A Planner Looks at State of the Cities

INTERVIEW DENISE SCOTT BROWN

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An architect and urban planner, Denise Scott Brown began collaborating with her husband and partner, Robert Venturi, in 1964. She has written extensively on the interface among architecture, planning, and social conditions. The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture recently awarded Scott Brown the Topaz Medal for outstanding career contributions to architectural education.

Her book, written with Venturi and Steven Izenour, "Learning from Las Vegas" (1972), argues that architecture must attend to and understand the automobile culture and the commercial highway strip. Her comprehensive plans for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Denver Civic Center offer pro-active strategies for future development.

"Denise Scott Brown is the premier current thinker in the relationship between urbanism and architecture," according to Michael Haverland, who teaches architectural design at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

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Is urban planning a thing of the past?

I've watched this society evolve for over 30 years now. I've noticed money keeps shifting pots, and planners shift with it.

When I came to this country in 1958, I was amazed at how much support an urban-planning school could have. Professors were adept at walking the corridors of power and basically bringing rain from Washington to their departments. Big government was perceived as being on your side, a friend.

Then we got Nixonism and Reaganism and every other "ism" under the sun, and slowly the money was lost. As a consultant-planner, I found there just wasn't enough money to do the job. Cities stopped record-keeping, so I didn't have sequences of data to look at trends. City agencies were like haunted houses in the 1980s. Then what happened was that money went to historical preservation and to ecology for environmental-impact studies.

Then public-private partnerships arose where the private sector began to help, because they realized everything was ebbing out of cities. Improvement districts now get money from the federal government, and merchants kick in as well. What these districts have to produce is a sense of safety. That comes from the streets being clean, with enough lighting and adequate policing.

Are there any signs of revival in the big cities?

People have discovered culture. Now the bright, canny people going to Washington are going on behalf of institutions that offer cultural tourism and recreation, like the aquaria on the waterfront.

There's a trend toward recreational retail.... Disney built an old-fashioned Main Street for suburbanites who were starving for a little friendly urbanism.

What is your advice to city officials and leaders of cultural institutions now that federal largess has declined?

I say, you have to get multicultural. You have to realize the new money is not going to come from the old WASP corporations. With globalism, those corporations are downsizing. Their CEOs are not of the same quality any more and they're not as useful on boards. Institutions have to find new millionaires.

Universities have found people in the garment industry as a source of support. Clever people are looking to Silicon Valley to teach those people how to be donors. The old boards used to scorn Jewish donors. Now they also have to find Asian and Hispanic millionaires. To say they don't exist shows ignorance.

They also have to get the black community involved. Each community has sources of funding. Communities are always being reproached for their weakness, with an attitude of "We have to do this for you." Looking to a community for its strength - not to help them but to help us all - would be a better way.

Republicans in Congress advocate reducing public assistance to promote independence. Do you agree?

My feeling as an urbanist and a liberal Democrat is that there's going to be a time when people finally turn around and say, "We have to help the present low-income people become middle-income people." In the end, you have to come back to what you should have faced in the first place - finding a way to help local people get the benefit of [profits generated by] industries. They have to create job ladders with upward mobility....

How would reducing immigration affect cities?

Immigrants have brought amazing richness to this country. The people who emigrate are different from the ones who stay. They are an up-and-at-it type of people. This enormous burst of creativity that happened in this country at the turn of the century was due to immigrants. If you cut that out, you just become like any other nation.

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