Meet the Next American Vanguard: Gary Gaston

An interview with Gary Gaston, design director of the Nashville Civic Design Center and a Lecturer at the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design.

Gary Gaston in Nashville.

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Next American Vanguard is the only annual conference dedicated to enlightening, inspiring and networking the next generation of urban leaders. For two days in May 2009 and 2010, two such groups of leaders had the opportunity to network with each other, engage with experts in their field, hear from seasoned changemakers and jumpstart their ideas for improving cities. But the Vanguard’s work continues year-round in the government offices, nonprofits, corporations and communities they work in. Each Monday leading up to the 2011 conference, which will take place in May, we will feature an interview with a member of the Vanguard. To read more of these interviews, click here. To learn more about eligibility, click here (the application period will begin in early 2011). To read a recap of the 2010 event, click here.

Gary Gaston is the design director of the Nashville Civic Design Center and a Lecturer at the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design. He was a principal contributor to the Center’s book The Plan of Nashville: Avenues to a Great City, published by Vanderbilt University Press in 2005.

What is your typical workday like?

We are a small organization so I’m involved in almost everything we do. One of the best ways I describe my job as Design Director is that it’s like doing marketing or PR for good urban design in the city. It is very hectic – perfect for someone that loves multi-tasking. I have about 20 different things going on simultaneously every day – absolutely never a boring moment. A typical day includes: email correspondence; phone calls from reporters and concerned citizens; scanning local and national media for urban design related articles related to our work, coordinating with Metro departments and other non-profits on current and future projects, overseeing design studio staff and interns, planning for monthly programs, speaking at events, attending committee meetings, grant writing, fundraising, and whatever else may arise. In addition, my role as a Lecturer with the University of Tennessee College of Architecture + Design keeps me active with student work based in Nashville, essentially a laboratory that promotes innovative new projects.

Why do you do the work you do?

I could never have asked for a better job – I love what I do! I do this work because I see the impact we are having in Nashville. I know that 20 years from now, I will look back and confidently say that it really did play a role in shaping a much better city.

What is your proudest achievement?

My single proudest achievement is the work I did on The Plan of Nashville: Avenues to a Great City, published by Vanderbilt University Press in 2005. The book was a product of a process that involved 50 public meetings and over 800 people and consumed two and a half years of my life. The Plan expressed a 50-year vision for our city and established 10 Principles to guide development in the future.

I distinctly remember walking through the checkout line at Borders on a Sunday morning and seeing for the first time the book I had created lying there in the “local interest” section, feeling this gushing smile come across my face, thinking for the first time “there’s my book – in a bookstore!”

Who in your city inspires you the most?</b

I’m most inspired by people who work hard to make the city a better place, whether that’s through volunteering or philanthropy. During my time in Nashville I’ve been inspired by so many it would be impossible to name them all. A very special few who have inspired my work include: Betty Brown, Bill Barnes, King Hollands, Berdelle and Ernest Campbell, Mike Fitts, Ed Cole and Scott Chambers.

What is your favorite thing to do in your city?

I love attending Nashville’s awesome neighborhood events, including the Germantown Street Festival, Oktoberfest, Tomato Festival, Wine on the River, Hot Chicken Festival. These bring people out to walk and interact with one another, reminding me of what one of our main goals is with our work – to create beautiful streets and successful public spaces that are pedestrian friendly, safe and contribute to the life of the city.

What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?

I’ve had several amazing mentors that pushed me both academically and professionally, particularly Marleen Davis, Mark Schimmenti, TK Davis and John McRae all with the University of Tennessee Knoxville; as well as, Maurice Cox, former Director of Design for the National Endowment for the Arts. My time spent in Philadelphia this past May with the Next American Vanguard was truly inspiring – learning about the work of so many wonderful people really motivated me to continue pushing the quality of my own efforts.

Nationally, it has been refreshing to see the work of Shelly Poticha, Shaun Donovan, Ray LaHood and Rocco Landesman.

What is the biggest challenge of your work?

The biggest challenge is that we have to constantly push to make sure that things are done right. Good design is not something that most people value when a project is being planned – but the lack of good design will be what they complain about after it is done. We have to be there at the beginning to advocate and champion the benefits of good planning, urban design, architecture, transportation infrastructure, landscaping, public art, etc. Most importantly, I want people to realize the value all these things bring– economic development, tourism, improved quality of life and improved health.

What would you like to have achieved in ten years?

In ten years I hope to be doing what I am now, but on an expanded basis. I’ll have completed my master’s degree in Community Development and Action, and as a professor will be teaching design students the important role they can play in helping build strong neighborhoods, communities and cities. I’ll have a couple more books under my belt, and Nashville will be considered a model for good urban design, sustainability and healthy living across the country.

What would be your advice to young people who want to make a difference in their cities?

Get involved with something you are passionate about — volunteer for a non-profit that is actively helping change your city. It is amazing how much of a difference you can make, how much you will learn, and where it could take you in the future.

How would you define the “Next American City”?

The Next American City is a progressive forward thinking place. It is open to change, embraces people’s differences,and promotes; good design, public transportation, healthy living practices, innovation, environmental, economic, and social sustainability. In essence, it is a good example of the Ten Principles from The Plan of Nashville.

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