North American Sampler

For week seven of our Change the World novena, we hear from a planner who reflects on the impact of transportation on the development and well-being of several cities.

As architects, we like to imagine ourselves as closet urban planners, perhaps even dabblers in landscape design.  We think that because we design the buildings in a city that that somehow qualifies us as experts in the “negative spaces” (note the condescending way we refer to it) around them as well.  To turn that whole notion on its ear, I asked transit planner Andre Darmanin to weigh in on the way that our roadways, in particular transit systems, define development.  It’s a real reversal in thinking as Andre loves architecture and most likely imagines that he could take on a bit of facade design now and again to enhance his planning work.  Andre has lived and worked in several North American cities, notably Los Angeles, CA and Toronto, Canada, and shares his thoughts on transit impacts on community development in those locations.

Cities each have their own characters, what they have been, what they are and what they wish to become.  Toronto, Andre’s hometown is a major global metropolis and seat of cosmopolitan culture.  However, the limitations of the city’s heavy rail system and inattention to how transit impacts the urban experience has led to problems in recent years. “The biggest physical change to the city has been on the negative side,” Andre states.  “There have been many years of neglect for its public transportation system.  Major subway delays and breakdowns combined with not responding to the growth of the suburbs.  Metrolinx, the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area’s Regional Transportation Agency has responded.  With Metrolinx’s Regional Transportation Plan – The Big Move – and their upcoming Investment Strategy due in 2013,  there are discussions of adding light rail lines throughout the region along sustainable funding measures to build and improve transit.   Quality of life rankings still put Toronto in the top 10 in many categories.   The Toronto Board of Trade had released several reports over the last 2 years regarding the state of Toronto’s economy with regards to transit, infrastructure, IT and manufacturing. Its prominence is slipping to places like Calgary and Vancouver.   Just like New York and London, Toronto continuously has to reinvent itself.”  Andre sees an event-driven impetus to some of that change just around the corner, “Given the Pan Am Games will be there in 2015, it will give the city a chance to reenergize and focus on building the region for years to come.”

Andre lived and worked in Los Angeles between 2004 and 2006 as a Regional Transit
Planner for the Southern California Association of Governments. His work there included championing the 2008 Regional Transit Summit. His insights into LA address how transit is being used to create more local destinations and foster a sense of place.  “[LA] is a city known for its urban sprawl, expansive highway network, congestion and pollution,” he
The Regional Transit Summit sponsored by the Southern
California Association of Governments provided a forum
for the community to interact with its elected officials

begins, then takes his response in a surprising direction, observing how interventions at a variety of scales are working to change that perception. “I lived in Downtown LA.  For the first time in 50 years, a Ralph’s opened a downtown grocery store recognizing the residents’ needs for local shopping.  The revitalization of downtown, increased residential development and has included LA Live.  In 2011, I recently visited LA.  LA Live has become a major entertainment center, which is true to form for its name.  Measure R, which allowed an increase of the sales tax to fund transportation projects as well as the 30/10 initiative, are ways in which the county is looking to improve transportation for the future while relying on a sustainable funding source.  Also from what I have been reading, there are constant improvements to the city such as the Public Plaza in Silver Lake.” 

Edmonton, Alberta, where he lives and works today as a Transit Planner for the city, is committed to family-oriented growth, which also shows in its transportation planning.  “With Edmonton the biggest change has been the constant growth within the suburbs.   There is one Light Rail Transit (LRT) line currently being built with plans to not only extend that line within 20 years, but also to build another LRT line within the same time frame.  Edmonton has developed a 30 year plan with six 10-year strategic goals called The Way Ahead.  The Ways (We Grow, Prosper, Move, Green, etc.) are all part of a long term strategy to grow the city in a sustainable fashion.  Aside from the LRT expansion, there are projects to revitalize older inner city neighborhoods and implement standards for newer suburban neighborhoods.”  

Andre doesn’t see a whole lot of difference between transportation issues in the US and Canada.  In both countries, the roads tends to be the primary means of travel, leading to issues of connectivity, safety and walkability.  “Edmonton’s worst quality would be the city’s road network.  People have equated Edmonton to Houston with its ring road and six-lane arterial roads. Although road and pedestrian safety are being addressed now, it is still a concern for neighborhoods whether it’s connectivity, safety or walkability. I could probably say the revitalization of Alberta Avenue in Edmonton is a successful project.  Alberta Avenue was known for its prostitution and public drunkeness.  It has now been revitalized with local businesses and cultural restaurants as well as a thriving arts community. With the integration of the bike lanes to the western portion of the Avenue, recognizing its connection to the local community college Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) to fa├žade improvements, the area has improved immensely.”

