Oct 10, 201309:00 AMPoint of View


Q&A: Alexandros Washburn

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Courtesy Alexandros Washburn, Island Press

Singapore is exciting because there’s no margin for error. It’s got a great combination of creativity, resources, and unified action, which makes urban design experiments possible in a measurable timeframe. The corollary of this is, Singapore can experiment but it can’t afford to make mistakes. When you have so little land, you can’t make bad land use decisions.   

MCP: You live in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and write beautifully about the experience of Hurricane Sandy. Have we learned anything from this event?

AW: We have learned we’re vulnerable in a visceral way. The water has flooded our conscience as well as our neighborhoods. But our actions don’t reflect that fear. Right away we’re building back the way we were, but the way we were is vulnerable. I go around in circles trying to understand the city, state, and federal regulations that should tell me how I can rebuild. They’re all in conflict. The insurance company is trying to get out of paying for my loss. I’m in a perpetual state of haggling. I’m amazed at the number of people I have to deal with.

Meanwhile, I am in limbo. Being in limbo at least has given me time to think.  

And thinking about it, I see a possible resilient future. For Red Hook to become resilient before the next storm comes, each product of urban design will have to be a discreet, actionable instrument to shift the ground, to change the rules of the game. And if we can do it in Red Hook, it can be a model for low-lying communities across the globe. I say in the book that for urban design, the classic triad of architecture-- client, site, program--are all negotiable.

In order to succeed we will redefine the “client” from the existing families of sparsely populated Red Hook to a million people across the region who have come to view our future success as a model for their own community’s rebirth. We’ll see how government agencies can enlarge the notion of “site” from our individual row houses struggling to floodproof by ourselves into a neighborhood and even regional system of shared public spaces and resiliency projects, each designed to counter a specific threat of climate change. We will use tools of zoning or finance (insurance, mortgage, and taxation) positively, not punitively, to support change so that the “program” escalates from millions in public improvements to billions in private investment. Urban design is the only way I can see to achieve fundamental change.

MCP: Your work with Mayor Bloomberg and Amanda Burden pushed the urban design agenda. What are the "unfinished" projects that you'd like the next administration to take up? 

AW: It’s quite personal. The unfinished projects I care about are my house, my neighborhood, and the train station Senator Moynihan first set me to work on. I have to make my house floodproof; I have to make my streets vibrant. I have to make my neighborhood resilient and yet still grow while keeping the extraordinary character that makes Red Hook the place to raise my family. And I still want to find a way to make Penn Station great again. I put the onus on myself, on my neighbors, on the public. Not the next administration. I believe the next phase in urban design is people solving their own problems, launching their own initiatives. Government should support, not constrain.

It’s a global change. So many people the world over are affected by cities; yet so few people affect cities. I want to change that with The Nature of Urban Design. I want more people to feel that the city is ours. I want more people to be urban designers and change their homes, their neighborhoods, and their lives.

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