Special Interview: Jeffrey Shumaker

The theme of this year's Seoul Design International Forum is 'Re-connect: Design as a value creator'. What do you think the city government should do to improve the value in the cities and in the lives of their citizen through design? And for that, how should the city's design organization be structured? I believe that organizational structure is one of the most important parts of maximizing the value creation of any organization. When organizing the city government's workforce, how can the design organization be structured to maximize the value of design? Also, what factors should be considered? 

First of all, I am very happy to hear that the City of Seoul is continuing to emphasize the importance of design.  For me, an emphasis on design must mean benefitting the broader public and should include an emphasis on the design of the public realm: the city’s streets, parks, promenades and plazas.  Every new private development must give back to the city in some way, and this usually means either expanding or enhancing the public realm.  It is an important role that the city plays: to leverage all private development for the public good and ensure that every new building is a good citizen of the city.

As Former Chief Urban Designer and Director of the Urban Design Office in New York City, I can speak from personal experience on how best to structure a design organization within city government.  In NYC in 2007, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden created a new Urban Design Office to sit within the Department of City Planning.  The purpose of the office was to bring a design focus to all major planning initiatives.  In the beginning there were just a few of us, all coming from the private sector, but we grew quickly and were able to continue to attract the best talent because of our unique mission and emphasis on creativity and innovation.  We were also empowered to make design decisions and emphasize the importance of design throughout the public approvals process. A similar office should be created in Seoul and its staff should be empowered in a similar way.

The Urban Design Office worked on everything from private project applications, working directly with developers and their design teams, to large-scale planning projects and city-wide multi-agency planning efforts initiated by the city. We always judged our work from the pedestrian perspective, as someone walking down the street on a sidewalk, giving priority to people over cars.  This meant focusing primarily on how new development would meet the street and sidewalk and how it would support a walkable city with active uses and sufficient transparency on the ground floor, as well as paying particular attention to detail to facilitate a more engaging and vibrant pedestrian experience.  Needless to say, the legacy of Jane Jacobs was apparent in all of our work.

Staffing the office is also an important consideration.  Ideally, the staff will be a mix of urban designers, architects and landscape architects, and all should have the skills to draw and visualize proposed changes in a way that can be easily understood by the general public.  For this reason, we found freehand sketches to work best in illustrating a sense of place and neighborhood character without getting overly specific with respect to the architecture and landscape design.

Lastly, the city’s urban design goals should be made as explicit and accessible to the general public as possible.  One of my last initiatives before leaving the city was publishing a first-ever set of urban design principles for the City of New York.  This allowed us, for the first time, to put in writing the principles we cared most about and written in a language that could be easily understood by the general public.

If there is an important case as an example of efforts made by city governments or public institutions to create social value, please introduce it. It may be difficult to answer because there are so many examples, but I would appreciate it if you could introduce an example of efforts to improve social value carried out in other cities or institutions that you would like to introduce to Seoul. 

Again, speaking from personal experience and from the city I know best, I think NYC offers a number of examples of projects and initiatives spearheaded by the city that created social value.  To reiterate what I mentioned above, I believe every urban design project should achieve some level of social value and contribute in a some way to the city and its citizens.  I think this is an important distinction between the role of the architect versus the role of the urban designer: to be a good urban designer, you must always view a project within its immediate and broader context, and through the lens of someone walking down the street.

If I have only one to choose (which is difficult, I agree) then I think it is the transformation of our streets to prioritize people and bikes over cars.  I would argue that the most important public space of any city is the street.  Yes, we are fortunate to have some of the greatest public spaces in the world including Central Park, Bryant Park and, now, the High Line, which I am proud to have played a role in creating, but it is our streets that really are the most critical public spaces since they connect each and every neighborhood across the entire city and are used every day.  

One of the great legacies of the Bloomberg administration is the transformation of the city’s streets.  Led by Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, streets throughout the city were rebalanced to create space for dedicated bike and bus lanes, widened sidewalks and pedestrian plazas. The most visible and famous example is Times Square, where Broadway was closed to traffic to make room for pedestrian plazas.  This created more space for streets to function as the critical public spaces they are, providing additional space for public seating, planting, art and a whole host of activities; once the space is carved out for pedestrians, there is no limit to the variety of social programming that can exist in that space. 

This transformation of streets now extends throughout the city’s five boroughs and in neighborhoods as diverse as the city itself.  The pedestrian plazas are serving neighborhoods in a variety of different ways: whether it’s bringing access to healthier food options by providing space for a farmers market, expanding the city’s cultural offerings by serving as a temporary stage for outdoor performances, or simply providing more safe space for kids to play, the social value of this space has increased beyond measure.

Paris has recently gone even further under Mayor Anne Hidalgo.  She has created linear parks along the Seine where highways once were, opened up bus lanes and put in bike lanes across the city.  She now has plans to pedestrianize the Champs-Elysees and plant forests of trees to green and cool the city.  This is another great example of how transforming a city’s streets means transforming the city itself.

Many years ago, Seoul led the way with the Cheonggyecheon, becoming a global model for how to transform an outdated elevated highway into one of the truly great public spaces in the world.  In the same way the transformation of Times Square inspired smaller projects throughout the five boroughs of New York City, my hope is that the Cheonggyecheon will do the same for Seoul.  Shepherded by the city’s new design office, these kinds of transformative projects can extend throughout the city, reach into every neighborhood and provide the critical public space needed to make the city truly livable for all.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are living through challenging time. How can design strive for social innovation or improvement of public life in the post-COVID era? Or, we would be grateful if you could tell us how the role of design in the past and the role of design in the future will be different in response to climate change and various social and technological changes. 

As we have seen in cities around the world, the importance of public space has only been amplified during the pandemic.  The transformation of streets to accommodate restaurants and bike lanes is no longer viewed as a luxury but is now essential, and there is greater awareness of the need for greening the city for its physical and mental health benefits.  So I think one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that more and more people are demanding a higher quality of life.  Cities will always be the places of opportunity, but maybe now they can also be places where people can live better: where streets are safer and designed for people first, where everyone lives within a short walk of a public space, and where nature can thrive alongside people.

I have also noticed an increased desire for a sense of community, to really belong to a neighborhood, get involved in local activities and to have a more genuine connection between neighbors.  Maybe this is a result of the isolation we have all been experiencing during the pandemic or the pandemic has simply sped up trends that were already in place before.  Either way, I believe this presents a real opportunity for urban designers and planners to seize this moment and work toward creating the kind of city we all want, and frankly, need.  Within the city, we should be creating more places where people can come together, that are truly public and intimate in scale, that serve the entire population regardless of age, gender or socioeconomic background.

If there was ever a time when cities need a bold transformation, it is now.  The combined crises brought on by the pandemic, climate change and extreme inequities require bold action.  Large investments will be required to rebuild economies and to make cities more resilient; it will be the role of the designer to make sure these investments truly benefit all and improve the public life of the city.  Bold does not mean big; I think to be truly bold, cities need to take a more distributive approach to transformation, by creating a series of more intimate experiences that are more meaningful and spread throughout the city.

I have no doubt cities will survive these latest crises- history has shown this to be true; the question is whether our cities will be made better and stronger, and benefit more people than they do today.  

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