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AT ISSUE: Lesson plans

Inspired by Boston's focus on its first citywide plan in 50 years, ArchitectureBoston kicks off a year of issues that will examine different aspects of planning. On the following pages, At Issue surveys five strategies of urban design — from reclaiming green spaces to leveraging cultural sensibilities — that shape cities and stimulate renewal.


How to plant a seed

There are six green spaces within a five-minute walk of my South Philadelphia stoop. The closest is a pocket park two blocks south, facing narrow streets lined with row houses. It is a leafy refuge, a common ground where young families play, old folks catch up on benches, neighbors garden, and dogs romp. It's also the reason I chose this neighborhood 10 years ago.

That everyone should live in close proximity to green space is a deceptively simple idea. Green is good. Unfortunately, too many Philadelphians don't have the same easy access to nature, and adding new parks is hard because Philly is a dense, old city. But the city's last mayor, Michael Nutter, had the seed of an idea.

In his 2008 inaugural address, Nutter vowed to make Philadelphia America's "greenest city" — an ambition rivaling William Penn's vision of the city as a "greene country towne." Philadelphia released its first sustainability agenda in 2009, including these "equity" targets: create at least 500 new greened acres, plant 300,000 trees, and ensure that every Philadelphian has access to open space within a 10-minute walk from home.

Philadelphia is roughly 13 percent parkland. But after Nutter took office, planners identified five dense areas, home to 200,000 people, where the nearest green space is more than a half-mile away. The city focused its work in these neighborhoods, seizing rare opportunities to build parks and to "green" other public spaces such as schools.

Now kids going to schools like William Dick Elementary in North Philly have a green schoolyard, where outdoor play and learning is richer, rain gardens capture runoff, and new trees add shade. In the Hawthorne neighborhood, residents have a lush new park that has become a community hub, realized as part of a public housing redevelopment project. In Kensington, the "Big Green Block" links a school, recreation center, park, and streetscape through green infrastructure. Citywide, once-vacant lots are thriving as urban farms, community gardens, and orchards that beautify blocks while fighting food insecurity. Along the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, new parks and trails are changing our waterfronts.

Today 90 percent of Philly residents have walkable access to open space, up from 82 percent in 2010. More than 581 acres were greened, and more than 120,000 trees have been planted.

Impressively, all this was realized despite the recession's municipal belt-tightening. That has been possible partly because green amenities hit multiple policy goals. Recreation programs serve kids after school and encourage active lifestyles. Green spaces help cool the city and soak up stormwater. Philly-based studies have linked greening to increased personal well-being, decreased crime, and reduced blight.

The background for these green gains has been our city's planning renaissance and a uniquely collaborative spirit. Since 2008, Philadelphia has adopted several interrelated plans that share green genes, including a new comprehensive plan, sustainability agenda, and an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to manage city stormwater using green infrastructure. Strong nonprofit partners and diverse funding sources, including local and national philanthropies, have helped stretch city resources further. Within government, shared goals have led city departments like Water and Streets to work collaboratively with Planning and Parks & Recreation instead of waging turf wars. By prioritizing walkable access to open space, particularly in underserved neighborhoods, the city had made a powerful commitment to closing gaps in public space investment and ensuring that sustainability targets reach all communities. Just 10 percent more to go. ■

Ashley Hahn is a Philadelphia-based writer focused on planning, preservation, and public space. She is an editor of, a project of the public radio station WHYY.

Above image: Hawthorne Park, by Lager Raabe Skafte Landscape Architects, provides lawns for visitors and plant beds that curve along its midsection. Photo: R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia®


The wisdom of culture

We all live somewhere, which means we reside, work, play, learn, worship, shop, make, laugh, love, cry, and return to specific places. Like many other ethnic-based neighborhoods, Little Tokyo in Los Angeles is where all these acts of living collide and collapse into one place, where these layers support the individual, families, and the community through culture.

