Celebrating transformative urban design: the Veronica Rudge Green Prize

The bustle of sawing, painting and hammering during the second half of August and video screens everywhere in the gallery in Gund Hall signal the opening of an exhibit showcasing the winners of the 11th Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design. The theme this year is Transformative Mobility, which encompasses physical transportation infrastructure as well as social and economic mobility. The two prize-winning projects—Metro do Porto, Portugal and Northeastern Urban Integration Project in Medellín, Colombia—juxtapose varying approaches, challenges and outcomes and highlight the potential for thoughtfully planned and carefully executed mobility infrastructures to transform cities and their regions. “They end up being a key device for social mobility,” said Dan Borelli, director of exhibitions for the GSD. “Physical systems become social systems.”

The Prize

The Veronica Rudge Green Prize, the foremost award recognizing exemplary urban design, was established in 1986 for the celebration of Harvard University’s 350th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the GSD. It is awarded biennially to a project that has contributed positively to quality of life and the public realm and that offers a humane direction for urban design. “Particularly in this school with its history, to have a social orientation with respect to the award follows more or less naturally,” said Peter Rowe, first chair of the prize and former dean of the GSD. “We don’t see urban design as dissociated from everyday life and the living world.”

Within the broad framework of carefully articulated design interventions that repair and regenerate cities, the prize has celebrated a variety of themes in its 27-year history, from housing to historic renovation of central cities to development of disused industrial sites and ecological recovery. While the projects are models of design excellence and exemplary collaboration, they are also emblematic of issues that face urban areas around the world. Recent recipients include the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project in Seoul (2010), the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle (2007), the Rehabilitation of the Old City of Aleppo (2005), Borneo Sporenburg Residential Waterfront in Amsterdam (2002), and the Favela-Bairro Project in Rio de Janiero (2000). “In all these cases,” said Rowe, “we’re talking about designers that are socially committed to what they were doing in one way or another and that’s what pushed them.”

The mobility narrative

By honoring both the Metro do Porto and the Northeastern Urban Integration Project in Medellín, the Prize frames a narrative about mobility that goes beyond physical movement to encompass social mobility and the reinvigoration of civic space. “After WWII, mobility was always a giant scheme where you tried to solve everything for the metropolis,” noted Prize juror Joan Busquets, professor of urban planning and design. “What we learn from Medellín and Porto is by taking one or two variables you can really control and make big changes into the way that the city is going to be organized, and I feel that is really quite magic and interesting. We are addressing questions we can solve with a clear design strategy.”

Metro do Porto

The origins of Porto, the second largest urban area in Portugal, can be traced to 275 B.C.; the city, nestled in the region where port wine originated, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Metro do Porto is a project of significant scale and complexity: 68 km of new track and 60 new stations were designed and constructed in 10 years. The scope of such an undertaking within a UNESCO site and the incredibly high standard of design are breathtaking.

Juror and professor of landscape architecture Gary Hilderbrand described the historic center of the city, “Like the phenomena we see in some American cities, there’s a kind of hollowed out core. It’s historic and it’s beautiful, but until this metro project came about, not so vital. The jobs are not in the downtown, and over the last generation people had moved to the boarder reaches.” According to Hilderbrand, the introduction of the Metro system was “like reviving the circulation in a human. The center could thrive again.”

Metro do Porto has been a strategically decisive project for shaping the intense demographic change and socio-economic restructuring occurring in the metropolitan area and provides a future template for cohesive and resilient regional change. While mobility plays an important role in achieving these outcomes, the decision to engage the exemplary urban design skills of Eduardo Souto de Moura (Pritzker Prize winner and former GSD visiting professor) underlines the ambitious holistic aims of the project.

