A regional session of the Mayors' Institute on City Design is being held Oct. 21-23 in Northwest Arkansas.

The 2015 South Regional Session of the Mayors' Institute is one of three regional sessions to be held in locations around the country this year. Through a competitive application process, the University of Arkansas Community Design Center was selected to host this regional session — the first time one has been held in Arkansas. The center is an outreach program of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design.

The basis of the Mayors' Institute is that each mayor is the chief urban designer of his or her city, with an ability to influence design and development there that may not be fully understood or realized.

Trinity Simons is director of the Mayors' Institute, based in Washington, D.C. She works with mayors from across the country, assisting them in addressing some of the country's most pressing urban planning and design issues. The office also hosts national-level sessions in locations across the country each year.

Since the Mayors' Institute was founded nearly 30 years ago, more than 1,000 mayors and 700 design and development professionals have participated in sessions across the country.

The program's structure at these regional sessions hasn't changed that much over the years, and equates to an "Urban Planning 101" workshop for mayors. A group of eight mayors comes together with eight design and development professionals. Each mayor brings a specific project and receives feedback from the professionals.

Prior to the session, the local team recruited the mayors, traveling to their cities to see the issues being faced, and selecting a problem to bring to the session. The mayors will then bring these case studies to the session.

 "They always say that they learn as much from each other and the other presentations as they do from their own," Simons said of the mayors who've participated in past sessions.

Four Arkansas mayors participating in this session include Joe Smith of North Little Rock, John Mark Turner of Siloam Springs, Gary Fletcher of Jacksonville and Doug Sprouse of Springdale. Other mayors attending are Elise Partin of Cayce, South Carolina; Christopher B. Jones of Harrisonburg, Virginia; Jannquell Peters of East Point, Georgia; and George Vallejo of North Miami Beach, Florida.

The honor of hosting these regional sessions is awarded to universities or nonprofits through a competitive application process, and the sessions tend to be held in smaller regional cities, rather than a major city.

"The UACDC has a fantastic national reputation," Simons said. "Also, the entire Northwest Arkansas region is growing at a fast pace, and there are countless examples of good design to show off.

Steve Luoni is director of the Community Design Center, selected as host for this week's South Regional Session, and is also a Distinguished Professor in the Fay Jones School.

"We are grateful for the opportunity to host the Mayor's Institute in Arkansas, as preparations for the session have given our center's staff and design students another type of experience in engaging problems of the city," Luoni said. "We met with each of the eight mayors to prepare a consolidated briefing book that will frame discussions among resource team members and the mayors. We are also very excited by the caliber of design and development expertise that we were able to attract to Northwest Arkansas for this session and look forward to their discussions with the mayors.

"I am particularly pleased that we were able to select four mayors from Arkansas," Luoni added, "since only 13 Arkansas mayors have participated in Institute sessions over its 30-year history."

The event will open with an evening tour and reception at Vol Walker Hall, and dinner with Peter MacKeith, dean of the Fay Jones School. After that, the mayors and resource team members will spend two days meeting at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, doing the work of this project and giving brief presentations.

Simons said that what's happening in Bentonville is impressive, with some smart planning and design decisions having been made.

"We like to put the mayors in places with good urban design so that it inspires good urban design," Simons said.

Some key aspects are important for the success of these sessions, Simons said. They are private meetings, so conversations can remain frank. The resource team members sign agreements that they won't seek work with the cities for at least one year afterward.

The feedback they receive isn't just about architecture and design. They also discuss the myriad aspects related to running a city — the implementation and funding strategies, and how this relates to other issues in the city, such as the economy and jobs.

Mayors seek political office for so many different reasons and come from varied backgrounds and perspectives, Simons said. They are charged with effectively and efficiently operating a city, but they weren't necessarily trained to know how design could impact issues such as safety, employment, economic development and the environment. And any solution to these issues likely takes a multi-faceted approach — which could include some aspect of design.

"It's never just about this one thing," Simons said.

An example of success from one of these regional sessions was when Mayor Mark Stodola from Little Rock attended in 2007, soon after taking office. He brought a project focused on the Main Street area, near the Rivermarket, which was being revitalized because of the Clinton Presidential Center and other development. Main Street was languishing at that point. But, over the last eight years, he's used that experience to leverage grants and other development projects there. The Community Design Center and Marlon Blackwell Architects designed the Creative Corridor project, which has been recognized with numerous awards. The first phase of the project opened in September.

The resource team for this week's session includes John Anderson, principal, AK architecture + urban design in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Sam Assefa, senior urban designer, city of Boulder, Colorado; Julia Day, project manager, Gehl Architects, in New York, New York; Susannah Drake, principal, DLANDstudio, Brooklyn, New York; Norman Garrick, associate professor of civil engineering, University of Connecticut; E. Timothy Marshall, principal, ETM Associates, LLC, Highland Park, New Jersey; Marilys Nepomechie, professor of architecture, Florida International University; Tommy Pacello, special projects manager, U3Advisors, Philadelphia.

Arkansas mayors who have participated in Mayors' Institute sessions in past years since 1988 include: Mike Dumas of El Dorado; Fred Hanna, Jr., Dan Coody and Lioneld Jordan, all of Fayetteville; Helen Selig of Hot Springs; Hubert Brodell of Jonesboro; Lottie Shackelford, Jim Dailey and Mark Stodola, all of Little Rock; Patrick Henry Hays of North Little Rock; Carl Redus, Jr. of Pine Bluff; Danny Gray of Texarkana; and Keith Ingram of West Memphis.

The Mayors' Institute on City Design is a leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the American Architectural Foundation and the United States Conference of Mayors with support from United Technologies. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the NEA, and the Mayors' Institute is recognized as one of the NEA's historically key partnerships in a story on the NEA's anniversary timeline. In addition, the Walton Family Foundation is the sponsor of the 2015 South Regional Session. 

AuthorLinda Komlos