He does see civic engagement as a continuing challenge. Although most cities offer extensive opportunities for public input, most residents of a community fail to grasp how much transportation can positively or negatively impact their lives.  Andre gives an example, “The residents of Edmonton do have a voice.  There are plenty of opportunities to engage citizens when projects arise.  It is a pretty extensive process to say the least. When it comes to bus transit service changes – positive and negative, the citizenry isn’t engaged. LRT service receives plenty of feedback.  There isn’t much you can do for engaging people for bus service.  There is a public feedback mechanism that occurs and we take those seriously.”

Andre’s work in transit places him closer to the community than most architects get the opportunity to be.  As both a policy-maker and a planner, he has had the opportunity to see initiatives from both the perspective of the community and that of a city trying to make a change.  His blog, The Urban Strategist, blends that perspective as he gives his take on cities he has visited, critiques and assessments of policies and politics related to effective placemaking. By it’s very nature, transit shapes cities, defining corridors of pedestrian activity and fostering development or redevelopment of districts within walking distance of transit stops.  Andre’s work to advocate for better planning is based on a firm belief that we need to be visionary shapers of our cities because they in turn shape the quality of our lives.

Andre Darmanin is an "urban strategist" who thinks innovatively and has never been afraid to challenge the status quo.  He is a professional urban planner, born and raised in Toronto, where he is a strong believer of collaborative multi-disciplinary planning.  He has worked as a transit planner with Edmonton Transit for the last 2 1/2 years. Previous to that, he also worked as a transit planner with Mississauga Transit.   He also has experience with long range transit planning while working as a regional transit planner for the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) in Los Angeles.  Some of his accomplishments included championing the Regional Transit Summit in 2008 and authored the Transit Section of the 2008 Regional Transportation Plan.  He has degrees in Urban Planning and Public Administration from Ryerson University in Toronto.

Andre has a blog titled "The Urban Strategist"  where his musings range from transit, to city building to placemaking to education.  He has also authored or co-authored several published reports.  Most recently, he co-authored with several planners from Southern Ontario "Plain Transit for Planners" which was released by the Ontario Professional Planners Institute in 2011.  Other journal entries have included "Public Transit in Canada" (Mobility Matters, 2011) and "Where Do We Go from Here - Reverse Commuting and Spatial Mismatch in the Greater Toronto Area" (OPPI, 2006).  

Andre is an avid user of social media where he engages in discussions on Twitter (@urbanpolicyplnr) with fellow urbanists on various planning issues, local politics, and sometimes his support for his hometown sports teams.  He also displays his passion for urban planning and great architecture through his Pinterest account - Urban Strategist. Although secretively he does miss living in Los Angeles, he would love to return to Toronto one day soon where he can share his broad international insight on community building with better transit and urban planning in the city that he loves.

Of the People: A Culture Speaks

Lest you think you can only change the world as an architect by designing or building something, in week six of the Change the World Novena, I bring you the story of architect as ethnographer. 

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know how important I think it is for buildings to support the social and cultural values and activities of their occupants. My friend and classmate at Carnegie Mellon, Will Riehm and I spoke recently about the fascinating research he has been doing on the study of design as an expression of cultural identity in the Acadian culture. His studies of the blended mix of race and language in pre-Civil War Louisiana led him to apply for and win a Delbert Highland Fellowship to study the culture at its source in western Africa. His six week visit to the Sen Gambia region between Senegal and Gambia provided some eye-opening insights into the past and future of place-making (read all about this on his blog

What Will had noticed in his previous research was that most of the architectural writing he had encountered on African Colonialism lacked an ethnic content- it was often oversimplified, factually incorrect, and insensitive to the user group due to a need to impose Western theories about building on a non-Western culture. His trip to Africa allowed him to see buildings in ethnographic context, understand how people use them, and discuss thoughts on the building trends he observed. He also took the time to seek out academics at two different schools to talk about the architecture education process in Africa. “I think we do a lot of projection onto Africa based on what we think they should do,” says Will. “We should listen, not impose.” Some things he learned:
A family outside a traditional mud hut
on their compound
Sustainable is a relative term. In the Gambia, it means permanence of structure, the ability for a building to sustain itself. Sustainable technologies refer to building systems that have a lasting aspect to them.

