Philadelphia has a rich historical and political history that has shaped its architecture and city planning. As a new resident, I find the impact of this history on present-day Philadelphia fascinating. I recently moved here from Nashville. As you may expect, there were some adjustments that needed to be made, yet I truly appreciate the quality of life Philadelphia offers me. The Design Advocacy Group is a vital part of that equation.
I was an involved advocate for responsible city planning and design in Nashville, and it was important for me to continue such advocacy when I relocated here. I now realize that coming to Philadelphia was a culmination of this personal interest.
The density of cities has always fascinated me. My father served in the Air Force, and our family relocated frequently when I was growing up. This exposed me to a variety of cities in our country and around the world. I spent hours in my room studying maps of the places we lived in and visited. I would then draw my own, imaginary cities, incorporating all of the best elements as I remembered them.
When looking at colleges, I was drawn to Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is not only a beautiful and historic place, but a livable, compact, and walkable city. All I needed in my daily life was accessible without a car. I took such quality of life for granted, until I graduated in 1989 and moved to Atlanta for my first professional job.
Employment was all that mattered to me when I chose Atlanta. What I neglected to consider were the quality of life issues that had been meaningful to me while living in Charleston. For two years, I struggled to try to live in Atlanta without a car. I finally had to adapt and reluctantly accepted the burden of my first car. Atlanta was sprawling, with no sense of defined place or community, and that resulted in my looking at other Southern cities where I might relocate. (One redeeming quality of my time in Atlanta was the graduate work I completed in urban studies; Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities was the first book I read in graduate school, and it was transformative!)
It was thus that I was introduced to Nashville. When I moved there in 1998, I was drawn to its scale. It had a manageable urbanity and a defined sense of place and community, but I remained reliant on a car. My profession and personal life enabled me to travel to cities all across the country--visiting San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, New York, and Philadelphia, which would remind me of the attractions of urban density and the ability to walk everywhere. While I appreciated my time in Nashville, returning home there became bittersweet.
Shortly after my move, I discovered that I was not the only person in Nashville with these concerns. The absence of comprehensive city and community planning, focused on quality of design and quality of life, proved to be a catalyst for change. In 2000, a group of concerned citizens, including myself, became active in the creation of the Nashville Civic Design Center (NCDC).
The NCDC is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to elevate the quality of Nashville’s built environment and to promote public participation in the creation of a more beautiful and functional city for all. Funding comes from membership dues, private donations, corporate sponsorship, special events, foundations, fee for service, and government grants.
The NCDC maintains a strong partnership with Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design. Membership is composed of architects, planners, developers, city leaders, neighborhood activists, as well as other concerned citizens. I served as a board member for several years until I moved to Philadelphia in 2007.
Since the NCDC’s founding, its proudest and most visible accomplishment is The Plan of Nashville: Avenues to a Great City, a 250-page book published by Vanderbilt University Press in 2005. The Plan is a community-based vision for growth and development that was created around input from citizens, design professionals, and business and government leaders of Nashville. During the visioning process, consensus emerged regarding Ten Principles, which were to inform public policy, development practice, urban planning, and design:
1. Respect Nashville’s natural and built environment.
2. Treat the Cumberland River (which flows through the center of the city) as central to Nashville’s identity, as an asset to be treasured and enjoyed. 3
3. Reestablish the streets as the principal public space of community and connectivity.
4. Develop a convenient and efficient transportation infrastructure.
5. Provide for a comprehensive, interconnected greenway and park system. 6. Develop an economically viable downtown district as the heart of the region.
7. Raise the quality of the public realm with civic structures and spaces.
8. Integrate public art into the design of the city, its buildings, public works and parks.
9. Strengthen the unique identity of neighborhoods.
10. Infuse visual order into the city by strengthening sightlines to and from civic landmarks and natural features.
In addition to promoting the principles of The Plan, the center also:
• Educates the public about civic design through lectures by prominent speakers; and continuing education classes taken by design and development professionals in the fields of architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning;
• Provides professional staff and highly-qualified design interns to consult on civic and other community development projects;
• Facilitates public dialogue about civic design and its impact through the Urban Design Forum, which meets monthly at the center, publicizes events and lectures, and provides an open forum for the debate of ideas and issues of interest to its members;
• Researches and publishes reports on various civic design issues.
