Miami’s Visit from the Planning Heavens

Melissa Hege's picture

Let's face it, we all get into planning ruts. A public meeting gone awry, a discontented client, a community that just doesn't get it.  I like to call it planning fatigue, and up until a month ago, I was headed down that path. But a meeting of the minds which converged in my hometown, Miami, brought me a little closer to god, the planning god, that is. Joe Riley, the mild mannered and poignant mayor of Charleston brought me to planning euphoria. If you've heard him speak, then you know what I mean.  If you haven't, well let me bring you up to speed. 

We all know how wonderful Charleston, South Carolina is. What we don't know is how much of this is dependent on continuous and constant investment and care.  Which brings me to the purpose of this article. Great cities don't just happen. They are the result of vision, leadership, and perseverance. Mayor Riley was invited to Miami to speak before business types and city advocates on the topic of making Miami a world class city. Helping him out were former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy and University of Pennsylvania City and Regional Planning Professor Eugenie Birch.

Now this was embarrassing. Sitting in a generic and windowless hotel ballroom in a concrete bunker which appeared to have landed on the street from outer space, we listened to our planning god's words-- "There are no excuses to build UGLY buildings". He continued, "every street should be beautiful for the people who live there. Even people who don't have much still have the beauty of their surroundings." And finally, "every downtown is a place of value because it is for the public." This is all common sense, right? But somewhere between university graduation and today, we've lost this sense. Political obstacles and financial hurdles have muddied our ability to advocate for great cities. But these are poor excuses. As planners, we must be leaders and make good choices for our cities.  Which leads me to Mayor Riley's next point: "Make no mistakes".

I cringed to think of the myriad mistakes that we've made in our City-making redevelopment decisions based on available cheap land, funding monumental public buildings by starchitects which lack basic connectivity to the surrounding fabric, missed opportunities for viable transit, a downtown scarred by ubiquitous highway ramps and overpasses and monster trucks en route to the Port, and a waterfront metropolis with pitifully few public access points to the water.  It's no wonder it took only one evening in Downtown Miami for Mayor Riley, Mayor Murphy, and Dr. Birch to point out these obvious flaws. 

1.    Give people the finest land, not the cheapest.

2.    Bring the water to the community.

3.    Every detail is important.

4.    Create a vision, first.

5.    Make pedestrian movement natural.

6.    Knit the edges of each neighborhood together andconnect fragmented pieces.

7.    Don't forget about basic housekeeping and maintenance.

8.    Maximize the natural assets.

9.    Think regionally.

10.  And above all else, build beauty into everything. 

The good news is we haven't completely botched up our City. As our residential population grows and our public schools, colleges, and universities continue to produce talented and highly educated students, the demand for greatness and beauty will increase. The expectation for quality will be undeniable and our leaders will no longer rebuff the needs of our community. Mayor Riley explained that a small group of people can make change and, in a world of few heroes, Mayor Riley is certainly one that we can believe in. Armed with a solid vision for our downtown, grassroots community support, and leadership, Miami has the opportunity to finally be World Class. 

Melissa Hege, AICP, LEED AP, Director of Planning at Redevelopment Management Associates.



Build beauty inside buildings, too

Thanks for the post, Melissa. It is always great when people bring new inspiration into our professions.

I just wanted to bring up the topic of building beauty into the inside of buildings also.

There are some new buildings being constructed in our cities that may look nice from the outside, but have the starchitects sterile touch on the inside. This includes planning academic buildings featuring grey, windowless, rectangular rooms- heavily lit by fluorescents- that only beg the planning student to ask- "How on earth did this become the building for future planners?"

Starchitecture in the interior is as regrettable as it is for the exterior.

Hope for Miami

Great Post Melissa! You are right on. I still have hope for our City too.

Unfortunately, the current City of Miami administration does not seem to have much vision. There are a few of us here in Miami that are trying to advocate for livable streets and we are making some progress, although it has been a slow and bumpy road. We still lack political will and vision at a City, County and State (FDOT) level too.

Bike Miami Days will be coming to Coconut Grove this weekend. This event will give Miami residents a preview of what can become of our beautiful city. Hopefully you can make it to this wonderful event!

Felipe Azenha

Comp. plane ticket

You can send me a comp. plane or bus ticket to Miami when you've finished recreating it in your vibrant visions...I'd love to visit! Ha.

Melissa Hege's picture

Felipe, There are more

There are more advocates for livable streets than you think! We need to organize together to offer a unified voice to the politicos. Looking forward to Bike Miami.
--Melissa Hege


Getting organized is critical. Good luck!

Demographia on Charleston, SC

"1. Give people the finest land, not the cheapest."

Median Multiple house prices to income ratios:

2006: 5.1
2007: 4.8
2008: 4.1
2009: 3.7

Unfortunately, Charleston was not included in earlier analyses. One might presume 5.1 to have been Charleston's housing bubble "peak". While Charleston obviously was not in the same league as Californian urban areas, they clearly are yet another example of urban planning setting the stage for a housing bubble, and a subsequent crash. Charleston provides an interesting counter-example to the more lightly regulated typical of the Southern States.

Thomas Sowell has used the approriate term, "Green Disparate Impact", to describe the effect on lower income households, of land and house prices being forced up by urban planning, particularly the tightening of urban limits. Portland Economist Randal Pozdena also has coined a term, "The New Segregation".

Fortunately, these people still have places to go, where housing is affordable, and, surprise, surprise, the low cost of land actually facilitates abundant "public space", parks, reserves, and so on; not to mention lowering the cost of public buildings and infrastructure. Do without the urban limits, and everything else you want to "plan" for suddenly becomes a whole lot easier.

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