Discovering New Opportunities for Urban Design in American Cities


“What a city has to say must find expression in its architecture.” Walter Wallmann, Lord Mayor of Frankfurt/Main

Here in the U.S., we tend to think of our built environment –- our cities and towns — as mostly finished. Sure, we might tear down a few old buildings or add a few new subdivisions around the margins but, in general, the urban fabric is completely “baked” and there are no more opportunities for growth or expansion. This attitude is particularly true when it comes to urban design, which attracts little attention from the average citizen and perhaps even less from the average politician. This is too bad because I think the best days of American architecture and urban planning are ahead of us.

In many ways our country is actually still in pioneering mode. Most of our buildings are strictly functional, made of simple materials and designed to last the length of the loan used to pay for their construction. We build fast and haphazardly. The foundations we dig rarely sit on anything other than virgin soil. We pave over what is essentially prime agricultural land. Our buildings are often the first structures on a particular site in the entire history of mankind. Contrast this with Europe, where relatively new buildings might share space with Roman ruins and parking lot renovations turn into archeological digs. This constant confrontation with history requires a different mindset and leads to different approaches to design.

A recent visit to Scandinavia brought these differences into stark contrast for me. I was walking down a pedestrian street in Stockholm, Sweden and I noticed a pair of concrete barricades blocking cars from entering the area. These weren’t your typical Jersey barriers, however, because they were cleverly sculpted to look like lions – functional pieces of art incorporated into the streetscape instead of utilitarian eyesores. The Stockholm “lejon” barriers were created by artist Anders Årfelt in 1995 as a way to guard pedestrians from traffic while encouraging human interaction. They have since become popular local landmarks.

Lion Equation

What I liked about this solution is that it elegantly combines modern safety features with Swedish history (lions were added to the Swedish coat of arms in the 15th century) and a tradition of stone guardians that can be traced back to the Han Dynasty. Many of the castles we toured during our vacation had stone or marble lions (AKA “foo dogs”) at the gates and so these modern traffic barriers help enhance a strong local lineage.

Although the U.S. has historically made extensive use of similar icons, their popularity has yet to translate into more whimsical — yet practical — uses like the Stockholm lion barriers. This is because the current American approach to public design is limited by a strong cultural reluctance to invest in the community. To put it bluntly, no-frills design is considered a better use of taxpayer money. In these austere times, local governments can barely scrape together enough cash to collect the garbage, let alone pay artists to design something that taxpayers feel is unnecessary.

This line of thinking is unfortunate because there’s a lot of value in making cities more attractive to both residents and tourists. A recent study by the Knight Foundation found that physical beauty and opportunities for socializing helped strengthen the emotional bonds people had with their communities and that higher levels of community attachment were associated with increased GDP and stronger economies. This link between aesthetics and economics was made explicitly clear in the Stockholm example when my wife and I discovered a small shop inside the main train station that sold miniature replicas of the concrete lion barriers as paperweights. I paid a few hundred Swedish Kroner for the memento … money that circulated directly back into the local economy solely because somebody thought it would be a cool idea to make something special. Try doing that with a Jersey barrier!

Two Lions

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