Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The promise of cities

Clockwise from top: Old State Capitol Building in Springfield, Ill.; Kenosha, Wisc.; the downtown business district of Canton, Ohio; Riverfront Park, Charleston, W.Va.; RiverWalk, Elkhart, Ind.

In his highly controversial new book "Whole Earth Discipline" Stewart Brand writes: "Cities accelerate innovation; They cure overpopulation; and while they are becoming the Greenest thing that humanity does for the planet, they have a long way to go." Cities are the key to the fate of humanity and any hopes for creating a sustainable and just society. They are where most of us live at the beginning of the 21st century. Redesigning them to realize their green potential has to be among our highest priorities. (GW)

Midsize cities, big ideas

The Top 10 take-home messages from the Mayors' Institute on City Design

By Donald K. Carter
March 7, 2010

In the thick of Pittsburgh's first massive snowstorm last month, mayors from seven Midwest cities bravely made their way here Feb. 10 for the Mayors' Institute on City Design, hosted by the Remaking Cities Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. The mayors trekked through the Cultural District and then spent the next two days inside the Tour Theater of PNC Park working alongside eight design professionals from around the country.

Each mayor presented a case study on a project he was struggling with related to the redevelopment of vacant land, blighted properties or brownfields. The mayors received frank feedback and practical advice on their project from the design professionals and each other.

The case studies ranged from residential neighborhood blight to lakefront mixed-use projects to declining commercial corridors. Ten themes emerged from the sessions -- applicable not only for the visiting mayors, but also for anyone who cares about Pittsburgh:

1 There is hope.
Although the cities of the Midwest have lost jobs and population over the last 30 years as their manufacturing bases have declined, they also have great strengths in their historic cores, local institutions, cultural and recreational amenities, neighborhoods, waterfronts and, most of all, resilient and loyal citizens.

We are not "shrinking cities." Rather we are "cities in transition." We are not "Rust Belt" cities. Rather we are "Water Belt" cities blessed with walkable neighborhoods, diverse economies, verdant landscapes and abundant water -- in contrast to the "sand cities" of the "Sun-Drought" Belt."

2 Design matters.
Projects are not single entities but are part of a block, a neighborhood, a city, a region. Design guidelines and zoning that respect historic context and pedestrian scale are essential to creating great buildings and enduring places.

The central city must set the standard for design excellence. One need only contrast the pedestrian-friendly urban environment of the SouthSide Works to the big-box suburban sprawl of The Waterfront in Homestead to witness how design matters.

Pittsburgh has many institutions -- Riverlife, Community Design Center, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, Sustainable Pittsburgh and neighborhood-based groups -- that advocate for good urban design. Their roles are vital in balancing private and public interests.

3 Connectivity is key.
Since every project is part of the overall urban fabric, how projects connect to each other and to the city is a central tenet of urban design. Streets, public transit, bikeways and connected green space weave the city together. They are the basic frameworks for city design.

This year Pittsburgh is embarking on developing its first-ever comprehensive plan. The first two work elements are open space and transportation, the two most important connective frameworks.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County is investigating a rapid bus connection between Downtown and Oakland, the second- and third-largest economic centers in Pennsylvania. Councilman Bill Peduto is pushing for a crosstown rail connection from the Pittsburgh Technology Center on the Monongahela River through Oakland to Lawrenceville on the Allegheny River.

4 The automobile does not rule.
Cities are about people, not cars. Cities are successfully dismantling obsolete freeways that separate neighborhoods, undoing one-way street patterns from the 1950s, encouraging bicycling with bike lanes and trails, and expanding public transit with streetcars and rubber wheeled trolleys.

The development of bike trails and bike lanes in the past 10 years in Pittsburgh has greatly increased bicycle commuting. Compared with other cities of its size, Pittsburgh has the highest percentage of daily transit use to its employment centers. Over 50 percent of workers and visitors arrive in Downtown and Oakland by public transit. The undoing of the ring roads in East Liberty and Allegheny Center is yet to be accomplished.

5 Public/Private partnerships work.
Most urban redevelopment projects require public investment: roads and sewers, parking, land write downs, tax abatements and tax increment financing. Private investment in challenging redevelopment projects follows when the pump is primed by the public.

Pittsburgh was one of the first cities in the United States to have an Urban Redevelopment Authority. Since 1946 the URA has partnered with the private sector to develop Gateway Center, Liberty Center, Crawford Square and the SouthSide Works, to name four of the most successful projects.

6 Wishing will not make it so.
Projects must have a sound financial basis to justify private and public investment. Market studies and cost/benefit studies help mayors identify which projects are feasible and will justify public investment.

The failure of the Lazarus and Lord & Taylor projects Downtown and the difficulty of financing a new hotel next to the convention center are evidence of the importance of the financial bottom line for public/private partnerships.

7 You can't do everything at once.
Mayors have many problems to deal with including pensions, public safety and budget concerns. Redevelopment must be undertaken strategically with clear priorities established so that projects are not done outside of the broader goals of the city. Make every project count.

A good example is Eastside, the URA-sponsored project in East Liberty with The Mosites Co. that started with a pioneering Whole Foods and has continued with a Borders and other retail. Adjacent properties and blocks that would have continued to deteriorate are now being redeveloped.

8 Sustainable development pays.
Best practices for storm water management, brownfield cleanup and LEED-certified buildings produce financial payback to cities. They favor conservation of green space, and preservation and adaptive reuse over demolition. Pittsburgh is a world leader in sustainable development. With projects like Summerset at Frick Park, The Cork Factory, PNC Service Center, Washington's Landing, and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Pittsburgh is striving to become a leader in sustainable design.)

Yet to be solved is the combined sewer overflow problem in Allegheny County that will require innovative sustainable practices in storm water management, such as on-site infiltration and rain gardens, to reduce the enormous cost of piping and retention installations that would otherwise be required using standard civil engineering practices.

9 Learn from others.
In addition to the seven case studies presented by the mayors, each mayor in the course of the discussions over the two days pointed to some of their redevelopment successes. It was invaluable for the mayors to hear from each other and from the design professionals how problems nearly identical to theirs had been solved in other cities.

Pittsburgh can learn from Chattanooga, Portland, Austin, Denver and -- yes -- even Cleveland and Philadelphia, where innovative redevelopment and sustainable projects are being undertaken, including creative use of vacant and abandoned properties for open space, storm water management, rapid bus transit and urban agriculture.

10 The city needs a vision.
Mayors must have an overall strategy for development. Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago (the "Green Mayor") and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City ("PlaNYC 2030") are examples of mayors who have set a clear vision for their cities. Every public or private project is thus seen in the context of whether it enhances or detracts from that vision.

The seven Midwest mayors who visited Pittsburgh got that message.

• Illinois: Tim Davlin of Springfield

• Indiana: Dick Moore of Elkhart

• Ohio: William J. Healy II of Canton

• West Virginia: Danny Jones of Charleston and Kim Wolfe of Huntington

• Wisconsin: Keith G. Bosman of Kenosha and John Dickert of Racine

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10066/1040664-109.stm#ixzz0hdWXDeix


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