IPD may end up being driven from emerging economies. In African design schools, the focus in on building systems and how they are put together. Students learn from early on how to work as an integrated team with craftsmen and engineers. African design schools believe that the traditional Western model for planning, design and construction is too lengthy, inefficient, and lacking in meaningful user input. “Their need to un-silo the planning, design and construction processes is allowing them to leapfrog us with new issues related to urban development. I don’t think that they’ll end up having ‘architects’ as we understand them,” Will muses. Instead, the traditional focus on specialized craftsmen will expand.

Design should be accessible to the common person. “Everyone knows how to build and what things cost,” he says. People often build their own living structures, or play some part in their construction. There also is a very different attitude toward the realization of a project. The network is more important than the individual, and during what can be a very long process of construction (with stopages as funds run out), a property owner will allow others in his or her village to have access to the land for grazing or planting, use of the building shell during lulls in construction, and even access to land after the home is built and occupied.

Issues based urban design will eclipse traditional planning. In Janjanbureh, a city that was the old colonial capital, there is a web/node organization of streets connecting different types of commodities to markets (nodes). Streets are lined with shops and people live in organic walled compounds. There is no true urban planning, as development outpaces infrastructure. In this environment, the drivers of place are security (including food security as people need to buy non-perishable items at stable prices), access to healthcare (clinics), and roads and infrastructure. Will noted a surprising lack of of reverence for the historic colonial buildings because they were replicas of Western architecture and did not resonate with the population. This was a huge contrast from writing that had linked African colonialism to the Acadian identity.

Materiality is a hierarchy of its own. Traditional structures in this part of Africa are made of Ruhn palm, whose fibrous strands are used as structural members. Bamboo or palmetto fronds are woven and bound to create the fabric for a tensile structure. Sometimes, this is finished off with a mud plaster. However, Will observed an “upgrading” of this process to express sustainability: From the traditional roof framing with central tension ring, people would substitute walls of mud blocks, then concrete blocks, mahogany wood framing and finally, steel and corrugated metal with a concrete block interior finished with cement plaster.
Interestingly, a trip that began with a desire to understand the architecture of identity of African colonialism turned the mirror on Western design practices themselves. The architecture of West Africa is a study in diversity and integration, what best serves the population’s needs in terms of sustainability, accessibility and materiality. This has led Will to hypothesize how the architecture of this culture can lead to a new approach to design in general.

He will be further exploring the concept of “Just in Time Design” with his colleagues in Africa, deriving a rapid delivery prototype based on tradesmen and the way that their skill sets inform how things get built. He is planning to assemble a design lab here in the US that involves hands on construction to encourage students to think differently about the built environment in terms of scale, ease of construction, and purpose. He’s also interested in organizing a research outpost in the Gambia to continue to study ways that this vernacular architecture can inform the practice of architecture. As more and more countries adopt Western design methods, there is a globalization of style that occurs that stamps out local culture. Will believes that his study of ethnographic impacts as a way to gain insight into one of the last vernacular styles of architecture on the planet will eventually help to inform how and why we choose to build at all.

William Riehm joined the faculty of  the Interior Design Program of the College of Architecture, Art, and Design at Mississippi State University in 2011 after over 15 years of practicing architecture and planning in New Orleans, Louisiana. He holds degrees in architecture, urban planning, and interior design from Carnegie Mellon, the University of New Orleans, and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, respectively. His research interests include historic material culture, community development, and issues of professional practice. Most recently, Mr. Riehm was awarded a Delbert C. Highlands Fellowship of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture for travel and study in The Gambia.

Neighborhood Building in the Northeast

Being an architect can be a vocation, not just a career.  Week five of the Change the World Novena looks at an architect whose career spans many cities, yet has learned how to make an impact in all of them.

