Art Works Blog

In New Jersey, Mayors Design for Stronger, More Resilient Cities

Every couple of months, in a city somewhere in the U.S., a small group of mayors gathers with a small group of design professionals. Over a couple of days, they brainstorm solutions to some of the most significant design and planning challenges facing our cities. The format is simple: mayors each present case studies from their cities, and the design professionals each present lessons from their areas of expertise. The interchange sparks lively debate, opens new perspectives, and generates creative ideas. The sessions are strictly closed door--there is no press and no additional staff. Mayors are free to discuss their challenges openly and to ask questions. This "secret sauce" has graduated more than 950 mayors and 600 design professionals over the last 27 years. 

The Mayors' Institute on City Design (MICD) was founded in 1986 by Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr, who is currently serving his 10th term as mayor. He often tells the story of the revitalization of Charleston. While the physical results of his work are astounding, even more impressive is his focus on the residents, and how every step toward improved beauty and livability increases the value of citizenship. A city, says Mayor Riley, should be a place where "every citizen's heart can sing." He founded the institute on the belief that the mayor is the chief urban designer of his or her city. Today, the MICD is a leadership initiative of the NEA in partnership with the American Architectural Foundation and the United States Conference of Mayors.

The MICD assists mayors of cities of all sizes, from the very largest to towns that are quite small. The MICD was there when Hurricane Katrina hit, providing assistance to mayors along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in New Orleans. It has worked with mayors post-disaster, recently with the mayors of Tuscaloosa and Joplin following tornados in 2011. And in September, the MICD went to New Jersey to hold a special session for the small-town, coastal mayors who were directly hit by Superstorm Sandy. Hosted by Mayor Matt Doherty of Belmar, this special session also included Mayor Susan Howard of Monmouth Beach, Mayor Dina Long of Sea Bright, Mayor Michael Mahon of Oceanport, Mayor Jennifer Naughton of Spring Lake, and Mayor Michael Ryan of Lake Como.
Keeping with the traditional MICD format, participating mayors each presented Sandy-related design challenges from their boroughs. Case study projects covered topics such as beach access, complete streets, water eco-systems, and flood walls. Over the course of two days, mayors presented their projects, and the gathered group gave feedback that included design ideas and implementation suggestions. As the days progressed, it became increasingly obvious that there would be no simple solution for any of the projects. The very nature of urban design requires a non-linear approach, and this is magnified in the post-Sandy landscape. There were certainly recommendations that the mayors can implement quickly that will make a significant impact, but in order to see systemic change, a regional, long-range approach is necessary. In the weeks after the Institute, we've been hearing from mayors that the seeds for that cooperation were planted at the MICD, and that many of the communities are now working together to address long-term needs for the Jersey Shore. 
In addition to the MICD, the NEA has has been closely involved with Sandy recovery efforts through Rebuild by Design, an initiative by President Obama's Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. A number of design professionals involved with Rebuild by Design joined the MICD resource team, providing the Rebuild by Design teams with in-depth knowledge of the nuanced challenges faced by local communities.
The resource team included: Unabridged Architecture Director of Design and Sustainability John Anderson, AIA, LEED AP; HR&A Advisors Vice Chairman Candace Damon; Nspiregreen Partner and Principal Planning Manager Veronica O. Davis, P.E.; Sasaki Associates Principal Jason S. Hellendrung, ASLA; Hargreaves Associates President and Senior Principal Mary Margaret Jones, FAAR, FASLA; University of Pennsylvania School of Design Dean and Paley Professor Marilyn Jordan Taylor, FAIA; and Interboro Partners Principal and New Jersey Institute of Technology College of Architecture and Design Associate Professor Georgeen Theodore, AIA.
Interested in reading more about creative placemaking in action? Check out our NEA Arts story on MICD in action in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania,

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