Loeb Lab: Cities for the 21st Century

Loeb Fellows not only have uncommon intellects, activism and expertise but also a willingness to put themselves on the line to achieve communities characterized by justice, equity, livability and sustainability. In a new series of essays we're calling "Loeb Lab: Cities for the 21st Century,” Loeb Fellows share lessons they’ve learned about how cities can be transformed into welcoming, resilient places.

Anne Marie LubenauAnne-Marie Lubenau is recognized for her views on planning and design and her blog series about the Bruner award winning projects, the Bruner LOEB forum, and her involvement in the public interest design movement. Lubenau offers "Five Ingredients for Successful Places."

Loeb Lab 1: Five Ingredients for Successful Places

by Anne-Marie Lubenau


Thinking over what I’ve learned about successful places and cities through my work as an architect, in community design and as director of the Rudy Bruner Award, several common themes or "ingredients” emerge. I’ve found these principles apply to most place-making situations, whether a project, a neighborhood or a city.

While it’s tempting to suggest these ingredients form a recipe, they don’t. Cities are dynamic. They change and evolve over time in response to complex economic, environmental and social forces. Each is a product of its own unique place and circumstances. As such, the process of applying or mixing these ingredients will yield a different result in each city.

Louisville Waterfront Park

Louisville Waterfront Park, photo courtesy of Bruner Foundation

I was reminded of this earlier this year when I traveled to Chicago, Dallas, New York City, Louisville and Providence to visit the 5 projects that received the 2013 Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence. These cities and projects reflect the rich and remarkable diversity of approaches to urban place-making in the 21st century. They also share the 5 characteristics or ingredients anyone aspiring to lead change in his or her city should consider:

Involve your community. Engage people – residents, students, workers, businesses, academic and cultural institutions and elected leaders – in a conversation about the future. Invite them to discuss what works and doesn’t work, to be candid and debate, and to dream and talk about what can be. The Waterfront Development Corporation in Louisville hosted a series of meetings to discuss ideas for redevelopment of the city’s riverfront. Input from those meetings led to the idea to transform industrial land along the Ohio River into Louisville Waterfront Park, a new, 85-acre waterfront park that reconnects the city with the river.

Providence Steelyard

Providence Steelyard, photo courtesy of Bruner Foundation

Understand your context. Your city’s history and culture – its natural setting, buildings and infrastructure, social heritage and cultural practices – contribute to its individuality and distinguish it from other places. Embrace the past as the foundation for your future. The Steel Yard in Providence transformed a 100-year old steel fabrication facility into an industrial arts campus that offers classes, a work-force development program and studio space for artists who practice the craft of metalworking. The project serves as a bridge between the established arts community on the city’s East Side with the industrial Valley community on the West Side, giving new meaning to Providence’s "Creative Capital” identity.

Congo Street team

Congo Street team, photo courtesy of buildingcommunity WORKSHOP

Work at multiple scales. Big change requires substantial resources that are not always available. Smaller, incremental projects can be as effective as larger ones. Both Congo Street Initiative in Dallas and Via Verde in the Bronx effectively challenged assumptions and transformed perceptions about whether it is possible to develop LEED-certified, affordable housing in their respective cities.

Collaborate. Invest in partnerships that enable you to do more with less. In Dallas bcWORKSHOP, a nonprofit community design center, enlisted homeowners, college students and volunteers in the design and construction/reconstruction of six houses on a one-block long street.

Via Verde, N.Y.C., photo courtesy of Bruner Foundation

Via Verde, N.Y.C.

In New York City volunteers from the local AIA partnered with multiple city agencies and the National Endowment for the Arts to sponsor design competitions that attracted international teams of designers and developers and resulted in a new 222-unit, mixed-income development on a former brownfield site in the Bronx.

Create spaces and events that bring people together and inspire hope. At their best, cities are vibrant places because of the diversity of people and activities that inhabit them. Inspiration Kitchens – Garfield Park brings people together for meals in a light-filled, 80-seat restaurant and food service training facility on Chicago’s West Side. The restaurant provides delicious, healthy food at affordable prices to paying customers and free to neighborhood residents, and meals are prepared by hand to employ individuals making a fresh start in the food service industry.

Above all, be patient. Meaningful change – especially at the scale of cities – takes time. Remember that there is no one single recipe or magic bullet, and what works in one city may not necessarily work in yours. Expect the unexpected. Be flexible and willing to let go of control. And have fun.

Anne-Marie Lubenau is director of the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence for the Bruner Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is an architect, educator and advocate for engaging people in design of the built environment and making cities better.

All photos courtesy of Bruner Foundation except where noted.

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One Response to Loeb Lab: Cities for the 21st Century

  1. Jim Blake says:

    I would like to nominate Tom Aidala, former director of design for the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, for his invention of the street fountain – a grid of vertical water spouts that children love to play in on hot summer days. One can now see this type of active fountain in major cities in Europe. Mr. Aidala is a former winner of the Thomas Jefferson Award for urban design excellence.

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