Baltimore is a city to watch

June 30, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

Baltimore barely missed being ranked as one of "America's Best Cities for Design," according to a new survey that measures factors such as the number of award-winning contemporary buildings in a city and examples of environmentally friendly architecture.

The independent survey by RMJM Hillier, a large architectural firm based in New York, ranks cities in terms of how well they are designed for "architecture, sustainability and transit."

Following the model of other surveys that rank urban areas as most affordable, most healthy or "greenest," for example, it named 10 cities that experts considered the best in America for architecture and design and three that almost made the top tier and were considered "cities to watch."

Baltimore was among the "cities to watch," along with Minneapolis and Phoenix, Ariz.

The top 10 were:

1. Chicago

2. New York

3. Boston

4. Los Angeles

5. Portland, Ore.

6. San Francisco

7. Seattle

8. Denver

9. Philadelphia

10. Washington

"Good design makes better communities by boosting the economy, creating jobs and, particularly today, sponsoring environmental strategies," said Peter Schubert, design director of RMJM Hillier. "We conducted this study to see which cities are the most forward-thinking in their planning and development strategies and to applaud those that are doing it right."

In Chicago, architecture and design are such significant parts of the business and cultural communities that "walking down the street, you hear people talking about buildings just as often as you hear them talking about the Cubs or Sox," said Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of the American Institute of Architecture's Chicago chapter. "Studies like this compel us to learn more about what people are doing in other cities - across the country or around the globe. It's all part of learning from each other and creating an international design dialogue."

RMJM Hillier is the North American division of RMJM, the world's eighth-largest architectural practice with more than 1,200 professionals in 15 offices in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

The firm used 10 criteria, including architecture awards, "green" design and public transit systems, to select the 10 cities that it deemed to be leading the way in design policy and practice. Other factors included the presence of museums and universities with design programs, employees in "creative industries," housing and community design awards and buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Then the firm commissioned Zogby International, a public opinion and research firm, to interview more than 1,000 residents of those cities about architecture and design issues and used those results to help determine the final rankings.

Baltimore did not make the Top 10 because it does not have as good a public transit system as some other cities and "has been slow to adopt sustainable design techniques," according to the report. As of May, the report said, Baltimore did not have as many buildings certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council as the cities in the Top 10, and it does not have many schools with design or architecture programs.

Baltimore was named a "city to watch" because of recent efforts by elected officials to make it cleaner and greener, attract more employees in the creative industries and continue revitalizing the waterfront, among other factors. The report specifically mentioned Global Harbors, the recent documentary broadcast on Maryland Public Television that showed how the redevelopment of Baltimore's Inner Harbor has influenced planners in more than 100 other port cities.

Phoenix was included for its potential to serve as a leader in "desert sustainability," and Minneapolis was praised for adding "more than $500 million in museum and theater space, arty hotels and buzz-worthy restaurants."

Although they didn't make the Top 10, the report said, Baltimore, Phoenix and Minneapolis "have demonstrated a strong sense of design intelligence and are well positioned to become future forces on the national scene."

Now that it has established a base of information, RMJM Hillier may continue to monitor U.S. cities and issue a revised list every year, said communications manager Melinda Sherwood.

Design center

More than 75 architects, educators, planners and others turned out Thursday to attend a public brainstorming session for people who would like to see the formation of a local "design center" or "urban center" for those interested in design issues.

The meeting was sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects and others to gauge the level of support for a design center comparable to those in many other cities. Organizers said they were pleased to see that many relatively young architects came to the meeting.

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