When he was mayor of Owensboro 20 years ago, one of David Adkisson’s goals was to improve the design and look of his community. Adkisson said he quickly discovered that unless he exercised strong leadership, two people had much more influence than he did.
One was the district engineer for Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, because he controlled Owensboro’s main roads. The other was the chief executive of the local electric utility, because he controlled power lines, poles and towers.
“The mayor is perhaps a weak third,” said Adkisson, who is now president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Adkisson now lives in Lexington, where those observations ring just as true, especially when you consider the Newtown Pike Extension project, foot-dragging on two-way streets downtown and those ugly new power poles on Euclid and Woodland avenues.
Design isn’t just about making cities look better; it’s about making them function better. And it’s too important to be left to chance and engineering. That was the message of a symposium Saturday at the Downtown Public Library that focused on the intersection of architecture, urban design and politics.
The symposium was sponsored by the University of Kentucky College of Design. As usual, The college’s dean, Michael Speaks, brought in some world-class talent to fuel the discussion.
Henk Ovink is director of national spatial planning and research, design and strategy for the Dutch Ministry of Environment and one of the most important planners in the Netherlands. Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and author of a dozen books, has an extensive background in international design and architecture.
Casey Jones is a leading architect and urban planner who was appointed last August as director of the U.S. General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program. He is a key player in America’s biggest real estate development organization, which oversees 400 million square feet of federal office space in 2,000 communities.
Jones talked about how, before World War II, the federal government’s philosophy was that public buildings should be well-designed structures that inspired citizens. After 1949, when oversight of federal buildings moved from the Treasury Department to the GSA, the emphasis shifted to cost and schedule. The result was mediocre architecture that often detracted from communities.
The GSA created the Design Excellence Program in 1994 to try to make new government buildings more functional, more “aspirational” and more environmentally friendly. The program brings innovation and new talent representing “the finest contemporary American architectural thought” to federal construction projects.
Some of the most interesting discussion occurred during a panel that the presenters had with three Kentuckians: Adkisson; Paul Kaplan of the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet, which has set some of the nation’s most ambitious standards for environmentally friendly design of new state buildings; and Holly Wiedemann, whose Lexington-based AU Associates restores old buildings for affordable housing.
Betsky said America must break its costly addiction to sprawl and the ethic that “land is something to be developed” and become more creative about reusing old urban areas.
He and Wiedemann said that, too often, development is an adversarial process of conflict on the back end rather than brainstorming on the front-end and collaboration among all stakeholders throughout the process. Economics is always an issue, they said, but good design doesn’t have to be more expensive, especially when long-term value is considered.
Betsky and Jones said design professionals must be more proactive about showing citizens, businesses and government leaders design possibilities they would never have imagined. Public architecture competitions are one good way to do that, Jones noted.
All of the panelists said well-designed development depends on citizens demanding excellence and government officials providing leadership. And, as Adkisson noted, political leaders making the case that excellent design is good for economic development.
It was similar to the message that Joseph Riley, the nine-term mayor of Charleston, S.C., delivered a month ago: Successful cities plan well and demand excellence.
It’s a message that Lexington needs to embrace. Because so much about Lexington has always been good, there’s often no urgency about trying to do better, little interest in innovation beyond the status quo.
“Lexington has the blessing and curse of being a wonderful place to live,” Adkisson said. “The curse is that it stifles aspiration.”