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Op-Ed: Let's Make Urban Design Inspiring Again

Allison Arieff finds fault with the nation's uninspired conversation on infrastructure. When urban design projects have more emotional appeal, she argues, they can unify rather than divide.
March 1, 2018, 11am PST | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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Jeremy Borkat

According to Allison Arieff, infrastructure projects have largely lost the grand appeal they once possessed, both within the planning community and among the general public. "There is no awe. There are issues of structural integrity. There are mind-blowing cost overruns. Accidents. Sinkholes. Problems with bolts."

While projects like the Golden Gate Bridge once inspired the nation, "A century later, we've lost our collective faith in the power of great projects like the Golden Gate, not to mention our trust in the government to fix a pothole on time and on budget, let alone create an inspiring bridge. How can we restore that faith in possibility?" Arieff holds up Atlanta's BeltLine as one contemporary example of that faith.

She also takes aim at planners and other professionals for using too much uninspired jargon. "Yet engineers, planners and policy makers tend to focus on wonky stuff like percentage of parkland per person. They're awash in acronyms like V.M.T. (vehicle miles traveled), too reliant on planning terms like modeshare that don't resonate with the general public. These things may be useful in measuring the metrics of a city, but they sure don't get to the reasons people want to live there."

She concludes, "In an age of cost overruns, project delays, safety risks and the other, seemingly infinite obstacles to infrastructure, this all might sound awfully reductive, even naïve. But keeping our eye on what's possible is certainly as important as fixating on what isn't."

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Published on Monday, February 12, 2018 in The New York Times
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