The Politics of Re-imagining Cities

When the new administration comes calling, will the design profession be ready?

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Judith Rodin addressing the Re-imagining Cities conference on Friday morning.

In an op-ed last Monday, New York Times columnist David Brooks predicted an Obama win and he speculated on the biggest challenge for his administration and our country: scarcity. It was a word that came up quite a bit at this weekend’s Re-imagining Cities conference.

“In the next few years, the nation’s wealth will either stagnate or shrink. The fiscal squeeze will grow severe. There will be fiercer struggles over scarce resources, starker divisions along factional lines. The challenge for the next president will be to cushion the pain of the current recession while at the same time trying to build a solid fiscal foundation so the country can thrive at some point in the future. We’re probably entering a period, in other words, in which smart young liberals meet a stone-cold scarcity that they do not seem to recognize or have a plan for.”
The last thing anyone wants to hear right now is an idea about how to spend more federal dollars. It’s probably the fastest way to end a conversation with your elected official. But somehow we need to bridge the divide between the mounting problems in the global city and the need for sustainable solutions. We need a plan and that plan must include research.

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to hear Barry Katz of IDEO talk about new product design. IDEO is a company that wholeheartedly embraces research. Each design project takes “an integrated approach,” according to Katz. “It’s not just engineering [a product], it’s anthropology, history, design.” IDEO brings different disciplines together to circle around a problem and to find a research-driven solution. Katz himself is an historian, a title you don’t often find in a design firm.

Having a research-driven answer is something that the built environment sorely lacks. We rate buildings before they are up and running, we award designs before they are constructed, we have no effective way to measure building efficiencies after they are built. We cannot accurately frame the answers in many cases because we cannot honestly analyze and assess the problems.

Which raises the larger question: How do we begin to redefine our approach to existing systems in an age of peak oil? How can we create new design hierarchies, new measurements of building performance, new financial and cultural models that embrace our challenges and foster an ethos of responsibility?

Alex Washburn, Chief Urban Designer for the city of New York, believes that designers must begin by becoming more politically savvy. “Cities are a confluence of politics, finances, and design and design is often the weakest. The window of opportunity for design opens and closes quickly, so when that window opens, we need to be prepared to rush in.”

And how design professionals rush in is key. It is imperative to recognize the advocacy role that designers can play in the other two legs of Washburn’s three-legged stool: politics and financing. He pointed out that we have just federalized two U.S. mortgage banks and that we are embarking on legislature for major infrastructure renewal in the U.S. We have an opportunity to restructure our mortgage system so that it supports local efficiency and favors mortgages that rebuild existing structures and encourage walkable communities. Washburn served under Patrick Moynihan in the Senate, and he recounted how many times plans for major systems were decided in a room void of an architect or a designer. “I would challenge every designer to take a sabbatical in government and be a part of the decisions as they hang in the balance.”

Another idea that I heard over the weekend is the creation of a National Academy of the Built Environment, similar to the National Academy of Sciences, that could lead the kind of research and development needed to make real inroads into sustainability. The trick, of course, is getting the kind of political will needed to invest in research during a serious recession. How can you make the ROI argument? How can you convince others that an investment in the built environment and in cities is the smartest way to resolve our imminent global crises?

The new Obama administration is going to come calling. They are going to look to urban designers for solutions about infrastructure and energy needs. If there is not a clear and articulate response, the window of opportunity that Washburn mentioned will close. It is imperative to start forming a response now.

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