The Prince and the Mayor: Survivors With an Urban Vision

By: - November 13, 2005 12:00 am

Courage, whether it’s confronting terrorism—or just plain derision? Unshakable belief in livable, learning cities, and a better urban future?

If you like those qualities in leaders, check two very different survivors who’ve been visiting the   U.S. recently.The first: Dora Bakoyannis, the first woman mayor of   Athens in its 3,500-year history. In 1989, terrorists gunned down her journalist husband, a member of the Greek Parliament. Bakoyannis stood for his vacant office and won, and later became   Greece ‘s minister of culture. She ran for mayor in 2002, and won by 61 percent – only to survive her own assassination attempt before taking office.

Bakoyannis’ first mega-management challenge was to bring off the 2004 Olympic Games on schedule, confounding outsiders’ prediction of failed deadlines and security breaches. But the payoff was real: a new metro subway system, a completely non-polluting bus fleet, 80 acres of new parks—and a newly confident   Athens.

“The leaders in the future of environmental protection” will be the world’s great cities, Bakoyannis predicted at the start of a multi-city tour across the U.S. Why? I asked. Because, she replied, citizens find it much easier to influence local than national government on the new century’s “green” issues.

Bakoyannis sees a growing trend of city-to-city, region-to-region relationships across Europe and beyond, based on officials’ direct contact and experience on issues ranging from management of Olympics-scale international events to dealing (as the French are now learning) with large, potentially alienated immigrant populations.

Bakoyannis came to the U.S. fairly quietly—a striking contrast to the glitz, glamour and picky press reviews of the official visit by Britain’s Prince of Wales, accompanied by his new wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.

But Prince Charles, having weathered a career of constant personal scrutiny and oftentimes torment at the hands of the British press and denigrators of his city planning and architectural ideas, is a survivor—and a triumphant one—in his own way.

The prince received a highly prestigious prize at the National  Building Museum in Washington—the Vincent Scully Prize. This isn’t some honorific platitude but rather top-of-its-field recognition of “exemplary practice, scholarship, or criticism in architecture, landscape architecture, historic preservation, or urban design.”

Professor Scully, after whom the award is named, praised Charles for his willingness to go against the grain of sleek modern architecture:

“In the face of implacable opposition from some of the most vocal critics in Britain, and at the grave and constant risk of personal unpopularity, you have courageously revived, defended and sustained the most humane principles of British and American architecture and town making.”

Famed American New Urbanist architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (herself an earlier recipient of the Scully prize), said it was “a shot heard round the world of architecture'” when Charles in the 1980s dared to call a proposed modernist addition to London’s historic National Gallery a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”

Building substance behind his intuition, the prince then began extensive research on questions of building and town planning. He founded the Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture (now the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment). He personally wrote and narrated a BBC film, “A Vision of Britain,” and a book of the same name.

And then he put his theories into practice, founding/building/financing the town of  Poundbury in south   England – a totally new community with twisty roads to accommodate pedestrians and discourage car traffic, single-family homes mixed with small apartments, a mix of income groups, and native or recycled construction materials to underscore the prince’s belief in sustainable development.

Again, there was a hailstorm of criticism—only recently quieted as Poundbury has attracted a full complement of residents and proven itself economically successful.

Today Charles wastes no opportunity to castigate the “orgies of destruction” that tore down traditional buildings in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. “We have planned well for the car, but in so doing … destroyed the civic realm,” he asserts.

So the 21st century goal, he argues, must be for “more enduring, more humane buildings” and “great and lasting cities worthy of our humanity.” He talks of tapping “the local DNA” – urban design codes that reflect “the collective intelligence embodied in our heritage,” bolstered by carefully structured listening sessions with citizens (called “charrettes” in the  U.S., “consultative planning” in   Great Britain ).

What an interesting turn of fact and fate: this heir to the throne and leader of British royalty, an institution for centuries devoid of official power, qualifies as perhaps the world’s most eloquent – and certainly its best-known – spokesperson for traditional urban form and sustainable development.

We can’t know what the eventual impact will be, but it could be very great – and not just for   Britain , but for us all. 

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