I have interviewed more than fifty leaders in sustainable architecture and built environments. Here are a few:
Helen Doria Director of Millennium Park Chicago on Designing Public Spaces
May 11, 2010
From years creating innovative programming for the Chicago Park District to now working as an independent consultant on Arts, Culture and Public Spaces, Helen Doria was Executive Director of Chicago’s Millennium Park for the first four years after it’s opening in 2004. One of the first and the most influential urban parks of the 21st century, the park’s design and programming are now a model the world over for urban park development.
Andrew Michler [eVolo]: On my first trip to Chicago, I got off at the train station on a cold, bleak day. I scurried across what felt like a huge empty expanse to Michigan Ave. The second time I visited, I would not have recognized the expanse since the seven years prior. Those 25 acres have taken on such an iconic stature. It was like walking through a contemporary art museum, flower garden, and concert hall all rolled together. What was your central mantra while making decisions on what to do with the park? What do you see as the primary goals of an urban public park space?
Helen Doria: Well, we wanted the park to reflect the city, its artists, its values and for people who visited to have fun, and find their own special place in the park and for all of it to be free. Everyone was welcome and there were no financial barriers to enjoying the concerts or other programs. We were very clear about offering excellent programs. I’m talking about the concerts, temporary sculpture exhibitions etc. We needed to match the ongoing programming and live up to the high standard of excellence of the park design and the artistic level of the Pritzker Pavilion, Cloud Gate, The Crown Fountain, and Lurie Garden. You get the idea. The total package needed to be democratic, extraordinary and reflective of our City. I think public space needs to be about creating a unique “place”. In the end public spaces are about community and democracy. Hopefully they are beautiful, have their own energy and bring people together who would not normally cross paths. It’s that interaction where place fosters a sense of people coming together that fascinates me.
Michler: The total cost of the park was $490 million, a significant investment. What was the economic risk and reward with Millennium Park?
Helen Doria: The park was a private public partnership where the City paid about half the cost and the “founders” who funded the big art pieces, garden and Pavilion assumed those costs. I believe that was the only way a park like Millennium Park could have been built. Also, the economy was much different when the park was being developed and built. There was a moment that existed and the City and major funders seized it. It would probably be too financially risky to build a Millennium Park now. The economic rewards were immediately felt. Millennium Park became the number one summer tourism attraction in the country (as tracked by the national tourism industry.) Hotels and businesses around the park had great business. Developers were building new high rises and converting older buildings to residential all around the park. This helped the city’s tax base. Restaurants, coffee shops and other businesses on Michigan Avenue across from the park sprouted up immediately. The Park became the center of that economic engine bringing people to downtown Chicago.
Michler: We think of parks as a nice place to take a stroll, or to boost property values, it seems to me that there are other unspoken values to a green space. What are the “soft” rewards of an urban public space?
Helen Doria: Ah, not so soft, that sounds like soft means “less”. Cities are not just about the built environment. They are spiritual and emotional and education environments also. And public spaces give us a place to make that magic, to get to know our neighbors, or to have kids who never camped out under the stars go camping right in their own neighborhoods. We were planting vegetable gardens with kids in public parks and teaching them about food issues in the 90’s. The kids loved it! Teens get jobs working on environmental programs in public spaces and teach younger kids in day camps, museums come out to public spaces and offer free art classes or use lagoons in parks to teach about water quality and city critters. Seniors walk the track in parks or better yet, line dance and have pot luck afterward. These are quality of life rewards that make for healthy communities and healthy cities. I loved to watch people in Millennium Park especially Chicagoans who were talking with foreign guests visiting our city. The world gets a little bigger and a little smaller at the same time when people interact like that.
Michler: The park project started as a green space over a municipal parking lot, now considered the largest green roof project ever built. It progressed into a more involved program with multiple stake holders. How does taking risks play a role in developing an urban green space? Vision is important in any large project, how does it help or hinder public projects?
Helen Doria: People are much more attracted to a project that is extraordinary than something that plays it safe. Who wants to give their money to a nice safe ordinary project? What excites communities? Certainly not a cookie cutter project. The vision and the vision carriers are the ones who make cities spectacular. Those vision carriers can be everyone from the architect and designers, the Mayor, to the funders and the people of the city. Everyone can hold a vision. Remember, Chicago is called the City of Big Shoulders and our City motto is Urbs in Horto (“City in a Garden”). That vision has been around for a long time.
