World Urbanists Take Manhattan: Lessons Learned and Left

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A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of sharing several stages over two days in New York, with some of the most influential urbanists anywhere. The Forum for Urban Design brought together Amanda Burden (Commissioner and Director of Planning for New York), Cheong-Chua Koon Hean (CEO of Urban Development for Singapore), Robert Freedman (Director of Urban Design for Toronto), Peter Rees (Chief Planning Officer for London), Kairos Shen (Director of Planning for the Boston Redevelopment Authority), and myself, to discuss multiple city-building topics in front of (and with) Forum members, the business community and the general public.

In venues such as MOMA, the top floor of the One Chase Manhattan Building, and the Yale Club, and with moderators including Pulitzer Prize winning author and architectural critic Paul Goldberger, and Lower Manhattan Development Corp. President David Emil, we discussed and debated among other things, "what makes a healthy downtown", and "designing the global city centre of the future", with particular emphasis on learning's that could relate to Lower Manhattan redevelopment including the ground zero site.

The frequently passionate and amusing conversations are too lengthy to summarize here. Luckily the Forum is intending to put out a future book documenting the event. But I've included below a few key issues or ideas that struck a cord with me (with, admittedly, an emphasis on the Vancouver perspective on these various discussion points - perhaps my fellow panel members might chose to share their own points of emphasis as comments).

On Mixing of Uses in Financial Centres:

An interesting debate broke out around whether planners should allow housing, and in particular families, within entertainment and financial centres like lower Manhattan. Spurred by Londoner Peter Rees' provocative statements "families kill cities" and "downtowns are no places for kids and strollers", one school of thought was that allowing residents in areas intended for fun and/or finance, could only lead to NIMBY-ism and the eventual pushing out of the entertainment that makes such areas, like downtown London, exciting places. Rees feels that big city downtowns are sustained by the energy brought by "young people wanting to have sex" (and he insisted that London has the best free sex in the World) and allowing families only conflicts with that. Rees certainly knows how to set the bar high in terms of memorable statements, but behind the deliberate provocation lays an interesting point for debate, and Robert Freedman agreed that the downtown's ability to attract young people is a big part of the new "hum" of energy in Toronto's downtown and waterfront.

Others (and I was in this camp), felt that fun and housing (for young people as well as ALL demographic groups including households with children), weren't necessarily incompatible. Mixing the two within a multi-faceted downtown represented a mitigation (noise, operations, etc), distance and design challenge. In other words, the art was in the details. In Vancouver there are specific downtown streets (i.e. Granville Street) intended for entertainment where residential is prohibited above, but just a block away housing is allowed with the conflicts mitigated by design. With a downtown residential population that has increased from 40,000 to 85,000 in the past few decades (the fasted and largest downtown population growth in North America), a deliberate strategy of bringing back families to the downtown (25% of units must be "family friendly" and kid-friendly amenities are negotiated in new downtown neighbourhoods -- perhaps Vancouver's best indicator of success in this was the opening of a new downtown elementary school, with a second on the way), and a philosophy that places that are good for kids are usually good for everyone, Vancouver seemed the anti-thesis of the London perspective. We do however, have a strictly defined Central Business District (CBD) within the larger downtown peninsula, where we've limited residential to a hand-full of projects in the past, with a newer (since 2004) moratorium on additional residential, not because of an automatic fear of incompatibility, but because of a need to protect the area for continued commercial/employment growth and from escalating land values because of the high profitability of residential development.

Others on the panel jumped into the debate, and round and round we went with no clear winner (as there is no one "right idea"), but lots to think about.

On Iconic Buildings vs. Iconic City-Building:

There was much discussion on the value of iconic architecture such as Lord Fosters "Gherkin" Swiss Re Building in London. Although most of us agreed with Kairos Shen of Boston that real cities should resist the temptation to seek out deliberate iconic architecture but rather promote "excellent architecture" (some of which might become iconic), the more interesting debate centred around whether cities could have, and should more properly promote, "iconic landscapes" (i.e. Central Park, Boston's Emerald Necklace, Chicago's Millennium Park) or even "iconic city patterns" (Barcelona, and in contemporary sense, Vancouver).