Arturo Vasquez is passionate about the built environment.  The architect and social media master scans various articles daily and poses meaningful questions to tweets and posts.  We first encountered each other on twitter and later, as fellow healthcare architects, collaborated on an entry for Kaiser Permanente’s Prototype hospital.  His kind of vigilance pays off.  As someone who has integrated his volunteer efforts seamlessly with private practice, Arturo is an example of how to be involved in your profession as well as your community- a model for how to change the world one place at a time. 

Save Fenway Park meetings and model
The ability to grasp the character of places and the issues that confront them, has allowed Arturo to play a meaningful role in many major projects in two northeast cities.   He practiced for many years in Boston, MA before moving to Upstate New York and forming SAS/Design Inc. fourteen years ago.  In learning about his perspective of both big city and small city concerns, it is interesting to note that destinations and landmarks play a major role in both locations, “Boston’s unique character and charm is the seamless blend of its historic buildings, great streets, public places, neighborhoods and waterfront with its integrated public transportation system. You can get anywhere without a car. Add to that, the Charles River, which traverses through the city creating a continuous accessible green promenade. Albany’s greatest asset is the quality of its arts and cultural venues providing access to world-class classical music, theatre, opera and entertainment.”  

Cities are constantly faced with a “change or die” dynamic and need to balance maintaining their character and landmark destinations with staying relevant to the needs of citizens.  “In Boston, the City has recognized the value of the neighborhoods and their intrinsic importance in the image and definition of the city. Added to that, has been the resurgence of public realm – the 12 key streets and corridors, or “crossroads” are being transformed into Complete Streets providing a seamless pedestrian armature that links civic spaces with the historic downtown and harbor.”  Arturo notes that  Boston’s cost of living is its biggest detractor, necessitating neighborhoods to get directly involved in their own revitalization efforts, “The most successful project was the creation of a community-based education center and Community Campus of the former Our Lady of the Presentation School in the historic Oak Square, Brighton, MA.  Approximately seven years ago, the Boston Archdiocese closed this important neighborhood school and put the property up for sale. This decision destabilized the entire community and created a stir in Boston. Several community leaders, local businesses, elected officials and organization came together to form the Presentation School Foundation, which through hard work, determination, and fundraising convinced the Archdiocese to sell the property to the Foundation. I worked with the community pro-bono to create the vision for this building as a Community Campus and also used my architectural expertise to establish the economic and infrastructure feasibility for the project’s implementation. This success of this experience brought together community leaders, elected officials, the Mayor, several educational organizations, and business leaders to realize the value and power of community engagement.”

 Although not faced with cost of living challenges, Albany’s stability is threatened by its lack of street life activity in the downtown core.  “Equally considerable [to the Boston effort], in Albany, the current Capital South Campus Center is a catalyst project that is bringing together citizens, public officials, neighborhood groups, and educational organizations to create an educational hub that will revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods. I worked with the various groups to establish the vision and master plan for the facility.”

I think it is interesting to note that both urban areas relied on revitalization projects that involve intense engagement with the community.  I asked Arturo if he felt these efforts have paid off in a larger scale for either city.  “The biggest physical change in Boston, from the perspective of a neighborhood resident, has been the impact of institutional development (universities and hospitals) in the neighborhood fabric. Boston’s neighborhoods exist in concert with many institutions, some within the neighborhoods, some at the edges, but all intrinsically connected, physically, socially and economically.

Managed institutional growth has been paramount to the stabilization of the neighborhoods, and the sustained relationship of the various universities and hospitals with these neighborhoods and their citizenry, has led to a better quality of life, public realm improvements, and environmental mitigation. Often, this town & gown dilemma has had a positive, or negative impact in the neighborhoods, largely depending on the level of engagement by the community, the city and the institution – and by the institution’s level of commitment towards the neighborhood with which they co-exist.

A corollary physical change has been the increase of the student population in the neighborhoods which in some cases has destabilized home ownership, spurred by speculative developments from absentee landlords who have capitalized on the opportunity, and created multi-unit housing from existing, formerly single-family homes. While this is not the fault of the institutions, the lack of student housing within institutional lands has contributed to the imbalance. The lack of available space within an institutional campus is often cited as the key factor. Institutions continue to look for opportunities to create more student housing, but often this is done by purchasing properties away from the campus core, well within the neighborhoods, thus continuing the friction created by institutional expansion – a catch 22.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city’s planning agency, has to their credit, solidified measures to address these issues by establishing rigorous planning processes that require community and elected official’s input and participation, and zoning mechanism that prevent the deterioration of the existing neighborhood fabric. The positive outcomes have depended entirely on the transparency of the planning process and the continued involvement by the community, the institutions, and the City to monitor the agreed upon commitments and objectives. This, in itself, is difficult, given the magnitude of development throughout the City, and multiple community engagements by those involved. Often, there are overlapping meetings and commitments to consider, and in some cases, the length of the planning process makes it difficult to sustain the level of engagement.