I first learned about the potential for a human-centered approach to urban development when I directed the Asian Community Development Corporation in Boston's Chinatown 10 years ago. We developed four-bedroom apartments as affordable housing because immigrant Chinese families often include three or even four generations in one household. We insisted on home ownership opportunities alongside home buyer education and financial trainings. We supported physical improvements to community gardens while organizing Chinese-speaking elderly gardeners to play a leadership role in their management.

We formalized this "cultural" approach to community development by piloting the Human Development Overlay District concept that was conceived by the Environmental Simulation Center in New York. Unlike typical overlay districts that commonly focus on physical development, this method focuses attention on health, access to jobs and economic opportunity, and social supports.

As an urban planner, when I think of Little Tokyo, I consider its significance as probably the most vibrant of the three remaining "Japantowns" in the United States, but when I experience the area directly, I'm drawn to the overlapping layers of culture, commerce, people, and place. Low-income and senior residents shop and socialize in the small businesses on East 1st Street, while across the street Japanese tourists board and alight from an everpresent line of tour buses at the Miyako Hotel. Clusters of teenagers ranging from fifth-plus generation Japanese Americans to first-generation Korean Americans find their bubble tea in between the Japanese Village Plaza and the Japanese American National Museum. Executives from modern corporations with ties to Japan stride side by side with monks from Koyasan Buddhist Temple, one of the oldest in the United States.

To align their aspirations through the neighborhood's designation as a cultural eco-district, community organizations and residents worked with the city to create the Little Tokyo Community Design Overlay. In the words of Thomas Yee, director of planning for the neighborhood's Service Center Community Development Corporation: "[Sustainable Little Tokyo] is rooted in long-held cultural and community values passed down from generation to generation. We lifted fundamental community values like mottainai (what a shame to waste), kodomono tameni (for future generations), and banbutsu (interconnectedness) into a contemporary environmental context."

These perspectives are merging as planners, developers, activists, and cultural producers learn about how people shape the places where they live through their behaviors, patterns of use, and expressions. Expression is really key: Culture, as expressed through art, performance, rituals, food, and traditions, is how people can individually and collectively shape a place. The best creative placemaking efforts involve cultural organizations and artists who shape community development in ways that accelerate equity and increase the effectiveness of place-based strategies. From new understandings of the dimensions of health as a social construct to culture as a reservoir of strength, the human development approach offers a framework to planning, development, and resiliency that can leverage and address the complexity of people and place together. ■

Jeremy Liu, former executive director of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation in Oakland, California, is a cofounder of Creative Ecology Partners, a design studio and incubator for urban, economic, and community development innovation, and managing partner of Creative Development Partners, a real estate development and investment company in San Francisco.

Above image: Japanese Village Plaza in Little Tokyo, designed by David Hyun. Photo: Jakob N. Layman ​


A penny earned

Former Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick, having swung and missed at an economic development opportunity in the early 1990s, had a big idea. What if, instead of chasing after businesses with economic incentives, a city invested in itself and created the kind of community that would attract smart, creative young people — which would, in turn, attract businesses?

Norick developed the city's Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) initiative — a 1 cent sales tax with a start and end date and a list of capital projects to be built — designed to enhance the city's quality of life and generate private sector investment. Norick's pitch to citizens was simple: Even if MAPS didn't result in new businesses moving here, we'd have a better community for our residents. To the tune of $350 million, the voters passed MAPS in 1993, and Oklahoma City's renaissance began.

With the city moving in the right direction, the next mayor, Kirk Humphreys, realized the district's schools were in a state of disrepair and needed attention. The school system lacked the bonding capacity or public support to address it. Humphreys proposed and voters approved a $700 million MAPS for Kids, a second iteration of the penny sales tax, which would be used to renovate or build more than 70 inner-city schools.

Today, a third mayor is completing the final projects of MAPS for Kids. In addition to rebuilding our school system, MAPS for Kids added a brand new elementary school in the heart of the downtown business district. It's not uncommon to see 20 children and their teachers walking through downtown en route to a visit to the okc Museum of Art, The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, or other downtown points of interest.

