We had the good fortune of connecting with Howard Blackson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Howard, Let’s talk about principles and values – what matters to you most?
Every urban design decision is made within a range of outcomes. Such as with tuning strings on a guitar, from too sharp or too flat, each string (decision) has a place that works better with the strings next to it. When coordinated, they work together to make a pleasing sound. Trying to achieve that balance, or harmony between the new and the old, is a principle I use when addressing design at the building/lot, block/street, and neighborhood/community. Aspiring towards equilibrium, or harmony, is the most appropriate urban design response for a neighborhood to achieve its Equity, Environmental, and Economic Sustainability goals. The rest of my design principles are in the Charter for the New Urbanism, which helped to revitalized cities and make mixed-use, walkable urbanism a thing.
Personally, I value connecting with my community the comes with knowing my neighbors, the shopkeepers, school administrators, the brewer and chefs, church clergy, and various people I see throughout the week. And, daring San Diegans to live outside in San Diego is something I try to promote in my work, because it’s the best way to experience our city.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I am fortunate that I found my professional passion within the career I was already practicing. Meaning, I graduated from college and began working in urban design and planning as a means to financially support traveling and surfing the world. It allowed me to live in Hawaii, Singapore, and South Korea, and to visit all the places in between. About 8 years into my career, I was confronted with a unique job in SE Asia to plan new towns for people that didn’t have cars. I realized I had no idea how to design for humans, but was good at designing for the industrialized nature of my Southern California culture… cars and suburban sprawl. So, I remembered that Mike Stepner, San Diego’s planning director, was planning for Transit-Oriented Development for the nation’s first modern light-Rail line. I found Peter Calthorpe’s book, The Next American Metropolis, and it completely changed my thinking and approach to my own profession. At the time, mixed-use walkable urbanism was a radical idea, but it made sense for the task at hand and how I wanted to design towards the future. Calthorpe partnered with Andres Duany to form the Congress for the New Urbanism, and Leon Krier was their guru/mentor. The challenges have changed over time. But 20+ years ago I was Don Quixote to my suburban sprawl making colleagues, a rebel or outcast. Making a brand from that role was difficult but also unique because if someone wanted what I was selling, I was the only person in town who offered it. Today, everyone claims to make mixed-use walkable urbanism and my role has shifted to being older, conventional wisdom. The challenge has reversed itself, but I have the advantage of being wiser, better at my craft, and with a portfolio of built projects that perform well despite the warnings of failure just a decade ago. The brand I promote is to deliver great places that people love. Life is hard enough without your city or architecture making it harder for you to find the front door. Clear, balanced, well-designed places should be accessible to everyone… that’s the story I prefer to sell.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
The best place to be in San Diego is next to the water. Our beaches, bays, and canyons and creeks are lovely year round. Places like Fathom Bistro and Bali Hai on Shelter Island, or Belmont Park in Mission Beach, and National City’s new marina spots are my favorite places to hang out. We take friends who visit to Taco Shops throughout the city, Lola 55 being a favorite taco/bar combo. It is that last, soppy, wet bite of a Cojitas carne asada burrito, that hoppy zing of a South Park Brewery IPA, and that hiss of wind off a breaking wave while airplanes rumble overhead are what make San Diego unique to me.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Michael Stepner, FAIA, FAICP, was instrumental as a mentor in enabling me to have a voice early in my career. I tell him that I am going to burn all of his credibility he had built over his career as San Diego’s City Architect, City Planning Director, and NewSchool of Architecture + Design Dean. His time, support and collaboration gave me an opportunity to insert my views on important San Diego topics as a young professional. Andres Duany and Leon Krier, bold and provocative voices on architecture and urban theory in the 20th century, have freely and graciously given me the tools to apply my ideas in places across the world. I am humbled by their confidence and time because they truly did bring the ‘human-scale’ back to city building. And, my wife, Kristin Blackson, for providing our daughters and I a home while working full-time.