Comparatively, the biggest physical change in Albany has been the lack of cohesive, sustained growth particularly in the downtown core. While there is positive economic and physical growth in the region, spurred by the global high tech research and manufacturing industry developing north of the city, very little of this growth has had corollary physical and economic positive impact in the downtown. The population increase and demographic of higher wage earners lack opportunities for appropriate housing, quality schools, and access to goods and services within the city. Instead, these quality of life requirements are found in the suburban environment outside the city or in the adjacent less towns. A further physical challenge has been the lack of good regional integrated transportation infrastructure. Instead the over-reliance on the car has created a poor web of interstate roadways that are disconnected from the pattern of existing local roads and the streets and avenues in the city.”

As Arturo states time and again, the biggest factor in the success of these projects was the level of engagement of the community.  If you are interested in being part of the change you wish to see in your city, you need to understand several issues related to engaging with the community that Arturo has learned:

Give guidance to the grass roots “Based on my direct experience both working professionally and as a community activist I have seen how grass roots interventions are most successful, where there is a coordinated process of engagement between citizens, business leaders, elected officials and city agency representatives to make positive change in the urban environment – whether it be for the creation of a community park, a streetscape improvement, a community building, or an institutional development. Conversely, when the initiative is government led, this has most often been seen as conflicted or lacking the voice and support of the community’s best interest. In Boston, the Presentation School Foundation is a powerful example of this process. In Albany, with the Capital South Campus Center, the same can be said.

As a concerned resident, while living in Brighton for 22 years and after seeing the difficulty and lack of parity in the discussion between residents, developers, elected officials, city agency representatives and institutions, I decided to join a large neighborhood organization, which I later led for a number of years. I established a clear method of engagement with protocols for communication and set up well-understood criteria for evaluating projects, and this empowered the neighborhood to provide a more “professional” review and discussion on issues and development projects in the neighborhood. This led to a more positive, civilized and less fractious engagement with more desirable results.”

Provide a conduit for meaningful involvement “After many years of working through the community processes, task forces and successes with grass roots efforts, I have seen more citizens with diverse professional expertise become involved bringing their experience and knowledge into the process. Getting involved in your community, while maintaining a professional life, is no longer cautionary issue as it was years ago. The City of Boston requires community participation as part of the planning and development process that gives the citizens a voice and platform to get involved.”

Seek out the quiet community “The average citizen is not typically engaged in the community, partly due to a general lack of understanding of how one can participate most productively – often there are too many groups to join, with overlapping agendas and territoriality to be effective. In upstate New York, there are no less than eight Chambers of Commerce and a dozen associations, spread out through eight counties, four towns, and 20 plus municipalities all within a 5-10 mile radius. This is a key aspect to the problem of community participation. There are simply too many groups to join to be effective. Instead I advocate for the creation of regional councils to channel and coordinate the various overlapping efforts.”

Don’t hold out for the silver bullet “In Albany, the question of a single project that is transformational has been discussed for years with the proposed development of a convention center downtown. In Boston, for many years discussion centered on a similar single project that could transform City Hall Plaza. But, we have learned that effective change does not come from a silver bullet approach – instead, incremental projects, with thoughtful, accretive agendas have a better chance to succeed. For Boston, this is now being implemented with the reconfiguration of the plaza as a series of discrete public spaces and pedestrian promenades with civic amenities. For Albany, the emphasis is shifting towards improving the public realm along the key streets and avenues with increased transit access and related transit-oriented development incentives, bringing street life and activity to the downtown core.”
As someone who has been actively involved in urban redevelopment, Arturo has so many great stories to tell.  He understands how vitally important it is to be engaged in your community as an architect and as a citizen.  His favorite story of urban revitalization, Save Fenway Park, is the perfect example of how we can work with rather than impose our ideas on a community. “A group of concerned citizens gathered 30 design professionals, (I led the urban design group) to establish a credible alternative to demolishing Fenway Park, which was the desire of the former owners, several years ago. Instead, we created a vision to literally save Fenway Park by extracting administrative programs into ancillary structures, inserting a concourse level with modern amenities into the guts of the existing structure, conceiving the now famous “monster seats” that added brand value and capacity, and integrating the ballpark into its surrounding neighborhood context with streetscape amenities and public transportation improvements that led to the preservation and resurgence of the historic park by its new owners to what we have now.”  Anyone can be concerned.  There are lots of ways you can volunteer your time.  But when your life’s mission in the built environment, your efforts can be transformational. 

