MAYORS' INSTITUTE ON CITY DESIGN: Case Studies and Testimonials

"In our country now, it is not the whippoorwill on the fencepost along a rural trail that is a daily experience for most Americans. Rather, it is the streets and public places in cities. Because of the work of the Mayors' Institute on City Design, these daily experiences for our citizens are increasingly those of beauty, order, and inspiration worthy of a great nation." Joseph P. Riley, Mayor, Charleston, South Carolina

The U.S. Census Bureau has reported that the demographics of our nation's cities and towns are changing dramatically. With population shifts, add a struggling and evolving economy, and it's easy to understand that today's mayors are facing the challenges of a fundamentally shifting society. In order to navigate this new world, mayors are increasingly turning to design and the tools and knowledge provided by the Mayors' Institute on City Design (MICD). Below are some examples of how MICD has assisted mayors in transforming their cities.


Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the site of a unique view into history with a 27-acre rail yard, including large locomotive repair shops from the time of steam locomotives. When Mayor Richard Berry went to the Mayors' Institute on City Design he knew he wanted to take these large spaces and transform them into "a community asset."

"Subsequent to my chance to go to MICD, we brought in a master developer and have taken some of the ideas from MICD and have forwarded those on to our developer so that we can turn this into, what I think, will be one of the premier spaces in the city... [MICD] gave me a great ability as a mayor to talk to the master developers, to look at the proposals, to try to make an informed decision on what I thought I could do, to help facilitate the project."

"The Mayor's Institute on City Design helps you to take things that you think are a good idea...and put them into a forum where you could talk to other mayors, you can talk candidly, you can talk to experts from landscape design to urban design to transportation, and really bring these groups together and talk in a very candid format about a project, what might work, what might not, put the egos on the side and really just have a good conversation." 


Once a center of industry and home of Bethlehem Steel, Bethlehem is also the location of the largest single-owner brown field site in the country. Mayor John Callahan came to the Mayors' Institute on City Design with a project to transform 126 acres of the 1,800 acre site by taking existing buildings and adaptively reusing them to maintain the sense of place and scale of the plant.

"It's a very challenging site," says Mayor Callahan. "It was one that I think the group was real excited about but also sort of looked at as, boy, this is a daunting task this guy's got before him. . .  We have these majestic blast furnaces, you know, that were part of the old steel site, and[the designers said] you've got to save those blast furnaces because they will be the backdrop for everything that takes place there. So we did, in fact, save them. There was a lot of talk at the time about whether they would be demolished or not, and they've become kind of our skyline. We've lit them as a piece of sculpture and much of the development that's taken place on the site is happening sort of in the shadows of these blast furnaces."

The Moravian Jazz Band performs in front of former blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel. Photo by Victoria Hutter


The Moravian Jazz Band performs in front of former blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel. Photo by Victoria Hutter

"So it was very helpful to learn those principles, very helpful for me to get affirmation of how important that site was and some broad sort of goals that we could look to achieve in the course of the development of the site. It's not done, but a billion dollars later, it's well on its way, and the sort of engine that's going to drive the redevelopment of the site is in place and we're going to see over the course of the next decade the full build out. So, just this year alone we're going to have over 100 million dollars of development which is, you know, in this economy, quite a testament."


"It was the most important program that I attended as a mayor. Throughout my three terms, I kept coming back to what I had learned at the Institute and applying it to my city. I can think of at least three specific success stories that were the direct result of my participation. These include the creation of a grand boulevard in the place of a torn-down overpass, the rebuilding of our downtown library, and the reorientation of the city toward its waterfront. Honestly, in terms of what will last beyond me into the future, the Mayors' Institute had a greater influence than anything else I did while in office." Kay Granger, U.S. House of Representatives, former mayor of Fort Worth, TX


"Cities are not art museums, they're places where people live, where jobs are created, where lives are changed, and the design of a city is not like a piece of art on a wall. A design of a city is really what makes people interact in a different way. Whenever I meet a new mayor I say, there are a bunch of things you can do, but boy, the one thing you should really do is to go to the Mayors' Institute on City Design. Mayors have a lot of detailed work to do but at the end of the day, you want to be able to say, I can look back on having left a mark on making my community a better place, and there are very few things you can do that have more impact than really building a great community that's based on great design. Mayor RT Rybak


The project Mayor Scott Lang brought to MICD was in no way a small one; he wanted to explore New Bedford's downtown area and the center of the waterfront. "It's a wide area," says Mayor Lang, "and has a lot of important structures, some historic, some very difficult to reconfigure, and we've chipped away at it and we've made some real headway."

