Recent televised images of English cities show communities less storybook pretty than they once seemed. Along with reports on the pageantry and pomp of a royal visit and the British treasures on view at our own National Gallery of Art, we have been seeing a steady increase in stories about British unemployment, racial unrest and urban decay. It all has a familiar ring. Such convulsions gripped our own cities nearly two decades ago. So it wasn't particularly surprising that during his recent visit to Washington, Prince Charles requested an opportunity to learn more about how American cities began their comeback from years of urban decline.
The prince's concern over community design is longstanding. Some 10 years ago, he set up a trust to assist in community improvement efforts and to help support job training programs for youth and the unemployed. Recently, he helped establish, with The Times of London and the Royal Institute of British Architects, an award program recognizing community-initiated improvement projects such as housing, building renovation and environmental improvements.
Thus, the British Embassy last June requested a meeting between the prince and individuals associated with what the British term "community architecture" -- design that focuses on the real needs of renters, office workers and others who actually use buildings. They didn't want academicians and theorists, but a representative group of Americans with a proven record in healing the kind of trauma that once wracked the inner cities of America and is now surfacing in Great Britain.
No one in the room that brilliantly sunny November afternoon had a pat recipe for success. But what happened was uniquely moving.
The participants sat at a round table elbow to elbow: a government official from Baltimore, an investment banker and developer from Savannah, Ga., architects from the American Institute of Architects' regional urban design assistance team, tenants from commercial and residential projects, a volunteer community activist from Baltimore, homeowners and representatives of nonprofit organizations. Counting the prince, his secretary and the president of the AIA Foundation, there were only 12 people at that table -- public and private, black and white, professional and nonprofessional.
If the symbolism was powerful, the content of the discussion that followed was persuasive. How does one start the process of healing, the prince wanted to know. What does it take to get officials to listen carefully and effectively to their citizen constituents? How can one accommodate individual needs like gardens in large low-cost housing developments?
What emerged in the discussion was a five-part framework for revitalization through design:
1. Development of supportive public policy. The role of government, the participants agreed, is not primarily to bankroll revitalization. Yes, it is proper and sometimes necessary for government at all levels to come up with an initial financial investment (the American participants emphatically rejected the word "handout"). The Savannah representatives noted that a $17,000 government grant had been used to leverage financing for a $15 million revitalization of that city's Victorian district. But government, the speakers argued, has an even more important role to play in setting long-term goals and creating legislation to meet them -- legislation such as tax credits and incentives for restoring and reusing buildings or modernizing equipment, "setback" regulations to provide open spaces and sunshine and many other legal tools to reward private projects with public benefits.
2. Active public/private partnership. The prince was told both sides have to be honest and admit that the private sector has to realize a return on its investment. Only then will the public sector benefit in terms of a stronger tax base to support public services and communitywide amenities.
3. Community participation in planning and development. The prince heard that design professionals and public officials alike must recognize that local problems demand local solutions. As Marion Pines, commissioner of Baltimore's Neighborhood Progress Administration, made clear, architects and planners must "take their cues from the community: listen to the design needs of the residents and design for those needs." Each special-interest group must also recognize its strong vested interest in the overall health of the community.
4. Ready availability of technical assistance. Whether a project uses hired professional assistance or voluntary workers, financial investment or "sweat equity," knowledge and techniques must be available to everyone involved. Such assistance could, for example, take the form of the city hall or a school of architecture or a professional society assigning or lending to a neighborhood its own architect/planner.
5. Local leadership. "There must be local leaders -- people with vision who can see beyond blight -- who see what needs to be done and have the stamina to do it," said Baltimore community activist Betty Hyatt. "It doesn't have to be a political leader -- it can be a schoolteacher or mother of five like me." Hyatt went on to tell the prince: "You asked where community leaders come from, how they get the ball rolling. They come from everywhere and from all walks -- grandmothers, arts groups, job training centers, professional firms -- everywhere. No one found me. I found city hall."
Housewife and architect alike cautioned the prince that their five-part framework for revitalization did not necessarily guarantee success. The participants admitted that no one at the table considered his or her work complete and each had had a share of reverses along the way. Nevertheless, those who spoke to the prince were clearly persuaded that those Americans responsible for such urban revitalizations as San Antonio's Riverwalk, Richmond's Fan, and the Charleston, S.C., Battery had come up with processes that hold out hope for the downtown neighborhoods of older cities. Attendees at the meeting shared the prince's belief that architecture can become a physical rallying point around which residents of a community can organize action for improvement. But they took care to emphasize that community improvement is an incremental and continuous process.
It is doubtful that any of our cities' solutions could be superimposed on a British city, just as what works in Arizona may not be appropriate for Connecticut. But Prince Charles' visit pointed up how far we have come in this country since the days when "urban revitalization" meant the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods for highways or well-intended large-scale solutions imposed by so-called experts and officials woefully out of touch with those whose interests they were presumably serving.