“You can be the greatest designer in the world, but if you can’t work under the pressure of politics, or don’t understand the need for a profit motive, you will accomplish nothing. Urban design changes things.” So says New York City’s former chief urban designer Alexandros Washburn at Urban Green’s sold-out author talk. Three billion people live in cities now – a number that will increase to five billion by 2030. Washburn guesses only about 30,000 of them have any clue about how to improve urban quality of life, perhaps the smallest ratio of experts to stakeholders of almost any human endeavor. We need more people working to make cities better. But having a great vision isn’t enough; for change to occur, politics and finance have to align with design.
Washburn’s heroes include Frederick Law Olmsted (who not only designed Central Park, but actually got it built), Jane Jacobs, and even the controversial Robert Moses. All these urbanists share something in common with the evening’s audience of green building devotees: they strove to leave our city better than they found it. Washburn said it’s a lesson he learned directly from a beloved boss, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said about rebuilding Penn Station: “Make it inevitable.” The connection between the late, great NY Senator and NYC design was palpable, as Washburn paused and gathered himself after sharing personal memories from Moynihan’s funeral.
At his Red Hook home during Sandy, Washburn experienced firsthand how cities’ effects on the climate are coming back with a vengeance. And while some of his pictures of empty, waterlogged streets have an almost tranquil quality, he takes a darker view: “It makes you want to think of Venice. But it’s not like Venice, and it’s something we have to protect against.” There’ll be no retreat from climate change, just as New York showed no retreat when facing another citywide crisis caused by poor urban design: endemic disease in the 19th century. Just as this was solved by urban designers (and hygienists), we’ll do the same with climate change, he says. One exception: “Take the boiler out of the basement!”
Washburn says resiliency planning (like the work of the Building Resiliency Task Force) can be more than just a reaction to Sandy. New laws, buildings, and infrastructure “both reduce risk and offer an opportunity to improve civic life.” The changes to come can both strengthen and beautify our city, and provide other benefits as well. But there’s a management challenge.
Under our current complex system, it can take years from project conception to breaking ground – even longer if the project is really innovative. Will that work in the face of what’s coming? Washburn thinks not: “If climate change starts accelerating, we won’t have the luxury of a system that takes years to make well-considered changes. If we need change faster than our system can provide it, we are at risk of authoritarians. They will say we need it for the good of the city. I want to work on making the system faster while keeping it responsive and subtle.”
Washburn will now be undertaking this work at the Stevens Institute of Technology, and he’s likely to find success motivating students there. Washburn has a unique talent to make the hidden underbelly of urban design a topic of vivid interest and beauty. Of course, not many speakers wax poetic about their favorite zoning law (he prefers the groundbreaking Zoning Resolution of 1916), so he doesn’t have a lot of competition!
Having seen him speak twice about his book, it’s clear his engagement with audiences about urban design goes deeper than just the strength of his personal interest. I was most moved by his description of how the High Line came to be. Proposed by unlikely champions and implemented by an even more unlikely coalition of private and public funds, he thinks Olmsted, Moses and Jacobs would all grudgingly endorse it, meaning politics, money, and design needs have probably been satisfied. Washburn is extraordinarily lucid in his description of the technical mechanism that allowed the High Line to happen in the face of opposition from owners of the land underneath the defunct railway, forever blocked from building their rightful five stories. The solution was air rights transfers, allowing those owners to sell the rights to build higher buildings a few blocks away and turning them “almost overnight from being enemies to friends of the High Line.”
As he drew the audience deeper into the tale of this almost-impossible urban miracle, a hushed silence fell over the room as Washburn reverently intoned the name of the design solution that solved the problem: “Special West Chelsea District Rezoning.” This phrase might have seemed esoteric or even comical in another venue. But this evening, they acquired new meaning, summing up all by themselves the sacrifice and success of those who had left their part of New York better than they found it.