May 4, 2010
by Bill Millard

Event: Innovation and the American Metropolis: Regional Plan Association (RPA) 20th Annual Regional Assembly
Location: Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, 04.16.10
Speakers: For a full list of speakers and events, click here.
Organizers: Regional Plan Association

The Regional Plan Association (RPA), as Executive Director Thomas Wright’s opening overview indicated, has a history of prescience in predicting and advocating changes in the local built environment: a tunnel from downtown to Brooklyn instead of Robert Moses’s disruptive bridge, a polycentric view of regional development, a pedestrian plaza for Times Square, a national high-speed rail plan. The 2008 congestion-pricing conflict, as several speakers noted, is a reminder that urban planning is always a win-a-few-lose-a-few activity, but that was just a single defeat; the long-range view is what this organization is all about. Over eight decades and three metropolitan plans (1929, 1968, and 1996, with a fourth coming into view), the RPA has earned the authority to organize its Assembly around the theme of innovation, even at a moment some associate more with humility and retrenchment.

Now, amid clusters of short-term uncertainty on several fronts — has the recession truly bottomed out? Can public investments and restructurings weather the assaults from assorted teabaggers and pursestring-tighteners? Can Jay Walder (or anyone) turn NYC’s transit system around, financially and operationally? — the RPA offers, among other things, ways to bring discipline and structure to visionary optimism. Collectively determined, in Rahm Emanuel’s much-repeated phrase, not to “let a crisis go to waste,” the 2010 Regional Assembly focused intellectual firepower on the possibilities of an urban world permeated and connected by information.

Plenary speaker William McDonough, FAIA, set a tone blending vision and alarm. He aimed at reframing environmental discourse from “doing less bad” to actively doing good: not just putting less carbon in the wrong places, but engineering sustainable closed-loop systems, applying cradle-to-cradle design principles on scales from molecules to cities so as to harmonize ecology, economics, and equity. Living in a house designed by Jefferson while teaching at the University of Virginia alerted McDonough to the green implications of Jefferson’s belief, as expressed in a letter to Madison, that “the earth belongs to the living,” who deserve freedom from the effects of shortsighted decisions made by those now dead. The key question for many listeners, after McDonough’s multidisciplinary synthesis of ideas, was what policy instruments could put such ideals into practice. Humanity’s design skills pale in comparison to nature’s (“it took us 5,000 years,” McDonough notes, “to put wheels on our luggage”); are we really capable of reshaping our processes as fast as we need to?

Keynoter Adolfo Carrión, the first (and former, as of 05.04.10) White House Director of Urban Affairs, took up the challenge recently laid down by one unnamed commentator (presumably Witold Rybczynski, Hon. FAIA, in Slate ) for his office to avoid the top-down centralized planning associated with 1960s urban renewal. That’s exactly what he plans to do. “The American city is the nexus of necessity and innovation,” he said, “the engines of our economy… the places where democracy can best express itself.” The need to accommodate a projected 120 million new Americans over the next 40 years, Carrión observed, not only calls for a reversal of policies that have long subsidized disjointed, unsustainable systems in transportation, finance, health care, education, housing, and other sectors; it requires open conversations (as the Office of Urban Affairs has begun to hold nationwide), drawing on forms and sources of talent that governments routinely overlook but cities have always assembled. What neither public officials nor private profit-seekers can accomplish alone, the concentrated intelligence of a city does naturally. The Obama Administration’s strategy of reinvestment and coordination, Carrión emphasized, expresses a faith in cities as solutions, not problems.



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