Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Great City Design Teams

Dateline: 1:32 pm July 2, 2008 Filed under:

In January of this year, I participated in an all day charrette as part of the Great City Design Team initiative, the brainchild of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. The intention is to take a commercial corridor or node of the city that needs improving and design a solution.

We gathered a group of designers, architects, landscape architects, and other members of the development community, and just like the numerous other charrettes around the city, came up with some really cool streetscapes, open spaces and building massing for an area of Glenwood Avenue, just west of downtown.

Design is important and plans are critical, but I found myself staring at them, doing quick calculations on cost and gasping at the chasm between what was on the paper and chance of it getting built. I fear these sketches and drawings we and all the teams came up with are perhaps destined to rest for eternity in some architect’s file drawer and never see the light of day. The problem being there is no implementation plan or program for providing additional public effort to link these drawings to reality or a built end product.

If I learned anything about planning while working for my previous employer, DSU, it is that a plan is worthless without community buy-in and appropriate implementation. DSU marketed (and still does after being bought by another firm, Bonestroo) themselves as a company whose plans get built. That is important. DSU did some very good work in their day and I’ll be damned if they weren’t one of the better community planning firms in the Twin Cities at getting buy-in from elected officials and the general public for the plans they created. So often plans are simply pretty pictures with no results. I’m always asking “yes, this is a nice plan, but did it get built?”

The lesson here, for my mayor and other visionaries, is of course to get those pretty pictures drawn by leading designers in your community. Create the vision. Get the public excited about it as well. But provide political will and mechanisms for the follow-through. Make sure the necessary zoning changes can be made, and leave some budget for finding a development partner and even some elusive public dollars to offset gaps in the market, which of course is often the reason for the charrette in the first place.

Building great cities indeed takes good design teams, but the uncomfortable reality is the process often exceeds the term of most mayors. I guess you could say it takes a village to build a village.

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