Moving to Philadelphia fulfilled my professional goal to work for an Ivy League university as well as my personal desire to live in another place, like Charleston, with a rich history and an even greater density. It was vital to my quality of life to be able to do all that I wanted and needed within easy walking distance. It was also important for me to be involved, as I was in Nashville, with an organization like Design Advocacy Group (DAG)—apassionate group of concerned citizens advocating for design quality in the architecture and physical planning of Philadelphia.
There are many similarities between Design Advocacy Group and the Nashville Civic Design Center, and I firmly believe organizations such as DAG and the NCDC serve a vital role in making cities better places to live.
I recently interviewed Gary Gaston, the Design Director of the NCDC, and asked him to introduce the Nashville organization’s similar, yet distinctive, advocacy approach.
Joe Rively: What is the current staffing of the Center?
Gary Gaston: The NCDC has four full time staff including the Executive Director, Design Director, Urban Designer, and Community Outreach Coordinator. Currently we have two Design Fellows, who are accomplished design professionals engaged in specific projects beyond our staff’s capacity. We also rely on a large pool of interns from multiple universities and often recent graduates who admire our work and want to become quickly engaged within the city.
JR: What would you deem the Center’s current projects of note?
GG: The NCDC recently completed a publication entitled Nashville/Davidson County Public Art: Location Study & Typology Recommendations for the Metro Nashville Arts Commission. It recommends 41 locations for installing public art throughout Nashville. We are close to completing a grant we received from the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) to conduct visionary transportation and land use studies for several different projects, including Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and healing our historic turnpikes with infill development. Our upcoming major project is another publication that focuses on the connection between people’s health and the quality of the built environment.
JR: What are the strengths and successes of the Center?
GG: The NCDC has a strong reputation within the community, and in many ways is seen as an ally by many groups. By educating the public on good urban design practices they can be a voice for positive change. A result is that design is the main focus for new projects, and the NCDC is always involved with major projects. The Center also serves as a catalyst for new ideas in the city – introducing new concepts that take seed and can become real projects, creating work for local designers.
JR: What are the challenges and weaknesses the Center is experiencing?
GG: Our current challenge, as with all non-profits, is securing sources of funding. We have recently been aggressively applying for grants, both locally and nationally, and have had success in securing some high profile grants to fund important projects, programs and initiatives.
JR: What are the opportunities and threats for the Center?
GG: We are beginning to establish a national presence for the work we are doing, which is a great opportunity for our organization. The major threat was surviving the past year due to the economic challenges from the economy–luckily we have an amazing community that has supported our work, and we are now extremely optimistic about the future.
JR: Who/what leads the vision/direction of urban planning and design in Nashville?
GG: I would hope that we are there at the top of the list–as that is essentially our mission. Nashville also has some visionary local developers who have been responsible for much of the recent redevelopment in Nashville. The Gulch is a perfect example - a formerly industrial rail yards that has been converted over the past decade into a vibrant new urban neighborhood. This was the result of a private developer with a vision who partnered with the city’s development agency to implement the project. The Gulch was the first LEED ND project in the South.
JR: Would you affirm an emerging Nashville School or Style with the built environment?
GG: Nashville was once widely known as the “Athens of the South,” and today we are known as “Music City.” These slogans have influenced our iconic architecture and often our new architecture – namely the Symphony Hall and the Downtown Public Library, both classical buildings, and the Country Music Hall of Fame, which takes its stylistic cues from music. Interestingly, Nashville lost (tore down) much of its historical architecture during urban renewal, so I think the passion for building in the classical vocabulary is often reflective of peoples’ desire to return to the city we once were. There also seems to be a distinctive movement against this classical nostalgia by those that see the city differently and want us to pursue a modern style in our new architecture.
JR: What are Nashville’s current development priorities and how is the Center involved?
GG: Current developments are a new Convention Center and Hotel (approximately $1 billion investment) and the Riverfront Redevelopment Plan (phase I is $50 million). The NCDC has been actively involved in both, hosting public meetings and meeting with designers to discuss the projects and how they affect the public realm, especially with issues of environmental sustainability.