Arturo Vasquez, AIA is an accomplished architect, urban designer and educator with extensive knowledge in architecture + urban planning history and design theory. His built projects have received numerous awards and he has lectured, taught and spoken at prominent colleges and universities locally and abroad. He is a Co-Founder/Executive Director of the Chicago Integrated School of Building (InSB), and an Advanced Architectural Design Faculty, Thesis Representative/Thesis Studio Instructor at the Boston Architectural College (BAC). Arturo has over twenty eight years of experience integrating design, master planning, and urban design for healthcare, educational, and cultural mixed-use projects. His experience includes working with private and public sector clients, civic institutions, community-based organizations, non-profits and city agencies. He is the Principal/Founder of SAS/ Design, Inc. and is a Registered Architect in New York State and Massachusetts.

The Big Write Off

Cities are cauldrons of innovation and creativity, but misperceptions and bad press often relegate the most exciting movements to the shadows.  In week four of the Change the World Novena, we look at the role that architects can play in expressing the dynamic culture of a place to residents and regionalists alike.

It’s easy to be down on your rust-belt hometown.  Once-great cities of the Midwest have been brought to their knees by demographic shifts, the post-industrial economy and brain drain.  Or have they?  Jennifer Coleman, an architect, entrepreneur and lifelong resident of Cleveland, Ohio isn’t about to give up on her hometown just yet.  She has spent her career as a champion for revitalization, working at a grassroots and city leadership level to help Cleveland shine.

Cleveland has been working on urban redevelopment for a number of years, but many of the textbook solutions of the past decades such as sports and retail venues didn’t have a deep or lasting enough effect. Jennifer views the most positive change to happen in the last five years as the transition of the urban core.  “It went from being perceived as a business center to a place to live and a viable neighborhood,” she says.  “Twenty years ago really saw only one area, the Warehouse District as an example of a multi-use neighborhood, the rest of downtown was still business-based and experiencing tenant flight to the suburbs. The potential for a vibrant downtown was visible, but we did not really have a plan to bring it to fruition, other than continue seeking big projects like sports complexes and museums. While the Gateway project/stadiums built in the 1990’s brought more downtown, they did not produce a 24 hour city. Downtown instead became a place to visit for specific events and then go home.  We’re now focusing on livability issues in lieu of building big projects by looking at creating public spaces that enrich the life of downtown visitors, workers and residents.” 

There has also been a shift in urban design attention to the experience of place as a coherent and rich sequence of events with attention to traffic and circulation issues.  The intent is that the streets and open spaces such as Public Square and the Mall not be merely a place to pass through, but destinations that provide a focal point for surrounding development.  “When big projects that are currently being planned can plug into a larger urban infrastructure instead of relying on project based responses- this is a paradigm shift. Alternative transportation (pedestrian, bikes, public transit) and enjoying the trip is also being emphasized.”

Jennifer’s many years on City Boards and Commissions as well as her experience in private practice have given her perspective on redevelopment from both the design, development, and public policy point of view.  Some insights she shares with others who are interested in making a difference in revitalizing their cities:
Play to your strengths Every city has its unique characteristics and by expressing them, the culture of that place is also expressed, further enriching the experience of inhabiting it.  “Our physical and environmental potential and rich culture and history are unique to Cleveland.  Every city has its stories, but our stories are pretty cool. We tend to forget them.”  Jennifer’s City Prowl project is one way she is helping people to understand the history and culture that are part of the places they pass by every day.  “Our walkability and compactness and rich institutional stock are all within arm’s reach of the core.  Cleveland’s urban center includes the amenities of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. Strong neighborhoods close to the urban core have been redeveloping at a faster pace than the core and their distinctive character is now trickling into the core.  In addition to its walkability, our core has good transit connections, as well as rich historical character.  The city does not need to acquire land to revitalize because we are acting on plans that are in some cases 200 years old.”  However, Jennifer also feels that redevelopment is challenged by another cultural characteristic, “The temptation to sell ourselves short- a collective inferiority complex that holds us back from making big plans- fear of failure.  It’s the entreprenurial spirit that made Cleveland great in its hey day and will make it great again.”   