New Bedford’s waterfront. Photo by John Robson


New Bedford’s waterfront. Photo by John Robson

In tackling these challenges, MICD has helped Mayor Lang to rethink the role of design in this community: "What it has done for me is think design and planning and logistical layout first and then try and figure out how we get it done from there. So, you know, the sky's the limit on everything I look at and it may be a situation where, rather than major renovation, we're painting and priming and doing a little plaster work, basically to preserve something for the day that we'll have the money that we need to make an infrastructure change or something like that. You know, I'm looking at wood, cobblestone, brick. I'm looking at 200, 300 years worth of history, rather than looking at something and saying if we just could knock this down or if we could just plan around this, we wouldn't have this strange configuration. Every time I look at it, I say I want to keep that configuration. I want to enhance it. I want to re-tool for looking at 200, 300 years worth of history, rather than looking at something and saying if we just could knock this down or if we could just plan around this, we wouldn't have this strange configuration. Every time I look at it, I say I want to keep that configuration. I want to enhance it. I want to re-tool for the 21st century."

In the past 14 months, New Bedford has opened up a dozen restaurants, as well as the first hotel in 50 years at the intersection of the downtown and the waterfront. They've also been able to use their state pier building as a convention center and coupled it with a hotel -- the first time they have had a mini convention in the city -- and created the opportunity for more conventions in the future.


When Mayor Mick Cornett attended the Mayors' Institute on City Design in 2004, he came with an idea to build a park in the corridor of a to-be-relocated interstate highway. Today, he has plans for the relocation in 2012 that includes tearing down the existing corridor, building in a boulevard, and then constructing a park.

Cornett says, "That initial exposure [at MICD] was very, very important to me, and allowed me to go back to Oklahoma City and speak on a whole new level than I was able to do before because I had picked up talking points and key fundamentals about urban planning and walkability, and the importance of creating a city for people as opposed to cars, and all of that came initially from that one meetingin Charleston."

"The fundamental that I take to my citizens now, I say, look, we're going to rebuild this city and we're going to build it for people and not cars. And the look on their eyes and the inspirational feedback that I get I think illustrates that Oklahoma City was ready to change, they just didn't necessarily know how."

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA "One of the great things about Philadelphia is it's an old historic city with many old historic buildings and structures. One of the great challenges of Philadelphia is that it's an old city with old historic buildings and structures. And so how do you maintain and preserve that great legacy while moving clearly into the 21st century? We want to encourage growth, but we also have to preserve community and preserve open space, at the same time. Having the Institute around for more than the next 25 years is going to help lead all of us into a brighter future." Mayor Michael Nutter


A major presence in downtown Rochester is the internationally-renowned Mayo Clinic. In the late 1980s, city planners created a small plaza, half a block long near the Clinic called Peace Plaza. The design challenge that Mayor Ardell Brede, brought to the Institute was that the plaza was not functional, being too small for civic gatherings. The idea that emerged from the Institute, and was further developed later, was to enlarge the plaza by closing off the block to the west and thus extending the public space to a block and a half. The expanded plaza bordered two hotels and the west end abutted a large Mayo Clinic patient building. Patients could now look out the window and into the plaza, effectively drawing them out of the Clinic and into downtown.

Social Ice, part of Rochester’s Winterfest Celebration, takes place at the Peace Plaza. Photo courtesy of the City of Rochester


Social Ice, part of Rochester’s Winterfest Celebration, takes place at the Peace Plaza. Photo courtesy of the City of Rochester

Since the redevelopment, three sidewalk cafes have opened alongside the plaza that is now the site for lots of civic and cultural activity including weddings, arts and culture events, and community celebrations. The Rochester Downtown Alliance is responsible for programming including Thursday's on First, featuring food, music, and crafts from June through August, and Social Ice, part of Rochester's Winterfest Celebration, where a visitor can order a drink at a bar made of ice and enjoy ice sculptures and live music. Both events attract thousands of visitors. As Mayor Brede noted, "It has really helped change the character of downtown."


"We've really evolved in our thinking about projects and are giving more consideration to place making and creating those opportunities for folks to enjoy where they're living through urban design. It's important that we put more thought into place making if we want to ensure the sustainability of where we live, and where we play, and where we work." Mayor Tim Leavitt