Steve Paul

Steve Paul: How cities are making it new

Studio Gang’s work at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago includes a nature park, wetlands, a stormwater reservoir and trails.
Studio Gang’s work at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago includes a nature park, wetlands, a stormwater reservoir and trails.

Every city with an ounce of ambition wants to be new. As we hear a lot in Kansas City, cities want to be smart. They want to be wired. They want to grow and prosper and be cool enough to attract young people — millennials, the generation of the moment — with all their energy and curiosity and drive.

And, of course, cities want to make lists. Best this. Top that. One of 10 fill in the blank. Or at least the positive lists.

So cities are always showing themselves off and telling their stories, especially in hopes that businesses take note and want to move here and create jobs.

A lot of those stories got told at a conference here the other day, “City Age,” which offered ways to explore “The New American City.” Mayor Sly James, in a keynote talk, predictably touted the recent achievements of our World Series city, how we’re making waves in tech circles, entrepreneurship and other areas. But he also got real by highlighting job No. 1 for him and any other mayor: Making cities safe.

“(N)one of these great accomplishments really means anything if our citizens are being gunned down in the streets,” James said, “or in their homes, in gas stations, in schools....”

And, he added, “We can’t expect our kids to reach their full potential if we can’t protect them. We can’t expect entrepreneurs to embrace our city as a city of innovation if they feel scared to venture to certain parts of our city.”

So how cities tackle gun violence, street crime and gang activity becomes a vital force for shaping perceptions and making progress.

Most of the CityAge conference, however, tackled more upbeat issues. Ways to enliven public spaces, invest in infrastructure, modernize utilities and train 21st-century workforces were among the discussion topics.

It was gratifying to hear city officials and others talk about the importance of public space — the space between and beyond buildings — as a way to bring people together and promote civic connections.

The mayor of Green Bay, Wis., was proud of a project that reclaimed a dreary waterfront area, transforming a patch of industrial back doors and dumpsters into a commercial entertainment district.

Michael Lockwood, a senior principal at Populous, showed how his architectural firm was blowing up the closed-box tradition of civic convention centers. The firm won a competition to expand the Los Angeles convention center by breaking the rules, he said, and envisioning a complex that connects visitors directly with the city outside. Among its unorthodox features will be an open-air ballroom.

“Building the new American city,” he said, “means stepping back far enough to understand the connective opportunities.”

Steve McDowell, president and principal of BNIM in Kansas City, said the idea was about “creating a city that people want to be in” and making streets safe, walkable and in support of “places that let us be human beings at our highest potential.”

Several of those notions resonated later that day as I listened to a lecture that Chicago architect Jeanne Gang gave at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

A celebrated trail-blazer and creator of the shimmering Aqua Tower in Chicago, Gang has an inspired way of looking at her city. Chicago is not just a dense urban place with a heart full of skyscrapers. It’s also a post-industrial landscape with forgotten, sometimes toxic wastelands that deserve attention. Can dead places become opportunities for reclamation? Can they be put to use to make the city better?

These are the kinds of questions that Kansas City or any city can learn from.

In one notable project, Gang’s firm studied an issue involving the Chicago River. The research caught the attention of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and it led to a city commission to design four boat houses, on a limited budget, on formerly inaccessible patches of waterway.

Similarly, her Studio Gang transformed a decrepit pool at the Lincoln Park Zoo into a deeper stormwater reservoir and nature park that serves people — and animals — much better.

Gang described her firm’s approach as one of “actionable idealism.”

Along those lines, she had the vision to wonder whether architects could enter the nation’s conversation about policing and communities. A research project led to meetings with police and citizens and new ideas about a police station in one difficult Chicago neighborhood. Progress could be made if police stations were seen less as fortresses and more as community centers. The small-step result for now: Police agreed to transform excess parking spaces into a basketball court.

Stay tuned as new visions help make new American cities.

Steve Paul:, @sbpaul