JR: What do you appreciate about Nashville? What is Nashville lacking in comparison to other cities?
GG: For its size, I think Nashville is unparalleled in its excitement and energy. It is a difficult trait or quality to describe. It is an extremely friendly city and very hospitable. Geographically, it is extremely well positioned in the country and has access to diverse natural surroundings. Nashville has lagged behind our peer cities in downtown housing and alternative transportation options. We have seen a lot of advancements recently, yet unfortunately the national recession has significantly slowed that. Downtown amenities are lacking – like retail, beyond the things that are typically sold to tourists. A downtown movie theater would be great as well as mass transit options such as a streetcar and light rail.
JR: What do you see as Nashville’s potential – its possibilities as a city?
GG: I see huge potential for Nashville, which is one reason why I am still living here. We are moving towards establishing a comprehensive regional transportation system and implementation within several years – similar to what is happening in Charlotte and Austin. Our commitment to making the city green is very focused, and my own involvement with the Green Ribbon Committee has inspired me greatly in the potential for Nashville becoming one of the greenest cities in the south.
JR: What is your impression of Philadelphia in terms of its impact on urban/civic planning and design?
GG: Philadelphia has a huge legacy in terms of its history of urban planning and civic design, but it also has the challenges of lost population base and industrial decline. I had the chance to visit Philly for thefirst time in May  as a Next American Vanguard and was hugely impressed with efforts towards reclaiming vacant land and urban farming initiatives (my video about Philadelphia on YouTube).
JR: The Center model you have is unique. How prevalent are such independent centers in the U.S. to your knowledge?
GG: I’m surprised by the number of calls we get regarding how our organization is structured from people looking to establish something similar in their cities. Our model seems to be fairly unique and enviable. In October 2009 I was invited by the Baltimore AIA to speak to a group that found the NCDC to be a good model for what they wanted to see happen in Baltimore. Groups from Memphis and Louisville have visited us to learn more about our work. There are some obvious advantages to being independent from government - being less susceptible to political changes in leadership is one of the main ones. Most of the centers we have researched are usually run by a university or by city governments. We have work closely with them as partners, but still maintain our independence.
JR: What is the future outlook of the Center?
GG: I am optimistic about the future outlook of the NCDC. I think what we bring to Nashville is a great service for the city and as Nashville continues to grow our work will become even more ingrained in the city’s culture.
JR: From a cultural, aesthetic point of view, do you see any benefit or impact in design and planning in Nashville during the recession?
GG: I see the benefits in the sense that planners and regulatory bodies are able to design and consider issues related to the city in a more proactive mode during times of recession – rather than a reactive one. For instance, our Metro Planning Department recently implemented a Form Based Code for Downtown Nashville. They had a lot of community participation and buy-in from developers and designers, which might not have been possible previously during the construction boom years. The Plan of Nashville was created during an economic downturn. The amount of volunteer work required would never have been possible during the boom. All this prep work, if you will, also has the added benefit of positioning the city well when the economy starts to improve. Community participation creates a sense ownership of the process and outcomes, and helps good projects in implementation.
JR: During the previous economic boom, what was the impact, positive and negative, on Nashville’s growth and development?
GG: Positive benefits were the huge increase in downtown residential units and retail offerings. Negative outcomes could be that we overbuilt a bit for market absorption.
JR: What can the Center do to enable the Nashville region to be better positioned to recover from the economic crisis—and expand economically—as it relates to planning and development?
GG: The Center is working with the Metropolitan Planning Organization on a series of transportation related projects to advance and promote the idea of progressive transportation and land use planning. These projects are specifically tied to things that the community can utilize from federal stimulus money, and are in line with future urban funding priorities of the Federal Government. These projects will serve to advance the adoption of policies that will lead to new transportation infrastructure and the related development that comes with it.
For more information about the Nashville Civic Design Center, visit the website at: http://www.civicdesigncenter.org/
Joe Rively is the Associate Director of International Development at the University of Pennsylvania. His position involves frequent travel to some of the great cities of the world. He includes Philadelphia as one of them and always looks forward to coming home.