Atlantic Cities

Are Americans Afraid of Innovative Urban Design?

Are Americans Afraid of Innovative Urban Design?
Courtesy the American Society of Landscape Architects

Public spaces are being occupied in cities all over the world, and large parks projects like New York’s The High Line and Chicago’s Millennium Park are bringing renewed public attention to the latent assets sitting untapped in urban areas. For landscape architects and urban designers, these are strong calls to action. For city leaders and citizens, these example show what could become, and also what may be holding their own communities back.

At a panel discussion Tuesday at the American Society of Landscape Architects annual meeting, four designers explored the changing role of design in cities and the importance of urban public spaces. Moderated by John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design writer, the panel included landscape architect Laurie Olin, Harvard Graduate School of Design landscape architecture program chair Charles Waldheim, landscape architect Martha Schwartz and University of Virginia architecture professor and former Charlottesville mayor Maurice Cox.

The panel discussed the increasingly noticed role of urban design in the general consciousness, and how that has benefited some cities but also left others clamoring for new interventions.

The High Line is probably the most easily digestible project that illustrates the practice of landscape architecture today, and it came up often in the conversation. The project has been heralded as a major success in New York, but its success has also become somewhat of a problem in the field of design. Because everyone sees the success of the High Line, everyone wants one.

Cox says his experience as a mayor helps him understand that allure, but he argues that cities are too enamored by these sorts of successful projects in other cities and need to focus instead on their own assets.

“Every city has a High Line or a Millennium Park,” Cox said.

Olin, who’s practiced landscape architecture for more than 40 years and who is receiving ASLA’s highest award this year, agrees. “Each one comes in a different form,” he said. “People have to figure that out.”

But while there's a lot of excitement about these high profile projects, some designers feel that many U.S. cities aren’t willing or able to push through forward-thinking projects.

“The U.S is the most conservative country that there is in terms of supporting design,” said Schwartz, who now practices in London and primarily works in Europe and the Middle East.

Indeed, panelists noted that both the High Line and Millennium Park were heavily influenced by community members and parks advocates, rather than coming from officials or civic leaders.

And often, it is the cities themselves that hold back the creation of new and exciting projects. Waldheim noted how cities across the country have been emphasizing the importance of their historic character, and how that may be holding them back.

“They’ve spent so much time betting on their heritage, their cornice line, their streetlines and their facades,” Waldheim said. In terms of marketing, he says, this has been a success for places like Boston, but it hasn’t helped the city draw in contemporary designs that may be more attractive to younger people, especially the large amounts of college students that move into and then out of the Boston area.

But as Cox notes, there tends to be a fear of change among residents in cities.

“Communities generally understand what they have,” said Cox, “and they’re uncomfortable about losing it.”

Cities may tend to protect their communities from change, but they also seem to want the sorts of iconic projects that have found success in other places. The panel tended to agree that it would be a mistake for people to think of a High Line or a Millennium Park as a type of design instead of as place-based opportunities. Identifying the opportunities that exist in cities is the real challenge. Unless communities can think about what they have to offer themselves, they’ll either get stuck trying to be what another place already is, or be held back trying to be something they used to be.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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