Building for the Future

Peter Park has big plans for Parktown: a vibrant downtown surrounded by distinctive neighborhoods; a comprehensive public transportation system of bus, train, maybe subway. "The ingredients to make good urbanism," he calls them. He plans to mix the impressive architecture of museums, office buildings and townhomes with the scaled-down charm of corner stores, walkable local schools and animated streetscapes. Residents of this working-class town might consider their creator's grand vision a little far-fetched; the so-called main street is bordered mostly by gas stations and car dealerships and hardly looks like a downtown. Park, though, knows that his town is growing rapidly. After all, just twenty minutes ago, Parktown had a population of 167. And therein lies the planner's dilemma: How do you accommodate growth and still prevent the sprawl of soulless subdivisions, strip malls and business parks that typifies so much of the American landscape? Park is one of the country's leaders in solving that puzzle for cities, and he'll demonstrate how right here -- but he's already late for a meeting with Mayor John Hickenlooper. Unlike Parktown, Denver isn't installed with a pause mode.

Park looks up, disengaging himself from the screen of the laptop where he's been playing the popular create-your-own-city computer game Sim City 4 for the past forty minutes. A year ago, Hickenlooper all but kidnapped the 41-year-old planner from Milwaukee in order to make him Denver's new Director of Community Planning and Development. Park quickly acquired some very non-simulated tasks, such as overhauling the city's cumbersome zoning code and guiding the implementation of 2002's ambitious land-use/transportation plan Blueprint Denver as well as the recently approved FasTracks. Throw in the redevelopment of Stapleton, the Central Platte Valley and three more large-scale infill projects, and this city becomes a tremendous undertaking -- and opportunity -- for the new-urbanist planner credited with reinventing Milwaukee's battered urban core.

Park adjusts his wireless specs; there's much to be done. The tall, thin frame of his body seems to hang casually inside his black suit, almost as if his clothes stand firmly upright in his closet at night, silently waiting for the day to begin. With his inconspicuous demeanor, angular face and closely controlled smile, he looks like the quiet kid who sat in the middle row, center aisle in math class -- the kid everyone asks for answers. But even back in grade school, he would find himself looking beyond the blackboard -- to the walls and the buildings they create -- for the questions that really interested him. In fourth grade, he'd draw outlines of cityscapes on sheets of notebook paper. In junior high, he took all the drafting courses. When he headed off to high school, he geared all of his electives toward math, physics and science. His future profession seemed as tangible as the model structures he spent so much time crafting. "You know, I never thought about ŒWhat do I want to do?'" he says. "It was, ŒWhat do I need to do to do that?'"

He soon had a degree in architecture from Arizona State University and a master's in the same subject from the University of Wisconsin. Working for architecture firms in Boston and Milwaukee, he found his interest quickly expanding to the colossal organisms known as cities. He returned to Wisconsin for another master's in urban planning and design.

The profession of urban planning, regarded in past decades as the exclusive realm of paper-pushers, formula-minded code-enforcers and traffic engineers, has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Cities such as St. Louis, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., are looking to a new generation of planners for economic, cultural and aesthetic direction. In 1995, John Norquist, then mayor of Milwaukee, felt that his city's planning department had been severely deprived of such sensibilities throughout the '70s and '80s, and he recruited Park. "The previous plan was more to suburbanize the city," explains Norquist, himself an expert in urban design and education issues. "Not valuing the old neighborhoods -- particularly if they were poor -- removing them and replacing them with a suburban-style development, and then turning the downtown into a corporate office park. And that plan I didn't like." At the time, Park was a partner with the Planning and Design Institute, a Milwaukee-based firm that consulted with towns and cities on urban design; he was also an adjunct professor in planning at the University of Wisconsin, a position he continued to hold throughout his tenure as planning director.

Norquist gave the 32-year-old Park a mandate to take Milwaukee in a direction that would strengthen the city's urban fabric rather than tear it apart, and he armed Park with a considerable amount of political clout. Not that anyone really noticed at the time. "Very few people knew or cared who the planning director was," Norquist says. Both men shared a passion for the built environment, though, and the mayor's dogged pursuit of smart-growth design and Park's ability to raise the bar for the development community translated into some of the most architecturally lively urban-renewal projects in the country. Within eight years, the Norquist/Park duo had reworked the city's zoning code and started a boom in new housing in downtown Milwaukee. They also reoriented development to match the design strategies of the Congress for New Urbanism, a Chicago-based planning-reform organization that Norquist now heads.

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Jared Jacang Maher

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