Art Works Blog

#MICD50: A Recap

Chicago, Illinois

Rocco with U.S. Department of Housing and Development  Secretary Shaun Donovan at the National Mayors' Summit in Chicago. Photo by David Hathcox

The setting said it all. Amidst the old world splendor of the Hilton Chicago Grand Ballroom was a jaw-dropping array of computers, control boards, and cables. The crystal chandeliers and gold-framed mirrors spoke of history while the webcasting and Powerpoint equipment reminded me of the ubiquity and power of technology; both important factors in the upcoming conversation about the revival of American cities.

The National Mayors’ Summit on City Design: Celebrating 25 Years of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design (MICD) took place April 27-29 with 300 mayors, designers, and government professionals in attendance. The goal of the convening was to “develop shared recommendations for utilizing strategic planning and smart design to achieve remarkable results.”

The summit opened with greetings from NEA Design Director Jason Schupbach, who moderated the event, and from the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the American Architectural Foundation,  and the MICD, including Charleston, South Carolina mayor Joseph P. Riley, one of the originators of the Mayors’ Institute. Also in attendance was NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, who told the audience how much he looked forward to the conversations of the next two days.

Then, to welcome everyone to Chicago was the city’s own Mayor Richard M. Daley. The mayor noted that Chicago is one of the few cities with a protected lakefront completely dedicated to the public purpose.

An anniversary video highlighted the accomplishments of MICD, reminding the audience that, as Mayor Riley said, “A great city, large or small, is defined by the quality of its public realm.” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybeck said the institute allowed him to ask, “What could it [Minneapolis] be if we imagine greatness?”

A content-packed keynote was delivered by Thom Mayne, design director of Morphosis Architects and a UCLA distinguished professor. With his research team, including graduate students from UCLA Architecture and Urban Design, Mayne has been studying the phenomenon of cities, developing criteria by which to assess their assets, liabilities, and opportunities and using those criteria and the arts and design to map solutions to urban problems.

The afternoon featured three concurrent work sessions in which participants discussed one of three topics: Design and Transportation, Design and Development, and Design and 21st-Century Challenges. Working with facilitator-identified key challenges relevant to their topic, participants devised recommendations to overcome those challenges.  The next morning the facilitators of each forum reported back to a panel of federal officials, including U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Shaun Donovan; NEA Chairman Landesman; Roy Kienitz, undersecretary for policy, U.S. Department of Transportation; Derek Douglas, special assistant to the president, White House Domestic Policy Council; and Salim Geevarghese, HUD senior advisor.

First to the podium with the report from the transportation workgroup was Marilyn Taylor, dean of Penn Design at the University of Pennsylvania. Among that group’s recommendations were a shift in thinking from mode-to-mode transportation to balanced transportation, using the means of travel best suited to the trip, bearing in mind the impact on the environment, economy, and well being of all.

Chris Leinberger, visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution, led the design and development forum. That team urged federal officials to work toward eliminating burdensome “red tape,” silo-thinking, and out-of-date zoning regulations.

Finally, Toni Griffin, president of Urban Design and Planning for the American City offered her group’s recommendations, such as greater institutionalization of design in city government and recognition of the powerful impact of small-scale projects.

Secretary Donovan was the first to respond to these recommendations and he did so with an energetic and impressive speech. Here are selected quotes.

“As so many others have in the years since, Mayor Daley realized early on that in an economy where America's metros are hotbeds of innovation---today generating 90 percent of our economic output---the time for the old fights between cities and suburbs was over---and that the time had arrived for communities that share problems to start sharing solutions.”

“Cities, towns, and regions who embrace sustainable communities will have a built-in competitive edge in attracting jobs and private investment and be able to solve three or four problems with a single investment.”

“As your partner, my job is clear: to help you turn possibility into reality---so that every mayor can design the stronger, more resilient, more dynamic future for your cities that America needs to compete in the 21st century and win the future.”

The final event of the summit was a lunch and presentation of the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Award for Leadership in Urban Design to Chicago’s Mayor Daley. Several mayors offered fulsome remarks about his passion, commitment, vision, and leadership in advancing the city’s public spaces.

When it came to Rocco’s turn to provide closing remarks, he surprised the audience with an “executive decision.” After expressing his deep gratitude to Mayor Daley for his work in revitalizing downtown Chicago, especially, and not surprisingly, the theater district, Rocco jettisoned his prepared speech. Instead, he invited everyone to read his remarks on the NEA’s website.

In closing he said, “My message across the federal government has been that the arts can be a fulcrum for collaboration and partnership across federal government, across state and city government, and including the private sector where we can enlist significant funds. My job is to scale up the resources and the funds that can be used to help revitalize places all across America through the arts.”

The meeting ended but the conversations in the foyer outside the ballroom lingered. I got the impression that attendees were squeezing in one more conversation before returning to their home cities, reenergized with creative ideas to continue working towards building better cities with the tools provided by the arts and design.

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