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Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012

The Future of Cities

Milwaukee a model for urban planning in new essay collection

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Although Milwaukee’s longtime mayor, Henry Maier, cast himself as the champion of cities, no one seemed to hate urban life more than him—unless you count his equally egregious peers in other city halls across the U.S. in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Maier and his generation of civic leaders relentlessly demolished historic buildings, bulldozed neighborhoods in favor of freeways, turned downtowns into ghost towns and seemingly did everything possible to encourage the already gathering trends of suburbanization and white flight. One thing Maier and colleagues can’t be blamed for is the de-industrialization of America’s industrial heartland. Credit corporate leaders for moving manufacturing offshore to exploit cheap foreign labor for that. The resulting Rust Belt engulfed Milwaukee, once the machine shop of the world.

Fortunately, the decline of America’s cities has been arrested and there is renewed hope for the future. Milwaukee, one of many test sites for new ideas, is featured prominently in the essay collection SynergiCity: Reinventing the Postindustrial City (University of Illinois Press). The man most responsible for reversing Milwaukee’s decline, Maier’s successor, John O. Norquist, wrote one of the book’s essays. Another is by UW-Milwaukee’s architect and Dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning Robert Greenstreet, who has helped sustain the momentum for positive change.

Editors Paul Hardin Knapp and Paul J. Armstrong, architecture professors at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champagne, dub their urban planning model “SynergiCity.” The term sounds friendlier in faculty meetings than on Main Street, but embraces the worthwhile mission of synthesizing “disparate and often competing economic, social and political forces in which the result is greater than the sum of the constituent parts.” SynergiCity stresses grassroots ideas over top-down planning, sometimes at the expense of understanding how projects as different as the BMO Harris Bradley Center and the Sherman Park Community Association can both benefit their city. And then there is the “postindustrial” assumption, which takes for granted that lost manufacturing (in an age of rising shipping costs and uncertainty over energy supplies) will never return to these shores. It just might have to.

But SynergiCity is greater than some of its constituent parts and contains valuable insights. As mayor of Milwaukee, Norquist became a leading figure in restoring pride of place to cities. His essay cites New York’s SoHo as a model neighborhood with Industrial Age structures re-imagined as condos, art studios and hip shops. Mixed use is essential for urban vitality. SoHo was transposed to the Third Ward during Norquist’s tenure; rather than carve a “condo ghetto” from the neighborhood, Norquist insisted that Commission Row’s produce wholesalers and machine tool shops remain alongside the new condos and apartments, as well as boutiques, galleries, coffee shops and restaurants.

Greenstreet shows how collaboration between a university and a municipality—between thinkers and politicians—“can provide a continuous stream of fresh, new ideas and alternatives that can enrich the debate on future development.” Relations between UWM and the City of Milwaukee were formalized by Norquist’s successor, Tom Barrett, who appointed Greenstreet as director of planning and design. Greenstreet tips his hat to English architects Alison and Peterson Smithson, who likened cities to “the intricate weaving of fabric.” In his view, Milwaukee is a tapestry whose every thread is important. It’s a holistic vision where no detail, or district, is left out of the picture.