Michler: How influential are non-profit and public groups in the development process?
Helen Doria: That’s a bit of a complicated question. I think each project has a different level of influence from non-profits and public groups in the development process. In community based development in neighborhoods, you have to have community members and community groups at the table. They have great ideas. A community Charrette, where the “professionals” work with the community on design and development of a project or program, will give you the best results and contribute to the long term stewardship of the park. A very strong public-private partnership drove Millennium Park. The private partner shared in the vision of a great public space and really delivered financially. In order to do that, they needed a written agreement with the City. They had a lot of influence over the choices of architects, public art pieces etc. They were the right group for the right project.
Michler: How does program drive the design?
Helen Doria: This is a question that can be quite controversial. Architects and designers often believe they know what the program of a space should be and they design to their ideas. Communities and cultural or park programmers then end up with something handed to them that is a prescribed program for a space that may or may not work. During the past 20 years, my programmer colleagues and I have worked to gently suggest to architects and designers that more people need to be at the design table from the beginning. Much to their surprise, many of them really liked working with a broader group and in fact valued that process. To end up with a dynamic design that allows for exciting programming, you need everyone at the table from the beginning, respecting the talents of each other. The process is amazing when you experience it.
Michler: So an involved input process is central. Can a public space both be nurturing and provocative, and when do you know where to draw the line?
Helen Doria: I think Millennium Park is both nurturing and provocative. Who would have ever thought a 3 story reflective “Bean” would become the visual symbol of Chicago? Or a fountain with two towers and water spewing out of video faces would be the downtown water park for kids and adults. The Crown Fountain was originally designed by the artists as a place of quiet contemplation. As soon as we turned on the water, the kids of the City had a very different idea. Again we need to go back to that sense of “place”. That is a key to good design. How people relate to the space, are they comfortable, do they feel welcomed or as you say are they nurtured by it? I think that people like to be provoked in a way, if you say that that provocation pushes people to a new response or to think or feel differently, and to be aware of those ideas and feelings. That’s what makes great spaces. We need to give people more credit when we talk about “provocation”. Where would I draw the line? Well, I would probably say that good design has no line to be drawn if we think about how human beings will use and enjoy a space then we have more of a chance to get it right. The artist, architect, the designer, they’re all there to provoke. It would be hard to hold them back.
Michler: You talked about Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate becoming iconic for the city’s identity and how the Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa is now the city’s water park. How important will public art be in future urbanism?
Helen Doria: I believe that art and culture are basic human rights and that individuals, communities, cities, need to have art and cultural public spaces just as much as we need good water systems, sustainable energy, jobs, and affordable housing. Let me be clear that when I say public art I am not only talking about visual art. There were times at the Pritzker Pavilion concerts when the space, the music and the audience were in an almost ecstatic emotional place. We’re talking about 10,000 people. A writer from out of town once said to me that he was at a concert and that it was a state of “municipal bliss”. A truly great City cannot live without public spaces that are filled with art. It’s that simple.
Michler: Where are potential unnoticed green zones in cities?
Helen Doria: I’m glad you asked this question. I really like the way we are starting to look to the sky for green space. The High Line in NYC and the Plantes Promenade in Paris are great examples. Here in Chicago we are working on a similar project called the Bloomingdale Trail. Who knew that old discarded elevated railroads would be the new parks and green space in cities? Sky Parks, how cool is that! Old remnants of the industrial age re-visioned into public space. Other cities across the country are working on projects like this. That’s just one example. I think it’s more of an issue of changing the way we think of cities, seeing differently, seizing opportunity.
Michler: How can one project lead to another?
Helen Doria: Millennium Park became so “iconic” as you said, that delegations from other cities all over the country and the world came to visit and find out how they could do something in their own communities like Millennium Park. Ed Uhlir, who was the fantastic and insightful Design Director for the project and worked with both the city and the philanthropic group through completion of the park, would give the visitors a tour and answer lots of their questions, and then we would sit down and talk about lessons learned. I think most people left us with a renewed vision for their own communities. We stressed that they needed to find what would work for their own city and that Millennium Park was a uniquely Chicago project. Cities inspire each other and give each other support in trying something extraordinary, engage in a hopeful vision of their future. Hopefully that becomes part of the culture of a city, that hopeful vision, that bigness. And then when that is part of a city’s DNA many, many visionary projects are possible.