Mixed-use development, high density, and innovative architecture that fosters social interaction—these are Maurice Cox's ingredients for a great city. He should know. Having grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Cox went to school in Manhattan and then moved to Florence, Italy, for 10 years. Those years living, teaching, practicing, and people-watching in Florence showed him that architects can effect major change through politics. “I was fascinated that a designer could advance an agenda through public office and that architecture was heavily debated in the public arena,” he says of that period of discovery. It was architect-cum-public servant Thomas Jefferson who lured Cox back to the United States in 1993. “I was attracted to Charlottesville, Va., and the University of Virginia, but I was mainly fascinated by Jefferson,” he explains. In no time, he was involved in local development issues, and after several terms on the city council, Cox was elected mayor in 2002. His platform was simple: “Urban design based on density.”
In quaint downtown Charlottesville, where some areas hadn't seen new construction for years, proposals for mixed-use development and higher density seemed extreme. As Cox learned by trial and error, “Citizens can make incredibly informed decisions if they are educated at a pace that allows them to absorb information and respond to it.” In other words, trying to rush things doesn't work. As mayor, Cox instigated citywide replacement of commercial zoning with a mixed-use master plan. His ordinance tripling allowable housing densities also passed. Now out of office, he continues to pursue public support by encouraging participation. “The democratic process of designing in public gives you the authority and consent of the citizens,” he says.
In practice with his wife and two other partners at RBGC Architecture, Research & Urbanism, Cox still advocates for smart city planning and design. He also counsels other city officials on how to “equate design with quality of life,” adding, “It's the role designers can play in politics ... where the public looks forward to and is persuaded by big ideas.”