We're often asked how, in a very conservative state, we are able to pass tax increases. An important aspect of the MAPS program is that the city pays cash for the capital projects. The money is collected, and the projects are built without debt. The success of the program has earned the voters' trust, and they seem to appreciate the fiscally conservative, debt-free design of MAPS.

After a community-wide conversation on health and wellness prompted by our decision to put the entire city on a diet, the conversation turned toward creating a built environment that nudged people toward active lifestyles. A $777 million MAPS 3 package that included bike trails, sidewalks, a 70-acre city park, senior wellness centers, a world-class white-water kayaking course, and public transit was passed by voters in 2009.

With all projects fully funded through MAPS, much of the work on trails and sidewalks is under way. The white-water course opens in the spring, in time for US Olympics trials. One of the four senior wellness centers is under construction, and we'll break ground on the park and modern streetcar system next year.

In each case, we had the advantages of some degree of desperation — a struggling economy, crumbling school infrastructure, and a battle with obesity — coupled with civic leaders with vision and a voting public willing to roll up its collective sleeves to work together and build a better community. In the process, we've realized that people used to go where the jobs were. Today, Oklahoma City is mapping its future on the belief that people move to places that offer a high quality of life, with walkable streets, public transit, the arts, professional sports, and great public spaces. And the jobs follow the people. ■

Mick Cornett, mayor of Oklahoma City, is currently serving his fourth term. He will become president of the US Conference of Mayors in June.

Above image: The Boathouse District's riverfront buildings for community programs, including white-water rafting and kayaking, by Elliot & Associates Architects. Photo: Georgia Read


Born on the bayou

Below the skyscrapers and highway flyovers of this booming port city a water system winds, barely visible yet following the original logic of Houston's topography. These tributaries, called "bayous" in the South, have become the focus of an extensive planning effort that has repositioned a neglected corridor into a center of recreational and cultural life.

Like other bayous in Houston, the Buffalo Bayou was for decades considered little more than a sewer and water drainage system, best avoided by residents. It meanders approximately 30 feet below grade through the center of downtown, threaded between the maze of highway support columns and cutting across city blocks. As a principal drainage system for much of the city, it carries substantial amounts of water, but still occasionally becomes the site of major flooding.

In 1986, local leaders created the nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership to oversee improvement projects and advocate for the area, but urgency crystallized in 2001, when tropical storm Allison hit Houston, causing record flooding in the downtown and becoming the costliest (nonhurricane) rain event in US history. With perfect timing, the "Buffalo Bayou and Beyond" plan was released in 2002, led by Boston-based Thompson Design Group. The planning effort, which still guides work today, anchors a paradigm shift in Houstonians' mental maps of their city.

The bayou was often inundated with trash, a result of Houston's street-water drainage system that collects runoff and debris and empties it into the creek. A bright pink Skimmer Boat (christened Mighty-Tidy) purchased in partnership with the Port of Houston Authority, helped manage the recurring litter while adding visibility. Through this boat — and other advocacy measures such as canoe races, dragon boat festivals, tree planting programs, and community service cleanups — attention turned to an area of the city that most locals didn't even know existed.

Much of the public funding for the Buffalo Bayou project was supplemented through foundation partnerships and private donations. Although not unique in American cities, it stands out in Houston, a city with many Fortune 500 oil and gas companies. The city's characteristically conservative political economy lends itself to a climate where large companies anticipate playing substantial philanthropic roles in city building. The robust private sector aid seems to enable a kind of unspoken commitment to keep government presence small in rebuilding affairs — hence, also in corporate affairs.

While land acquisition and cleanup efforts in the bayou system continue, some more highly visible park segments have been created downtown. In 2010, Houston-based landscape architects SWA Group designed and completed the first of these, called the Sabine Promenade. This 1.2-mile stretch has become a below-grade link, connecting parts of the downtown that were previously fragmented by highway ramps.

