Design Lament

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Last night, while attending a presentation by New York architect Thomas Phifer regarding his design for the North Carolina Museum of Art, I struck up a conversation with a couple of people about how far behind the United States is when it comes to public space, urban design and contemporary architecture. The impetus for the discussion was the discovery that Thomas Phifer had won a New York City-sponsored design competition for street lighting last year. It’s a surprisingly sleek choice considering how nostalgic most street furniture and lighting designs usually are in American cities and towns, but in fact this design is only included in a catalogue of other approved designs and there’s no telling if any will be installed. So we got to talking about other examples where New York City is aesthetically lacking and not very user friendly. Take, say, Houston Street, which is undergoing a major renovation that, as of right now, doesn’t even include seperate bike lanes, much less a widened median for sustainable landscaping, a dedicated bus/trolley lane, additional pedestrian room, etc.

As the discussion progressed, we began to imagine, what would design aficionados in Amsterdam — people like us standing around with cocktails in hand — what would they be complaining about? “In the United States, they do X,Y, Z so much better.” We were stumped. What do we do better? The only thing we could come up with was commerce. We are very good at business, and everything about our cities is essentially geared toward smoothing the way for commerce and doing the bare minimum when it comes to that which does not directly facilitate transactions. What’s worse, this default method of operating can actually hinder the smooth operation of business, a point that was made recently by those in favor of congestion pricing. When Mayor Bloomberg was asked recently about the traffic problem in Manhattan, he dismissed it as a sign that business is good. That’s a rather narrow view of what is a serious waste of time and energy (which is bad for business), not to mention bad for people’s health. From London to Stockholm, other cities are finding ways to deal with traffic and make urban life better. New York should be leading the way in the United States, but even with a progressive mayor like Bloomberg, we seem to be falling further and further behind.

3 Responses to Design Lament

  1. Adrian Cooke says:

    A good argument and one that I mostly agree with coming from Brisbane and having spent a little time in London and a few days in Stockholm. Your northern neighbours have a very good reputation for implementing sustainable practices in urban spaces too. But to answer your question:

    “In the United States, they do X,Y,Z so much better.” We were stumped. What do we do better?

    My list would have to include:

    Logistics, especially ground freight.
    Telecommunications (AT&T/SBC notwithstanding)
    Software
    Modern music — though the playing field is much more crowded on this one
    Wine — also a crowded field
    Hospitality (both formal and informal)
    And the U.S. has a pretty admirable postal service

  2. I guess I was thinking more about urban planning, design and architecture, things related to cities and the built environment.

  3. mike sonnenfeld says:

    Lisa,

    While you make an improtant point, I can point out some things here that are far superior to other places. Such as music (jazz, rock, folk, as well as classical), sports, and in some cases, architecture. Millennium Park is just one example. Name another spot like it on earth. I would be interested to know.

    Cordially,

    Mike Sonnenfeld
    Planning magazine
    American Planning Association
    122 S. Michigan
    Chicago, IL 60603
    312-542-1970

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