Form strategic alliances One of the most most successful neighborhood/district/projects Jennifer points to took place at the Cleveland State Universty (CSU) campus on the east side of downtown. The decision of CSU to engage with the downtown fabric in lieu of remaining a self-contained campus as they underwent a major campus expansion has opened up what used to be perceived as a barrier between downtown and midtown.  “Their transformation has created a template for our other urban institutions. Case Western Reserve University, located just east of downtown at University Circle,  is now adopting this mind set for their expansion/renovation projects with other hospitals & schools looking at  updating and integrating their urban campuses.”

Seek and use the insights of the average citizen  “I’d love to see a civic urban core universal concern- a “department of visibility” to make citizens more aware.  It can be very difficult for the average citizen to be aware of what’s going on and the best way to participate in the process,” Jennifer notes.  “The county right now is doing a great job of being more transparent and encouraging interaction.”  On the subject of whether change necessarily needs to be championed from the grass roots, Jennifer felt that interventions can equally be successful from a ‘ground up’ or ‘trickle down’ start. “Cleveland’s biking community is a great example of a grass roots group that has organized and mobilized to making biking safer and accessible to all citizens, from working with City Hall on the Complete Streets ordinance as well as reaching out to the community on various projects and education initiatives. Our mayor has committed to the public square and mall projects and really made them happen.”  Jennifer also believes that cities and civic leaders need to work at channeling the input of interested citizens, “There is a large movement of young people into urban cores because living in the city is a quality of life issue that they believe in.  They bring with them a new concept of city living which includes involvement. Many of the 40+ group are passionate about creating a vibrant core, but weren’t organized and cultivated as leaders as the younger citizens are now. I think the young people's enthusiasm for the city is spreading to their more established, suburban-dwelling older peers."

Set yourself up for success When I asked Jennifer what she thought needed to happen to produce the most transformational change, she championed further development of public spaces, but with an interesting caveat, “We need to teach people how to interact with the city.  Clevelanders are not used to grand public spaces.  It’s important to make sure that we have adequate programming with them and that it is easy for people to book the space for events.  We also need to promote better wayfinding and ease of getting around the city with more easily accessible creature comforts.”
As Jennifer illustrates, architects can play a leadership role in development through their willingness to participate in civic organizations and serve as appointed members of boards and commissions.  They can also be vigilant stewards of cultural treasures and be advocates for preservation and restoration.  One of Jennifer’s favorite Cleveland stories is the saving of the grand theaters in Playhouse Square in the 1970s. “They were literally setting up the wrecking ball to raze them for a parking lot, but concerned citizens intervened. Our theater district is one of the city’s, and nation’s treasures and the saving of them and their subsequent restoration, which continues to the present, was a main catalyst to out downtown renaissance.”

Architect and entrepreneur Jennifer Coleman has over 24 years experience in the field of architecture. Her company, Jennifer Coleman Creative LLC, is dedicated to improving life in the city through smart design. She is also the founder and CEO of CityProwl, a company producing urban walking-tours that can be downloaded from the internet to digital media players for self-led tours. An avid civic volunteer, she serves on the boards of LAND Studio, the Cleveland International Film Festival, the Cleveland Arts Prize, and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. She is Chair of both the Cleveland Landmarks Commission and Downtown/Flats District Design Review Committee and was appointed to the Mayor’s Group Plan Commission in 2010. Ms. Coleman holds a bachelor of architecture degree from Cornell University. She is a 2002 American Marshall Memorial Fellow and was featured in both the 1998 Crain’s Cleveland Business 40 under 40 class and Kaleidoscope Magazine’s 40/40 Club of 2002. She was Inside Business Magazine’s 2003 Business Volunteer of the Year. Jennifer lives with her husband, architect August Fluker and son, Cole, in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood.