Forum Looks for the "Good City"
A group of experts on urbanism and civic life gathered at the Aspen Institute's Aspen, Colorado campus on August 6-9, 2001 to create an agenda for renewing the structural and social health of the US city. With the task of assigning key priorities for the coming decades, the symposium, "In Search of the Good City," offered participants creative policy approaches to problems confroning America's urban centers.
"Devising wise strategies in response to past urban policy failures constitutes one of the greatest domestic challenges of our time," said Elmer W. Johnson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. "We were fortunate to have had some of the best minds in urban planning assembled for four days to help us arrive at some workable solutions. Setting a pragmatic and cogent agenda for our cities is paramount to the health and future welfare of our nation." Mr. Johnson, the author of the recently released Chicago Metropolis 2020: The Chicago Plan for the Twenty-First Century (University of Chicago Press) asked of his fellow presenters to identify the major components of the "good city."
Referring to the Chicago Metropolis 2020 plan for which he served as a major force in guiding, Mr. Johnson said, "we were driven by the dream of an economically vibrant and environmentally healthy region; one whose concentrated areas of activity enable people of complementary talents to achieve high levels of creativity and productivity; a region where all persons have ready access to jobs, to housing near their jobs, and to good schools and job training; a region in which people are enabled and encouraged to find nourishment in a diversity of complexity of persons, interests, and tastes and enjoy an exciting array of cultural, recreational, and intellectual opportunities; and, most important, a region that undergirds strong neighborhoods, communities and families so that they are enabled to nurture the intellectual, moral, and social development of children."
John P. 'Jake' Mascotte, chairman of the Society of Fellows advisory committee, and former president and CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Kansas City, suggested that to make the "good city," a coalition comprised of leaders from business, government, philanthropy, and local civic organizations that have shared goals and a mutual stake in the outcome of any urban plan that is to be executed is required.
Carol M. Browner, the former longtime administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, and an advisor to the Aspen Institute Program on Energy, the Environment and the Economy agreed with Mascotte. She emphasized that improving our cities was "a highly collaborative process, one that demands a shared vision about where a given community is headed." She went on to suggest that since corporations are increasingly freer to take their operations anywhere in the world, the place in which they ultimately relocate is based on the comparative fitness one city is perceived to have over others. Given the competition among cities for investment, the goal of "making the good city" becomes that much more a strategic imperative. Ms. Browner also said that there continued to be an environmental imperative as well. Reducing air and water pollution, and wise management of land-use policies, need to be at the top of any urban agenda moving forward.
Sir Peter Hall, professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning at the University College London, pointed to the value in the use of buzzwords, such as "smart growth,"-- terms that people can readily comprehend and appreciate. Moreover, he assigned great importance to the need for developing a new generation of civic leaders to tackle the problems of the metropolis. Sir Peter cited the benefits experienced by many European cities that have applied the lessons learned from other European cities' best practices. It is in Europe, especially, where new ideas are being disseminated and, as a result, "clusters of cities on the Continent have become remarkably innovative in their approaches to urban planning."
Robert Fishman, professor at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, argued that "the American city is at its height...that it possesses the most diverse set of people gathered in the history of the world...and that it stands as an example to the rest of the world."
In the symposium's closing comments, Alan Altshuler, professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Harvard University, said that "The 'good city' has given us choice, variety, a vibrant culture, diversity, opportunity, a sense of community, economic competitiveness..." and that "the American city is better at accommodating change than anywhere in the world." Professor Altshuler suggested that tomorrow's city would be a place of knowledge and expertise instead of one of machines. He also saw a host of moral imperatives confronting the city of today, including environmental degradation and a pervasive sprawl problem which has no easy solutions.