The power of visions

February 2nd, 2006 § Comments off

Ken Greenberg, one of North America’s most gifted urban designers, isn’t shy about high rises. Tonight at UC Berkeley, he gave a talk that focused on how cities can create great public spaces and attract high-quality private development by developing a vision that the public supports; implementing it in the public spaces that it controls; and insisting that private developers follow suit. Much of his audience was composed of mayors from Central Valley cities, most of which are about as suburban as it gets, but Greenberg showed them examples from major metropolitan centers, including Vancouver, Saint Paul, Boston, and Toronto. I have no idea what the mayors thought of, say, the residential towers in Coal Harbour, and sadly, there was no chance to ask them (nor, perhaps, would it have been prudent to do so). They’re in Berkeley for a workshop about city design, which will take place over the next few days. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those meetings. Of course, Greenberg’s point wasn’t that it was appropriate to build 40-story towers in, say, Fairfield; it was that cities can create urbanity and lively centers when they value those qualities enough to insist upon them.

One of the techniques that Greenberg emphasized is putting forward a really great concept at the very start of the planning process, something that captures people’s imaginations and gains widespread support (ideally with some juicy watercolor renderings to back it up). In Saint Paul, for example, the architect Ben Thompson provided a vision in 1992 of the city as a “Great River Park,” oriented towards the Mississippi River. The vision continues to inspire new plans, and actual development, today.

Of course, it takes more than just a great vision to make change happen; lots of different people, even just within a city, have to get on board. In Saint Paul, a powerful nonprofit, the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, started a design center where city officials and staff mingled and informally discussed how the goals of traffic engineering, public works, and urban design could fit together. I don’t know that that organization could be replicated elsewhere, but it’s an interesting example of how public officials can move past the political divisiveness and differences in professional training that often keep city departments from working in concert with one another.

As I left campus after the talk, I was delighted to see how foggy it was outside. I love foggy nights; they create a wonderfully noirish atmosphere in even the most banal places. Every cobra head streetlight becomes pregnant with meaning. I pedaled away from campus and flew down Telegraph Avenue on my bicycle, watching the wet mist swirl about in floating pools of light.

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