Few mayors come into office knowing much about architecture, design or urban planning, even though those issues are at the heart of some of the biggest, most expensive and longest-lasting decisions they will make.
And that is why many of those decisions are not very good. Multimillion-dollar projects with a huge impact on city life and image are often victims of political compromises, well-connected developers, traffic engineers and low bidders.
There is a better way. That is why Joe Riley, longtime mayor of Charleston, S.C., and the U.S. Conference of Mayors created the Mayors' Institute on City Design in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Architectural Foundation.
Since 1986, the institute has brought together more than 900 mayors and 650 professionals to discuss creative, contemporary approaches to city planning and design.
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Earlier this month, the University of Kentucky's College of Design hosted an institute conference that brought seven mayors to Lexington. They came from a diverse group of cities: Cambridge, Mass.; Joplin, Mo.; Clarksville, Tenn.; Atlantic City, N.J.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Pennsylvania's Reading and Lower Merion.
The mayors spent two days with a group of world-class design professionals. At an opening reception, Mayor Jim Gray and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, both graduates of the institute, urged them to seize the opportunity.
"Like any great business, you've got to be planning," Fischer said.
Each mayor was to give a 15-minute presentation about a local project. It would then be discussed by the other mayors and the professionals. The "experts" weren't there to design for the mayors; they were mostly advising them on how to get the help they need to achieve their cities' goals.
The professionals included two names familiar in Lexington: Gary Bates of Norway-based Space Group, who did the Rupp Arena, Arts & Entertainment District plan and is now doing a master plan for Louisville; and Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, the MacArthur "genius" award winner who did the site plan for Lexington's proposed CentrePointe development.
Others offering advice included Neil Denari and Roger Sherman, two Los Angeles architects who design projects all over the world; Roberto de Leon of de Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop in Louisville; and landscape architects Shane Coen, whose Minneapolis firm has an international reputation, and Paul Morris, who as deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation tries to marry good design with highway engineering.
The institute has some strict rules: The professionals cannot be hired to do work for the mayors' cities for a year. Also, sessions are limited to mayors and design professionals; no observers. The goal is open, honest discussions, because achieving good urban planning and design often involves a lot of strategy and politics.
Michael Speaks, the UK college's dean, and his faculty also were there to advise, something they do for Kentucky cities when asked. Speaks said he hopes to create a program similar to the institute as an ongoing resource for Kentucky mayors.
Several mayors said afterward that the conference was an eye-opener.
"It was a terrific, creative, collaborative learning process," said Liz Rogan, president of Lower Merion's Board of Commissioners. "I learned that there are creative solutions and processes and different ways of seeing things."
Melodee Colbert-Kean, mayor of Joplin, came with the most complicated project: rebuilding a city devastated by a tornado in May 2011.
"It was incredible," Colbert-Kean said of the session. "The information they have given us will go a long way toward redeveloping our city the way we want it to be."
There was one public session at the end of the conference. Gang, de Leon and Denari showed some recent work, which offered lessons about the value of good design.
For example, de Leon showed designs for a restroom building at a riverfront park in suburban Louisville. In most cities, this would be a concrete-block box, painted beige. But de Leon designed a beautiful, low-maintenance, reasonably priced piece of highly functional metal-and-concrete art that echoes the look of a traditional Kentucky tobacco barn. It isn't simply a park services building; it is an icon.
Denari said it is important that any city or company planning a major project hire the right design professionals and give them time to think through all of the client's needs and problems — some of which the client may not even realize they have.
"It's about thinking, 'How can we maximize this project?' " de Leon added. "How can we maximize what we're willing to spend to get the most value?"