Mayor Joe Riley’s greatest legacy as far as city design might not be even found in Charleston — but in hundreds of other cities across the country.

In 1986, Riley had a light bulb go off.

He knew mayors weren’t trained as traffic engineers, architects or urban planners, yet by virtue of their office they had real power to promote or discourage all types of construction within their cities.

He also realized mayors were quick studies, and if they could be given a crash course in matters of city design, they could use their new knowledge to push back at ill-conceived plans.

He wrote a letter to architect Jaquelin Robertson, then dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture and suggested creating a special institute.

“The more sensitive the mayor is to good urban design, the issues of livability, scale, diversity, etc., the more willing and able the mayor will be to help develop higher quality,” his letter said.

The Mayors Institute on City Design was formed, and it since has educated more than 1,000 mayors from all 50 states. More than 700 architects, planners and other design professionals have taken part in at least one session.

The sessions lasts about two to three days, involves about eight to 10 mayors and a similar number of design professionals. Each mayor presents a specific problem or challenge in his or her city and then the group brainstorms about possible solutions.

Trinity Simons, the institute’s director, says at least one session has taken place in Charleston in recent years.

“Mayor Riley kicks off the event with a keynote at the City Gallery, overlooking the waterfront park and the harbor,” she said. “When he talks about beauty, and how if we’re lazy about city building, we’re giving citizens a less nourishing environment for their lives, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.”

During the institute’s very first session, the mayor of Allentown, Pa. was told his city’s renovation of an abandoned clothes plant should be residential — not commercial — so it didn’t bleed life from the city’s main street. The mayor suddenly asked for the institute to break so he could call back home and tell his staff to shift gears.

Five years ago, the American Architectural Foundation named an award after Riley to recognize mayors committed to excellence in urban design.

Earlier this year, the foundation gave Riley its National Medal for Design Leadership for his “unequaled” work.

During the ceremony in Washington, Riley appeared on a video that showed the dozens of places in Charleston that were infused with new life. There was far less footage of other cities, where mayors have helped bring about similar successes because of Riley and the institute, but the mayor’s observation could have applied to all of them.

“The city,” he said, “should be a place where everybody’s heart can sing.”

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