understand it on day one. Your job is to build your knowledge up to a point where you could walk the place with your eyes closed. You’ve got to be committed to the fact that it’s not your town. This is someone else’s town.

Perhaps you’re also there to offer the kind of clarity only an outsider can provide?
Sometimes you have to ask the question, Why are we being hired? Sometimes you walk in and realize the ideas are already there. It just may not be possible for local people to say it. Maybe someone from out of town has to say it. Sometimes people have got all the right ideas, but they’re not quite certain where the starting point is.

You work with elected officials a lot. When you start a job, do you gage how much political capital they have?
Our job is not to gage how politicians expend or accrue that capital. You have to rely on the fact that the politicians are there because they’re reflecting a specific set of local demands. But you do have to ask a lot of pointed questions: how long, how much, how much buy in, how much adventurism, how long can we fight this particular court. You have to gage that, but you also have to assume that the politicians have got control of that end. I’ve been involved in projects where officials said, “We can’t do that yet. We need to do this first, which will lead to that.” You have to create success.

How do you lay the groundwork for that?
We have a huge job at the moment for Belfast, a city that’s gone through enormous upheaval, suffered economic decline, huge social upheaval. How do you demonstrate to them the art of the possible? Well, you take them to Copenhagen, to Manchester, to Barcelona.

What did you show them in Copenhagen?
The relationship between traffic movement and fronted use, how you can play with cars, how you tip the balance between foot and cycle transit.

What’s important about Barcelona?
One lesson is about the value of a long term plan. How you have to expect to return to certain areas of the plan. But there’s a down-side lesson from Barcelona, which is having made these moves, you better maintain it. So, Belfast is a classic one, where everyone is ready for change, but the question is, what? You’ve got an old city, but not a lot has happened since about 1960. That’s a huge benefit, because there’s some really dreadful things put up in cities in the 70s and 80s, and that didn’t happen here. So we can kind of step over the twenty years of darkness and go somewhere else.

Some of the best work in landscape architecture is a hybrid between urban planning and landscape design. Why are the two disciplines often merged?
Today most of your successful landscapes—especially urban ones—are about a bigger story, and very few people can do the whole lot. The challenge for all of us is to get out of our boxes and look at the interconnections between those components. The best practitioners are looking at those broader relationships. So if you hire Martha Schwartz to do a scheme where the story is about landscape and the poetic interpretation of place, you might hire another firm that starts there but whose expertise is ecology and natural systems. Most people are not picking an architect who does it in this style, with this form. At the moment landscape architects tend to be the glue in the system holding all the components together.

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