Q&A: Maurice Cox on New Orleans

About a month ago the Tulane School of Architecture announced that Maurice Cox had been appointed associate dean of community engagement. The title is an altogether apt one for Cox, who has spent almost two decades forging ties between design education, the political realm, and the public. Long associated with the architecture school at the […]

About a month ago the Tulane School of Architecture announced that Maurice Cox had been appointed associate dean of community engagement. The title is an altogether apt one for Cox, who has spent almost two decades forging ties between design education, the political realm, and the public. Long associated with the architecture school at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Cox served a handful of terms as city councilman and was elected mayor in 2002. He is a former design director of the National Endowment for the Arts, a Loeb fellow at Harvard, and is one of the co-founders of the SEED (Social, Economic, Environmental, Design) Network, an organization dedicated to public-interest architecture. I spoke to Cox, prior to the arrival of Hurricane Isaac, about his new job and new city.

Martin C. Pedersen: You were firmly established in Charlottesville. Why move to New Orleans?

Maurice Cox: Ken [Schwartz, dean of the Tulane School of Architecture] had been trying to get me to come here in some capacity since he got here. We were always searching for what would make it an attractive opportunity. For me it was interesting to see [Tulane] president Scott Cowen change the university mission and build it structurally into the learning of students across campus. It was part of the attraction of this school to have a university wide mission that intersects with the school of architecture’s mission, and with the fate of the city. And I suspect that it’s a major reason why their enrollment is expanding. Students understand that this city has aspirations and that the university’s mission intersects with those aspirations. They also know they’re going to be in the most unique American laboratory the next three, four or five years. That’s what attracted me. Ken said, “I need someone in my leadership circle who can put all of these disparate pieces together and tell a coherent story.”

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MCP: Outline for me your purview. What will you oversee?

MC: Ken combined two appointments. One is the associate dean of community engagement and the other is director of the Tulane City Center. The associate dean is responsible for finding a framework by which our real estate program, preservation program, and architectural program can create synergies. What we’re trying to do is use the center to bring them together.

What the City Center has already accomplished is impressive, so now when I come into a community, I don’t come in as Maurice Cox, I come with the Tulane City Center’s five-year history of making a difference. The question now is, can you take that trust and leverage it to have a wider dialogue about the big picture things that are emerging? My job is to seek out opportunities within the larger New Orleans community where our skills can add some value to what’s already happening. Right now I’m still in the process of gathering information, learning how the projects have evolved over time, who the community partners are, and how we can continue to build on the work we do with non-profits, and at the same time create the capacity to get more of those projects implemented.

MCP: Where are you living?

MC: I am renting a camel back in the Lower Garden District. I think New Orleans has got a fantastic history of walkable mix-used neighborhoods. I’m fifty yards from Poboys and fifty yards more is a locally owned coffee shop, and another 100 yards down the street is a modest selection of restaurants, and this is a very short walk from single-family detached houses.

MCP: The neighborhoods here are great—distinct, unique and prideful. They all think they live in the best neighborhood. What’s missing are the connections between them. It’s still automobile-centric. There are three streetcar lines, and they’re building another, which is great. If you live in the Marigny or in the Bywater and work downtown, you can bicycle downtown in about 12 minutes. But in a lot of other neighborhoods, it’s still hard to operate without a car.

MC: I get the impression that there’s a robust network of sidewalks, so it’s infinitely walkable. But you’re right sometimes there are big gaps—dead zones—between a spot that’s happening and the next one. You do have those weak links throughout the city.

MCP: New Orleans will present some challenges for you. It’s a famously insular culture. You can live here 15 years and still be considered an “outsider.” How are you going to crack that nut?

MC: I’m going to meet every person who is willing to meet me, from grassroots organizers to business owners. I see this as a public position. I am a public citizen and part of how I’ve been able to learn to walk in other people’s shoes is by getting to know them personally. So my first months here are going to be spent meeting people—everyone who’s interested in the future of this city. I’m excited about that. I have a real belief in the power of citizens to shape the environment that they live in. Now of course I also have endless stories of citizen groups that invested most of their energy in blocking things.

MCP: And there’s definitely a strong strain of that here.

MC: I think we all know the root cause of it: exclusion. It’s timelines that might work for the developer, or might work for the politicians, but it doesn’t work for citizen’s timeline. If people feel like they’re invested in getting something done, they can get behind some of the most ambitious projects. If they think that somebody is paying lip service to them, they will sense it and their resistance will create insurmountable obstacles. I’ve seen it go both ways. I’ve seen people who have historically resisted everything completely change course when their input was acknowledged and the process took the time to educate them. Then low and behold, instead of being blockers, they were enablers. I believe in engaging a community when the framework and principles of a project are being developed—before anything has been designed—exposing them to the six alternatives, and saying, “Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.” That’s the part all designers go through, but don’t often share with the public. Instead the public gets the final version and they’re asked: “What would you do to improve this?”

MCP: How do you see the relationship between the Tulane City Center and the city working?

MC: We can create an engagement process that truly provides citizens with deep learning and understanding of a particular project intervention. It’s hard. I’ve been a part of many consultant teams and there’s always something about them a little bit formulaic. It’s not a one size fits all. You can’t go to Treme and say, “You’re just like the neighborhood in Milwaukee that we worked with,” because they’re not. Someone has to design a compelling way to bring that neighborhood into the process and I think the City Center will be expert at doing that

MCP: You can also do something that the city never has time to do: research.

MC: In fact that’s one of the things that we can do well and one of the things that we can fundraise for: to create research fellows who can stay with the project through an extended period of time. In Charlottesville, our planning office had an extraordinary number of major planners for designated neighborhoods, and each of these planners has interns from the school of architecture, so they had a fairly large work force that they could marshal.

MCP: That’s a model that can be easily replicated in New Orleans.

MC: And I think that if the city wants us to help them design a process to staff up, we have mechanisms to do that.

MCP: Is Bill Gilchrist [Mayor Landrieu’s chief planner] open to that?

MC: I think the city is open to finding ways. We may not need to be in City Hall to do this, but the City Center could be the place that’s doing a lot of that work for them. Those are the kinds of discussions that they’re having. They realize that city government is not going to grow.

MCP: And Bill is pretty much a one-man band.

MC: He’s going to have a little core group, but they’re going to have to find partnerships that can do some of the physical design in envisioning for this city, because up until now it’s been a lean city planning office. They have a lot of consultants doing work that they drop at the doorsteps of City Hall and say, “Okay, our part is done.”  But where does that work go to get the layers of maturity and refinement? I think the City Center has the potential to do the envisioning that is currently farmed out and will not and cannot be supported by a really robust staff.

Correction: Scott Cowan was correct to Scott Cowen on 9/6/2012.

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