Metro do Porto not only connects residents on the periphery with amenities and services in the historic city, it also forges a collective identity through its negotiation of the region’s unique geography and the composition of individual stations in relation to that geography. New stations become opportunities to connect previously segregated neighborhoods within public space rehabilitated to the highest standard. Because of their spatial and material quality, the experience of the stations—as objects within a culturally rich urban landscape and as interior architectures imbued with civic virtues—is exceptional. Metro do Porto exhibits a generosity towards the public realm that is unusual for a contemporary infrastructure project.

Northeastern Urban Integration Project, Medellín

The City of Medellín has a longstanding connection with the GSD: the “Medellín Master Plan” was created in the 1950s by José Luis Sert (dean of the GSD between 1953 and1969) and Paul Lester Wiener. The population explosion during the next half-century included a flood of poor job-seekers who pushed the city’s expansion well beyond the plan’s limits. The uncontrolled growth brought a host of urban problems, including higher unemployment, lack of services in many areas and urban violence owing to a flourishing drug trade.

Juror Anita Berrizbeitia, professor of landscape architecture, explained, “One of the ways to understand the significance of this project is that informal settlements were so not a part of the city that they were not even mapped in the official cartography. You had thousands of people living in conditions where there was no fresh water, no provision for the services of sewers, electricity, etc. It’s not that these areas were excluded; they were absent from any kind of representation of the city.”

Strikingly, over the past decade and a half the city has turned things around. In 2012, Citicorp and the Wall Street Journal named Medellín “Innovative City of the Year” based on its economy, urban development, culture and livability, technology and research, made possible in part because of its great advancement in public transportation. The Metro de Medellín, the only sign so far of the Medellín Master Plan, has become the pride of the city.

The Northeastern Urban integration Project in Medellín, under the design leadership of Alejandro Echeverri (2009 Curry Stone Design Prize), was initiated to harness the opportunities presented by a new cable car connecting three informal settlements to the metropolitan transit system. By leveraging the economic benefits of new mobility infrastructure, the MetroCable has incorporated marginalized communities into the city and made a significant improvement in quality of life for approximately 170,000 residents experiencing severe social inequality, poverty and violence. Travel times to the city center have been reduced from over one hour to less than ten minutes, enhancing employment opportunities, and the boundary between formal and informal city is eroding.

Working with the local communities to conceptualize, develop and construct new public spaces, the designers of the MetroCable have sensitively integrated a mobility infrastructure of substantial scale with various civic, commercial and institutional functions. The project demonstrates that designers can make a significant contribution to the strategic goals of large and socially complex projects by developing processes that promote ownership by the community.

Exhibition and Event

The contributions of the Prize and this year’s award-winning projects are celebrated in the exhibition Transformative Mobilities: Porto & Medellín in the lobby of Gund Hall through October 13. The gallery is divided in two to enable a close examination of each project through images, drawings and videos. In the central discursive space, video commentary from the jury explores key mobility themes. In another video, Peter Rowe discusses the Prize’s history and development.

At the award ceremony on September 3, attended by Souto de Moura, Echeverri, and representatives from each of the Prize locales, jury chair and exhibit curator Rahul Mehrotra (professor and chair of urban planning and design) extolled the perfectly-suited inverse sense of speed and time crafted in each location. “In Porto you move very rapidly on these high speed trains but when you emerge at a station the architecture facilitates a calming down and you emerge into public spaces and parks and you feel a sense of leisure.” Yet from the frenetic environment of Medellín, “when you get into the cable car things just slow down, because that’s the nature of the cable car, and it becomes a moment of contemplation. I think its very beautiful and poetic how in each of these contexts this reversal occurs in terms of the containment and the hurriedness within the station and then the slowness or the speed in the actual moment of transit.”

Considered together, the two vastly different projects highlight how political and popular will and a culture of design can surmount a range of economic, political, cultural and logistical challenges. They prove that, when designed intelligently, these massive infrastructure projects can achieve maximum social impact. View of Medellin from Santo Domingo Library

View of Medellin from the Santo Domingo Public Library, photo by Iwan Baan