Thursday, January 28, 2010

The mayor who tore down a highway

CHICAGO/AMERICAN URBAN VOICES. We met in the heart of one of America’s great urban centers, in an old building that’s an important part of Chicago’s proud architectural heritage.
When he looks out his office windows in the Marquette Building, John Norquist can point out a number of other buildings that contribute to the fascinating urban landscape of a metropolis that escaped the fate of so many other U.S cities.
Downtown Chicago survived decades of American urban decline.
Today John Norquist (right), the former mayor of Milwaukee who now heads the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), looks at the future with optimism.
“Cities are gaining popular support. The exodus to the suburbs has slowed down or stopped”, said Norquist when I met him for the first in a series of interviews with urban thinkers and activists in Chicago last fall.
“I’m quite optimistic, actually. Sprawl has been an aberration. It was created in a historic transition that now has lost its force. I’m optimistic and I think things will be turned right again.”
Recent statistics back up his optimism. Cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, to name a few, have challenged population estimates and gained considerably in population lately. It has been called an urban comeback.
“The public is reverting more and more to what they always have sought. They want to live in more interesting surroundings with entertainment, music, commerce and all the other pleasures of the city”, said Norquist, who for decades has been fighting for urban revival in America.
This trend now has strong support in the White House. President Barack Obama, who has made Chicago his hometown, has been called the first urban president. Norquist sees the president as an “urbanist who understands these issues”.
“These issues” cover everything from revival of urban centers, putting a stop to sprawl and congestion, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency and investments in public transportation and infrastructure. The bottom line is climate concern and a more sustainable lifestyle in America, which is a matter of global interest.
Multi-car dependency for transportation to and from oversized homes in distant suburbs has become the American way of life. President Obama takes a political risk if he is seen to challenge this lifestyle.
Conservative opponents of the president are already talking about a “war on suburbia”.
John Norquist and his non-profit organization CNU promotes walkable, neighbourhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl. Its members are planners, developers, architects, engineers, public officials, activists and others who share this view of a “new urbanism”.
This might not sound like controversial ideas, but the “new urbanists” are used to criticism both from the right and the left of the political spectrum.
“The controversial thing with new urbanism stems from two things. On the right it’s about the environmental issue. The right wing in America perceives environmental concerns as anti-American. The American way is to consume resources to the maximum capacity, and questions like global warming or peak oil are just fantasies. They are just getting weirder and weirder”, said Norquist.
“But we are also attacked from the left because of the doubts many of our members express when it comes to the modernist movement. They may like modernist buildings (Norquist points out his window at some of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s celebrated works, one is pictured left), but they don’t like the modernist’s obsession with separate zoning and sterilizing of the cities. The left doesn’t want to admit that the modernists did that.”
So where does this leave Norquist & CNU politically?
“We are radical left and right”, he said, laughing.
When Norquist resigned as mayor of Milwaukee in 2004, after 16 years in office, he was called an “interesting character, a tight-wallet socialist” by the Economist. Like many others the British magazine hailed him for the transformation that had made Milwaukee a much more pleasant city in the “new urban” mode.
His most spectacular achievement as mayor was to order the destruction of a piece of downtown highway called the Park East Freeway. It is said to be the largest highway ever purposely destroyed in the U.S. and it gave Norquist headlines all over the country.
“I enjoyed doing it. It is one of the things in my life I’m proud to have done. It was a great act of creative destruction.”
The 60-year old Norquist, whose ancestors came from Sweden, can talk forever about the destruction America’s focus on cars as the main means of transportation has lead to. His favourite example is Detroit, the heart of the American car industry.
“If cities became rich by building big highways, then Detroit would be the richest city in the world. But it’s in ruins”, he said of what is known as America’s biggest urban failure.

This is the first in series of interviews I made with American urban thinkers and activists in Chicago last fall. I will publish the rest in the weeks to come.

The joy of urban living; Millennium Park in Chicago.