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January 2014

Urban Design Key

Makes Cities More Livable and Resilient

By NWREporter

January 2014

The Nature of Urban DesignListening changes a city, suggests urban designer and author Alexandros Washburn, the keynote speaker at the 2013 Built Green Conference.

Known as a "big believer" that infrastructure should serve many purposes, Washburn encouraged his audience of builders, architects, Realtors® and related industry representatives to be mindful of the evolution of design, noting if you can't design under the profit motive and politics, "projects can't become real."

In his recently published book The Nature of Urban Design: A New York Perspective on Resilience, the award-winning architect and professor draws from his experiences in government, finance and design, as well as from his perspective as a bicycle commuter and hurricane survivor. During his discussion on "what is urban design?" and its evolution, he cited significant contributions of three "great urban designers": Frederick Law Olmstead, Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.

Washburn urged designers to sketch scenes and impressions of best practices when conceiving projects. The global traveler takes his sketchbook whenever he journeys. Taking photos is fine, he commented, but added, "If it's worth remembering, it's worth drawing."

As the chief urban designer at the New York Department of City Planning, Washburn has been at the forefront of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's epic remaking of the city. His book incorporates personal stories, as well as case studies from cities around the world.

In one chapter, the author advocates changing cities by changing the point of view: Instead of from windshields, shift the perspective to that of a pedestrian. ("To build a great city, build a great sidewalk.") He devotes another chapter to a case study of High Line, the 1.5 mile long elevated greenway on Manhattan's Lower West Side and the role planners and urban designers played in creating it.

Alexandros WashburnWashburn believes infrastructure's purposes can encompass trails and parks, and also help cities become more resilient, especially in anticipation of climate changes. He is working to increase resilience in cities, both personally and professionally as he participates in the recovery effort in his Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, a flood-prone zone and area hit hard by Hurricane Sandy.

During his remarks at the Built Green conference, Washburn referenced Eko-Viikki, a suburb of Helsinki, Finland, as an area that has pioneered sustainable construction techniques, including solar district heating, wind powered street lighting, and an area wide stormwater management plan. The project is part of the Sustainable Cities of Europe initiative and was the first ecological neighborhood to be built in Finland. Construction criteria included indoor environmental quality, energy usage, water consumption and waste management.

Interestingly, about 80 percent of U.S. citizens live in urbanized areas, but half would deny it, according to Washburn. He read a passage from his book, describing an individual who moved to the suburbs because he wanted to live on the frontier, and not see neighbors, yet he routinely enjoyed dining at nearby city restaurants and other urban amenities.

For the City of New York, Washburn's work is centered on a three-part agenda: growth (fitting more people within fixed borders); sustainability (including adaptation and mitigation); and improving the quality of city life. In that city, 85 percent of buildings that will be around in 2050 are already built, he noted.

Urban projects must transfer quality, quantity, and nature through aligning politics, finance, and design, Washburn believes. "Nature is the new civic virtue" he declares.

Urban planning must be mindful of the element in what Washburn called the "policy toolkit." He drew distinctions between allowing/permitting/guiding, and incentivizing (encouraging), mandating (requiring), and removing impediments (which he admitted is his favorite).

Washburn also said his ideal is to mix economic levels in the same building. He advocates having affordable housing mixed into every building, and making public space "truly public." In New York, he said the public space is everyone's, and "when that happens you lose the prejudice."

Noted attorney and author Kevin P. Chavous praised the book for providing a unique perspective into the issue of urban design "that very few professionals can." In a review for Amazon, Chavous noted the book's outstanding photography, stunning illustrations, and phenomenal drawings. The book engages, instructs, and challenges you to understand and become a part of the urban design process, the reviewer wrote, but said its most important quality is the fact that it inspires. "And without inspiration, there are no dreams, no great ideas, no plans of action, and no change."

In an interview with Metropolis magazine, Washburn was asked about lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy, particularly with regard to the devastation in his own neighborhood. In his reply, he spoke of the need to redefine the "client" from the existing families of sparsely populated Red Hook to a region of a million-plus people who view Red Hook's experience as a model for their own community's rebirth.

"We'll see how government agencies can enlarge the notion of "site" from our individual row houses struggling to floodproof by ourselves into a neighborhood and even regional system of shared public spaces and resiliency projects, each designed to counter a specific threat of climate change," Washburn told the writer. Continuing, he said, "We will use tools of zoning or finance (insurance, mortgage, and taxation) positively, not punitively, to support change so that the "program" escalates from millions in public improvements to billions in private investment. Urban design is the only way I can see to achieve fundamental change."