I pointed out that in many ways, "Vancouver-ism" is becoming the "anti-Bilbao" alternative for study, as wave after wave of urbanists come to our City to study how without (arguably) a single iconic world-renowned building (but perhaps several iconic landscapes such as our sea wall, and Stanley Park), we've routinely been named the number one tourist destination city, in the top three most livable cities in the World, and a model for contemporary, sustainable and livable city-building.

Is the word iconic appropriate in the context of city patterns? Perhaps not, but Vancouver's emphasis on a successful public realm pattern within a "city by design" has lead to a consistency of urban quality that puts us in a very nice position to now discuss some strategic architectural "punctuations points", such as a potential new Vancouver Art Gallery. Although some have lamented the lack of iconic architecture or have expressed a wish for more architectural risk taking in our city (the latter point I myself am promoting), its true that the majority of new Vancouver building construction in the past few decades has been residential and mixed use (of a very high quality, in my opinion).  We're just starting to see again the kinds of civic buildings and commercial architecture that usually lends itself to design "exuberance". Regardless, cities that start with striving for the architectural, iconic punctuation without the consistent high quality pattern, seem to be hit-or-miss at best in my observation.

On whether there are Unbreakable Rules of Urbanism:

The elevated plaza outside the One Chase Manhattan Building, with its famous public art piece but debatable vitality (particularly at night), spurred a discussion on whether designers should have the freedom to break urban "rules" in order to experiment and learn. Although all panellists seemed to agree that flexibility for experimentation generally leads to innovation and better urbanism (I myself like to say that the most important rule about rules is that one should never let a rule stand in the way of a better idea), there was some disagreement on how far that freedom should go. As an example, I noted that I had that day taken a picture of a dead sunken plaza at Times Square surrounded by streets teaming with people on a sunny busy Monday – an urban design mistake surrounded by street energy and vitality. The failure of the sunken plaza (and I haven't seen many sunken plazas yet that haven't failed, unless they bring something truly special like Rockefeller Plaza's wonderful skating rink) shows that breaking some basic rules of urbanistic relationship may never be a good idea. This led at least some of us to agree that there are a few "urbanism 101" basics that we stray from at our peril.

On Security as a Design Driver:

Good urbanism is about avoiding silo (or single issue) thinking, and several of us lamented the rise of security in Lower Manhattan as a "super-silo". This has led to bunker design that turns its back to the public realm in the name of safety. Although all could understand the impulse toward such thinking in the shadow of such a devastating attack on 9/11, most of us called for design creativity in addressing security within a more holistic design program, with clever solutions that achieve many goals without sacrificing "public-ness". The irony of a Freedom Tower suggesting through its design that freedom perhaps is gained only by putting up walls, was not lost on several of us.

On the Value of Metrics for Successful City-Building:

Paul Goldberger asked how we define success in our various cities, or what the key metrics (numbers) for city-building success might be. Many suggestions resulted, like acres of new parks added, increased population within the downtowns, changes in percent of modal split coming into the downtown, etc. And certainly there are economic success indicators that were mentioned that could be used.

My comment to this was that although there are many statistics we routinely use to show the success in downtown planning here in Vancouver, I tend to be wary of too much emphasis on metrics, as "not everything that counts can be counted". In any case, the best metrics probably don't relate to economic success (i.e. sales per square foot). We need more metrics and numbers like ecological foot-printing and LEED to test/measure our environmental success, or degree of social/economic inclusiveness to measure our social sustainability.

On City Planning Leadership:

One of my strongest observations coming out of the 2 days, was the degree of powerful leadership coming from city planners in these 6 cities. Contrary to the contents of my first Planetizen post on the call for a different kind of leadership from North American Planning Departments (see older posts), I came away from this event powerfully impressed with these leaders I shared stages with. From the supernatural graciousness and obvious influence of Amanda Burden, to the brilliant urban minds of Cheong-Chua Koon Hean and Kairos Shen, (I'd specifically mention Toronto's Robert Freedman here too, but as an old friend, I'm always impressed with him, and somewhat bias) all of these leaders showed the kind of powerful will and urbanistic principle our major cities desperately need. These cities are in great hands.

We certainly learned a lot from each other, perhaps especially when we initially disagreed. As for what New York learned from us, who can say? Hopefully the Forum for Urban Design and its passionate members can facilitate some lasting local value from our trip, for Lower Manhattan and its big urban challenges.

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian

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