A New Era of Civic Virtue?

September 7, 2007

silvercupgreenroof.jpg

The Chief Urban Designer for New York City, Alexandros Washburn, has a piece on Metropolis.com arguing that in previous centuries, civic virtue was expressed through architecture, from the Pantheon in Rome to the Farley building in New York. But the current era of civic virtue requires us to better manage the environment.

Nature is the new civic ideal. To invent the urban design language that will express this is a vital part of the mayor’s challenge. It may happen in surprisingly low-tech ways or it may take advantage of our most advanced science. It may build incrementally on tradition or it may seek entirely new forms. The only certainty is that change is in the air, from planting in our parking lots to rediscovering our waterfronts.

Chicago is, of course, way ahead of all other American cities in this regard, but the above picture is a good example of the issues we face here in New York. The largest green roof in the city is on top of Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, which benefited from some government support, but also required considerable private sector investment, most notably by Silvercup and the landscape architecture firm which designed the green roof, Balmori Associates. The firm recently won a design competition to do the landscaping around Gehry’s Bilboa Museum, and in fact, much of Balmori’s work — which is right in keeping with this new era of civic virtue — is not being done in New York City, where the firm is based, but in other international cities where there is a much greater commitment of resources to better managing the urban environment.

Herein lies the rub. A new era of civic virtue of environmental stewardship in cities across the United States (beyond Chicago) will require a serious commitment of government resources on the local, state and national levels. The modern interpretation of civic virtue on the scale of a Pantheon or Farely building requires nothing less.

Read the whole Metropolis article here.

For a Metropolis piece I wrote about Chicago in 2004, click here (PDF): metropolis-final.pdf