Learning From Where You Live: Q&A with Ray Gastil

"Architecture is Telling Stories About How We Live and What We Want."

By Maya Henry Posted on November 14, 2019

This Monday, November 18 Ray Gastil, AICP will present the David Lewis Lecture on Urban Design to close the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture’s Fall Lecture Series for 2019.

Gastil’s lecture, titled “Learning From Where You Live: Innovation and Connection,” will touch on his five years as Planning Director for the City of Pittsburgh as well as his experience in similar positions in Seattle and New York City.

In advance of Monday’s lecture, COLUMNS sat down with Ray to learn more about his lecture topic and hear about his new role heading the Remaking Cities Institute.

COLUMNS: What does innovation mean for architects and planners?
One of the reasons that we [City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning] called the planning work that was done in Uptown and West Oakland an Eco-Innovation District was that it really means two things at once.  Certainly, the location and some of the businesses are related to innovation in terms of being contemporary tech businesses, in the more traditional meaning, closer to Bruce Katz’ work [at the Brookings Institute].

But with this district, we knew that by using a modified eco-district approach, we were eager to say: THAT is innovative.  And finding creative solutions within the district to address water quality, health and well-being as well as issues related to housing and affordability, that is innovative.

I respect either use of the term, either in reference to the innovation economy in which Pittsburgh is a leader – in things such as artificial intelligence.  But also, similar to sustainability, which has taken on a bigger and bigger meaning, innovation needs to get bigger as well.  The prime architectural objective should be to get it to connect to larger issues.

Those larger issues are things like asking how can we develop inclusive innovation?  How does all this new work actually yield a resilient city in social, as well as economic and technical, sustainability?

COLUMNS: What are you excited about in your new role at the Remaking Cities Institute?  
I’m excited about a lot of things, but primarily the work around innovation and connection that is happening.  I’ve always felt connected to urban design and community development, but also am so strongly tied to transportation and mobility.  My first job out of grad school was at a regional planning association working on a transit-oriented development, so to a large extent that is always part of what I do.

I’m excited with this new position to be looking regionally beyond Pittsburgh’s boundaries and while I’m not a transportation engineer, I think that to actually have the option to use transit depends on having places and experiences that are designed well, and that is where architecture is absolutely critical.

It’s been so much a part of my work that we give people a public realm to move through that is comfortable, attractive, stimulating, and safe. You have to have a street that is activated, and architects do this well.

Downtown centers need to be universally successful, both from a universal design perspective, but also thinking about things like the 8 80 Cities – that if you design for people aged 8-80 you are going to be more inclusive.   What makes the city work when moving around it?  These are all design questions where architects can make a difference.

COLUMNS: How can architects participate fully in this work?
Architecture is so many things now.  How do we genuinely create a new group of buildings?  Create streets that are comfortable?  How do we look at the cultural and not just the ecological?  There are so many ways of looking at the world.

I love the narrative of architecture and the stories we tell through architecture. Architecture is telling stories about how we live and the way we want to live.  As anyone working in the built environment is trying to grasp right now, how are we going to build for people coming and the population increase that is going to be in cities?

What are we doing to address those resource challenges and build truly efficient buildings?  As we see increases in things like passive house construction and microgrids, Pittsburgh is one of the centers of that and I am eager to see it moving forward.

We are a perfect place to be doing that type of work.

RAY GASTIL holds the David Lewis/Heinz Endowments Directorship of Urban Design and Regional Engagement at Carnegie Mellon University. Formerly, he served as City Planning Director for Pittsburgh from 2014. He held similar positions in Seattle and in the Manhattan Office of New York City Planning. The founding director of the Van Alen Institute: Projects in Public Architecture, where he led a program of exhibitions, design competitions, and forums, Gastil has taught architecture and urban design at Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania State University, and University of California, Berkeley. He has lectured and published on urban design, urban development, and waterfronts, focusing on the scale of the street and the district. Recent and current initiatives include rebuilding Pittsburgh’s partnership with communities in neighborhood planning, including the EcoInnovation District, as well the Riverfront Zoning ordinance, which established performance-based incentives along the 35 miles of Pittsburgh’s waterfronts. Gastil is a graduate of Yale University with a Master of Architecture from Princeton University.

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