The design features of the Sabine Promenade follow clues from the infrastructure above. Instead of shielding users from the gritty character of the roadways, trails twist and bend around columns as needed to move continuously through the space. The result is a multisensory environment, amplified by the rumble of trucks and traffic above. What separates the Sabine Promenade from other contemporary open space investments is its ambition to take advantage of a degraded space, the kind found in almost any American city, then capitalize on the water course below. Such marginal spaces are seldom confronted or transformed. But in Houston — a city known for its free-for-all building environment with no traditional zoning laws — the bayou project serves as a new connective tissue. At local and regional scales, it provides a cohesive, environmentally forward gesture that recenters the haphazard. ■

David Gamble AIA and Patty Heyda are architects and urban designers based in Boston and St. Louis, respectively. This essay is adapted from their book, Rebuilding the American City: Design and Strategy for the 21st Century Urban Core, published by Routledge Press in November 2015.

Above image: The Sabine Promenade, designed by SWA Group, improves local ecology and waterfront access for Houston. Photo: William Tatham/SWA Group



Welcome to Gilbertville

All cities have their corporate benefactors, but few enjoy one quite like Detroit's Dan Gilbert. Founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, the online mortgage giant, Gilbert moved his corporate headquarters from a suburban office park to downtown Detroit in mid-2010. Fired by a vision of remaking Detroit's tattered image, he embarked on a shopping spree for undervalued skyscrapers, snapping up dozens of properties in the city's core.

Gilbert's holdings now include some of Detroit's most notable architectural landmarks, including One Woodward, First National, Chase Tower, and Book Building. He owns the Greektown Casino, and he controls through master leases virtually all of the retail space along Woodward Avenue, the city's main street. His holdings now total nearly 100 properties, and Forbes magazine estimates his wealth at $3.8 billion.

That he was able to grab so much so fast says as much about the depressed values of Detroit real estate as it does about Gilbert's own outsized ambitions. But it also upends the usual model of downtown redevelopment, which relies on the local municipality wooing a host of different developers with generous tax breaks on a project-by-project basis. Perhaps Gilbert is a version of the "great man" theory of history: that one visionary individual wielding power and money can do as much to stimulate growth as any city plan­ning commission could.

To be sure, not all Detroiters are convinced that this "great man" is also a good man. That so much has happened in just five years has left Detroiters a little stunned. Critics grumble about one man controlling so much, and his focus on downtown has spurred a gentrification debate similar to (if not yet on the scale of) that taking place in other cities.

Even so, Gilbert, 54, retains the solid backing of Detroit's political and business classes. And although he's not the only important property owner or player in Detroit, it's getting hard to argue with the nick­name that wags are attaching to the city's central core: "Gilbertville."

Many of the properties he purchased were half-filled at best when Gilbert got them. Today, the 1,500-person workforce he brought downtown with him in 2010 has swelled to about 12,000, and those underused downtown towers have filled up with educated millennials with disposable incomes.

Teaming with Project for Public Spaces in New York City, Gilbert has enlivened Detroit's downtown with placemaking tactics that include a beach volleyball patch in summer and a host of new retailers, coffee shops, and eateries. Also in the works: a signature architectural statement now being designed by SHoP Architects for an important site once occupied by Detroit's iconic Hudson's department store, which was imploded in 1998. Gilbert has moved into the civic space, too. He co-chaired the city's blight removal task force that strategized how to deal with the city's thousands of vacant eyesores. He helped pay for the much-praised Motor City Mapping endeavor that created the city's most accurate database ever of its 380,000 or so parcels. He was a financial contributor to Detroit's "grand bargain," the philanthropic effort to save the pensions of municipal retirees and the art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts during the city's recent bankruptcy. And he is a sponsor of the city's M-1 RAIL streetcar line, due to begin operation in 2017. When that streetcar service starts, it will be under a yet-to-be-revealed name that Gilbert will get to choose — since he also bought the naming rights. ■

John Gallagher is a business reporter and architecture critic for The Detroit Free Press. 

Above image: Rendering of a development proposed for the site of Hudson's department store, designed by SHoP Architects and Hamilton Anderson Associates. Image: Rock Ventures/SHoP Architects