Milwaukee’s former mayor encouraged an audience at the Pyle Center Thursday to rethink the way our nation’s cities are planned.
Since World War II, cities have committed suicide with their zoning policies, John Norquist said at the 3rd Annual Paul Offner Lecture.
Above all, people in the past decade wanted to fight congestion and make cities convenient for cars, Norquist said.
“If you look at American cities and German cities after World War II, you’d think they won and we lost. Still, we did win the war against congestion,” Norquist said.
Norquist’s lecture spanned many topics related to urban planning and development.
He spoke out against sprawl and the Modernist movement in architecture.
As an example, Norquist explained the movement in the 1950s requiring bowling alleys to provide expansive parking lots for its patrons, which represented an urban planning shift that forced such attractions out of downtowns and into the suburbs.
Zoning boards all across the Midwest passed this law for the convenience of transportation by car, Norquist said.
Much of the creation of sprawl is manifested in the Modernist architectural movement of the late 20th century, Norquist said.
Architects like Walter Gropius saw old designs as a reminder of authoritarian rule under monarchs and malignant dictators, he said.
“[Gropius and others] wanted to create a city that wasn’t old-fashioned, one that was new. Rejecting old architecture in favor of new designs was utopian,” Norquist said.
Another prominent Modernist architect was Oscar Niemeyer, who designed the Brazilian city of Brasília, which was a disaster for downtown life, according to Norquist.
“You have to go to the slums outside the city to get a good meal or listen to music,” Norquist said.
Norquist offered a different vision for American cities. His presentation included numerous examples of large highways that bisect cities being converted into boulevards or city centers.
“San Fransisco, New York, Boston and Milwaukee have all had anti-highway movements, and just look what has happened to their economies,” Norquist said.
The majority of students present at the lecture were from the LaFollette School of Public Affairs.
Two exceptions were University of Wisconsin seniors Nicholas Kasang and Grace Latz, who were informed of the event by the professor of their Urban and Regional Development course.
Kasang found the talk very interesting and informative, but said Norquist’s ideas were very Eurocentric.
Latz was interested particularly in the aspects of urban planning that facilitate community, and wished Norquist had spoken more extensively on that topic.
Norquist said the non-profit organization Congress for the New Urbanism, of which he is the CEO and president, is holding its annual congress in Madison July 1-4, 2011.
He also spoke strongly in favor of the arrival of high-speed rail in the Madison area.
The memory of the late Paul Offner, a former member of the Wisconsin State Legislature from LaCrosse, was very present in the evening’s proceedings. After praising Offner’s intellect and his motivation, Norquist addressed Offner’s widow directly: “He helped the city of Milwaukee a great deal. So, thank you, Molly.”