Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book Talk and Review: The Nature of Urban Design

The Nature of Urban Design: A New York Perspective on Resilience by Alexandros Washburn
Island Press, 2013
Hardcover, 264 pages

On January 13, a couple weeks after he ended his seven-year post as Chief Urban Designer of the NYC Department of City Planning, Alexandros Washburn spoke at the Center for Architecture about his new book, The Nature of Urban Design. Like many events at the Center, it started a little bit late, prompting members of the audience to ask Rick Bell, AIANY Executive Director, if Washburn was riding his bike to the event on the not-too-cold winter day. Needless to say, the author's reputation preceded his arrival at the podium where he discussed his firsthand experience of Hurricane Sandy in his neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, his mentors, his definitions of urban design, his ideas on risk and resiliency, and his post-Bloomberg-administration path.

Like the book, Washburn started the talk with stories and images of the storm surge in and around his home in Red Hook, one of the mayor's evacuation areas. Washburn stayed home to observe the rising waters, what happened to be the same week he had planned to write the introduction to his book that was years in the making – and more difficult than his work at the city, in his words. More than anybody could imagine, that storm changed how discussions of urban design happen; if anything pushing the word "resiliency" to the forefront of discussions about rebuilding and urban planning, particularly in coastal areas like New York. It's no wonder that Washburn's book is subtitled "a New York perspective on resilience," even though it's clear from Sandy's aftermath that the perspective is about what needs to be done, not what is already in place.

[Photo by John Hill]

Having seen Washburn speak at PlaNYC and other related events in the past, I was familiar with his triumvirate of influences – Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, and Frederick Law Olmsted. But I had not heard him speak about Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which he did on the 13th, paralleling the preface to his book. Moynihan is known for the way he guided the principles of Federal architecture, so it's no surprise that he was the only politician on Capitol Hill with an architect on staff. Near the end of Moynihan's four terms, that architect was Washburn, who left to make the eponymous NYC station of his mentor a reality. Washburn took from Moynihan a sense of civic responsibility, something he passed on through his work at City Planning during two of Bloomberg's terms, in this book (while it may not have all the answers, it asks a lot of the right questions), and in the future at Stevens Institute of Technology, where he will be working with two departments (complex systems and Davidson labs) to look closer and more scientifically at the waterways around New York City in this century of "rising tides."

In the book Washburn lays out his case for resiliency in urban design in five chapters: Why Should We Care About Urban Design?, The Process of Urban Design, The Products of Urban Design, The Process and Products of the High Line, and Urban Design for Greater Resilience. The first chapter deals with his four mentors, while the next two chapters delve into the nitty gritty of the often misunderstood field of urban design. Given Washburn's statement in the talk that, unlike architecture, urban design "influences everything but controls nothing," the chapter on process is an important one, yet admittedly it is is geared to students and professionals interested in the field. Laypeople will probably find the fourth chapter more interesting, since here the preceding chapters are applied to a case study, and an extremely popular and familiar one at that.

Washburn closed his talk, like the book, with some words on risk and resiliency. As in other parts of The Nature of Urban Design, he explains things in a way that make the fairly large and abstract subjects and concepts easy to understand, though I won't go into detail on what that chapter offers in detail here. Needless to say the book and the book talk parallel each other not only in the chapter-by-chapter structure but also in the way Washburn uses words. There is a conversational quality to the way he has written the book, such that reading it is like hearing him in the same room. Add to this the fact many of his own sketches and photographs are found throughout the pages, and the book is a personal yet broadly applicable account of urban design in New York City at a time of great challenges but also great potential.