NYC Government Inspires Civic Virtue

Event: NYC: Design Challenge!
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.30.07
Speaker: Alexandros Washburn, AIA — Chief Urban Designer, NYC Department of City Planning
Sponsor: NYC Department of City Planning

Alexandros Washburn, AIA, with Jeffrey Shumaker

Alexandros Washburn, AIA, Chief Urban Designer with Jeffrey Shumaker, Associate Urban Designer at the NYC Department of City Planning.

Kristen Richards

“There are a million people coming to the city. How should we grow?” was the question New York City’s Chief Urban Planner, Alex Washburn, AIA, put to the small but attentive gathering in the Center for Architecture’s library. There was nothing coy or ambiguous about his vision of the city’s future — honed by his tenure as an advisor to Senator Patrick Moynihan (and the only architect on the staff of a U.S. Senator). “The quality of public design is a political fact,” Washburn said. “Buildings don’t lie. Moynihan believed buildings make a city better. I still use his lessons every day.”

“It’s always been Jane versus Bob,” he continued, “blocks versus super-blocks,” referring to the famous (or infamous) battles between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Though he holds some admiration for Moses’s ability to “ju-jitsu” government funding for transportation and public parks and creating public/private partnerships on “unprecedented scales,” Washburn said, “My heart is with Jacobs.”

He was asked why he left a very successful private practice (W Architecture and Landscape Architecture) to go back into government. He cited three reasons: Mayor Bloomberg’s “courageous” plaNYC 2030, a “genius financier” in Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff, and “someone who cares totally about design,” City Planning Director Amanda Burden, Hon. AIANY. The challenge he sees now: to do skillful planning on a Moses-like scale that entails politics, civic and market demands, and design — an ideal melding of Moses/Jacobs priorities — that will increase the fine-grain texture of the city rather than erase it. The city’s commitment to green public open spaces and “pedestrians come first” approach is, in Washburn’s opinion, causing an evolution — “a new definition and a new paradigm for civic virtue. It’s time to get away from the birds-eye view and humanize how we plan the city,” he said resolutely.