City design: How, by whom, and to what end?

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Blair Humphreys posts an excellent comment on an excellent discussion at Steve Lackmeyer's OKC Central blog:

I agree with the thesis that cities NEED to be designed. Of course, the rub comes when you decide things like: designed how, by whom, and to what end.

In Oklahoma City we have favored design through top-down measures utilizing the planning/design talent of renowned consultants, trusted (almost revered) our "infallible" traffic engineers, and depended on the benevolent motivations and decision-making of small groups of powerful businessmen.

More often than not, this has led to: the destruction of our urban heritage in favor of alien models of urbanity, a move away from walkable urban form in favor of an autocentric city with a street infrastructure that is grossly over capacity (and without streetlife), and the allocation of resources towards major public improvements and economic development programs that consistently ignore quality of life concerns.
I think we should shift the way we "design" our city in this way:

Designed how? Through an open public process that includes access to information, free exchange of ideas, and a thoughtful discourse.

Designed by whom? By multidisciplinary teams of professionals and amateurs working at the direction of citizens that choose to be engaged in the process. The size of this "engaged community" will depend on the scale of the plan, but the more local the better.

To what end? To whatever end the community decides. For me, I want to enhance the quality of life in OKC both now and for future generations - with priority on the future. And build back a downtown that offers a true urban lifestyle.

Some of this is happening now. Some members of our planning staff are doing incredible work in neighborhoods throughout the city, and the Oklahoma Main Street program has done a tremendous job in places like the Plaza District and Stockyard City. Also, a few local developers - notably Midtown Renaissance & Steve Mason's 9th street - have embraced historic areas and given local businesses a shot, and in the process created some of the most popular places in the city.

That said, for the most part our city continues to be "designed" by transportation engineers and the results are evidence enough that they have little understanding of their role in creating good urban form (thought they clearly know something about short commute times). And our historic model of power broker decision-making is still ingrained, no matter how much rhetoric you might hear about most "public", "transparent", "democratic", etc. Often, one wonders, whether our spending is really thought to be in the best interest of the city and really in the direction desired by the community.

Until there is a process that values the contributions and criticisms of our citizenry, OKC will fall short of its potential.

Interesting comments, too, from Philip Morris, on urban design in Birmingham, Orlando, and Nashville:

FYI, the City of Birmingham (truly a center city wrapped by close suburbs) used urban renewal only for UAB expansion, but in the 1980′established more than 20 design review districts overseen by a single board with guidelines written with imput from property owners (who must organize and formally request the designation before public improvements are made). They are titled "Commercial Revitalization District" and do just about everything you would in a local historic district -- but without the red flag name. Incrementally adds up over time, but only where the economic base supports development....

All: Good to read so many interesting ideas about Classen Boulevard. I never fail to drive it when I'm back visiting family. It has great movement and changing views, not usual in your grid. Certainly worth your attention. FYI, Orlando Planning Director Rick Bernhardt changed codes there 15 or 20 years ago to require that all typical strip buildings front thoroughfares with parking to the side and rear. He's now planning director for Nashville metro government and over the past 8 years or so has transformed their approach with overlay districts. Google City of Nashville Planning and click Urban Design if you want to see these. Classen could use an overlay with different requirements for different stretches but an overall boulevard landscape to tie things together. Rick does a very good presentation on this if there were an occasion to bring him there. Also: I found the ULI video on City of Oklahoma City site under planning. A good reality-check on Core to Shore plans.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 18, 2010 12:28 PM.

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