November 07, 2014

Design matters to city mayors

If mayors ruled the world, imagine what they could accomplish for their individual communities.

by Sydney Franklin, Goldring Arts Journalism Program

Our nation’s mayors are responsible for much more than most of us realize. They are local political leaders, advocates for education and healthcare, as well as catalysts for urban and economic development in their communities. They are also mediators between their cities and the states they live in. With so much to do, it’s a wonder how these leaders could have time to contemplate the complex issues of urban design.

Seven mayors from different mid-sized American cities convened in Syracuse last month to present case studies of critical issues facing their cities and work with a group of nationally known architects, planners, designers, and real estate development experts to generate ideas and brainstorm solutions. Sponsored by the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, the three-day event fostered conversation about the importance of design in creating sustainable, livable, and vibrant communities. Hosted by the Syracuse University School of Architecture and the City of Syracuse, the conference included meetings between the mayors and the panel of experts, and a public event at the Everson Museum.

“Mayors should be the chief designers of their communities. This initiative by MICD allows mayors the opportunity to focus on the ways in which good design benefits the public,” said Julia Czerniak, associate dean at the School of Architecture and coordinator of the event.

Czerniak was instrumental in bringing the East Regional MICD conference to Syracuse after participating in the Los Angeles conference last year as a resource team member and landscape architect.

MICD is a National Endowment of the Arts leadership initiative started by Charleston, S.C. Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Syracuse was selected to the host the conference earlier this year and invited mayors from Ohio, Iowa, New York, Illinois, Connecticut, Minnesota, and New Jersey to come together for the discussion.

“It’s an opportunity to share concerns that are confronting all mid-sized American cities right now,” said Czerniak. “The important question is, how can we learn from each other?’”

Czerniak and her team at the School of Architecture visited each mayor and city before the event in October. She was able to further research the various case studies each mayor sought to bring to the main event. When the mayors arrived in Syracuse, they toured the city, including design successes like the Connective Corridor, the Onondaga Creekwalk and the renovated and new homes in the Near Westside neighborhood.

Recurring themes at the public forum at the Everson Museum on the conference’s second day included challenges with building sustainable housing and reusing vacant properties, preventing community isolation developed as a result of mid-20th century sprawl, and creating walkable connections in cities.

“The public, private and not-for-profit sectors must come together for success in these communities,” said Felipe Correa, a member of the panel from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “We need leadership to believe in the power of design.”

The Mayors’ Institute provides mayors with the critical opportunity to take a step back, evaluate how their individual communities are performing, and create focused plans for the future.

Participating mayors included Mayor Richard C. David, Binghamton, NY; Mayor Scott Eisenhauer, Danville, IL; Mayor Roy D. Buol, Dubuque, IA; Mayor Lester E. Taylor III of East Orange, NJ; Mayor Holly Brinda, Elyria, OH; Mayor Alex Morse, Holyoke, MA; Mayor Toni Harp, New Haven, CT; Mayor Dave Kleis of St. Cloud, MN.

The panel of experts included Ken Bernstein, Manager, Office of Historic Resources, City of Los Angeles;  Felipe Correa, Associate Professor of Urban Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge;  Abby Hamlin, CEO, Hamlin Ventures, NYC; Faith Rose, NYC Department of Design & Construction; Brent Ryan, Associate Professor, MIT, Urban Design & Public Policy; Hilary Sample, Principal, MOS Architects, NYC; Shin-pei Tsay, Director of Research and Development, Transit Center, NYC; Gena Wirth, Principal, SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, NY.

The Everson discussion was moderated by Syracuse Architecture faculty members Julia Czerniak, Theodore Brown, Bess Krietemeyer, and Kyle Miller.