Keepers of the Flame

Jan Gehl is an award winning Danish architect who has worked on high profile projects all over the world.
Recently, he visited the Harvard Design School to discuss the role of politics and leadership in driving improvement in cities.
In his experience, he believes “the personal factor is very strong in bringing about transformative urban changes”.
Gehl’s new book New City Spaces talks about nine cities that have really turned things around, and in nearly all of the cases, it started with some centrally placed person or torchbearer who had a vision. It might have been the mayor of Curitiba, the longstanding director of urban design in Melbourne, or the mayor in Strasbourg. In Copenhagen, the city architect, city engineer, and mayor worked together, and in Portland it was more or less the Greens winning the election in 1968 that brought significant change, according to Gehl.
“It (transformative changes) could come from the bottom or above, but very seldom did it grow out of the day-to-day administration of the cities. It was often a force from the outside, or a new officer or a new politician.”
Interesting and I have no doubt that Gehl is correct in his diagnosis of the cities he has studied.
But I would argue that another model—outside the hero mayor or architect narrative—is citizen driven planning or visioning. Delray used this transformational model effectively from the late 80s until the mid 2000s for plans relating to the downtown, neighborhoods, culture, education and parks.
It works.
In many cases, change is driven by a threat or by conditions that are so poor, they drive people to organize and push for reform. In Delray’s case, the threat was a plan by the Florida Department of Transportation to widen Atlantic Avenue to facilitate hurricane evacuation. While this may not be the best week to argue against that notion, it was widely believed that if FDOT was successful we would have lost our downtown forever. Instead of being a narrow, pedestrian friendly street promoting slow traffic, the avenue would have been a highway—good for evacuation bad for urbanism.
I’m hoping the new effort relating to the city’s update of its Comprehensive Plan is more like an old school visioning exercise than a top down exercise designed to check a box for the sake of optics because community visioning is critically important and so is the Comp Plan.
Gehl is correct when he notes that transformation rarely grows out of day- to -day administration.
Same goes for business.
When you’re leading or running a city or a business, you really have two considerations: the day to day and the future. You have to consider both or you are doomed to failure or disruption.
So yes when a citizen calls to complain about a tree branch you need to respond. But, you also should be thinking about your tree canopy and whether you have planned your open spaces well enough. Leadership requires taking care of the present and planning for the future.
In a council-manager form of government, in which the mayor’s position is supposed to be strictly policymaking and part-time (the part-time part is a fallacy, trust me), you can’t wait for a hero with a vision to come to rescue. It’s up to the citizens to take responsibility, but leadership is critical. The best leaders seek input, constantly engage, try their best to raise the level of conversation and once adopted become the chief evangelists and defenders of the vision.
And believe me; the vision will need defending because change is never easy nor universally accepted especially if your vision is ambitious and not boring or incremental.
Every city aspires to be a great place to live, work and play—but the devil as they say is in the details. Vibrancy requires activity and public spaces may need to be activated.
Change while often resisted is also inevitable. So you can count on your vision being challenged on a regular basis. The best leaders are guardians of the flame. If they resist the urge to cave when the critics emerge and trust in the people’s vision your vision will gain traction and soar. But if they capitulate—the vision will die and along with it any chance of meaningful change. Oh and you’ll lose the trust of citizens who helped to forge the vision and counted on you—the elected leader—to ensure it moves forward.
That’s a high price to pay.

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