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Recession Brings New Architectural Challenges to Midwest Cities

By Steven Rosen · March 24th, 2010 · The Big Picture
As the Great Recession grinds on, one unusual aspect has been its impact on urban architecture.

We see less privately financed construction — certainly far fewer single-family homes, office and retail buildings — and more ideas about urban deconstruction. Cities are concerned with rethinking what they have that is now vacant, derelict and a drain on resources.

It used to be such property was considered a resource for future brick-and-mortar redevelopment. In other words, growth. Now, increasingly, people are thinking about such vacant land and abandoned structures as permanent greenspace.

In a way, this is a new and interesting frontier for landscape architecture — it isn’t just about finding appropriately attractive horticulture for parks anymore. now it’s dealing with such concepts as “smart decline,” “urban wilderness,” “urban downsizing,” “land banking” and “urban sustainability.” This is something new — it’s different from reserving some urban space for parks/recreation and building on everything else.

In such industrialized Midwest cities as Detroit, Flint, Youngstown and Cleveland, there has been increased activity along this front. An organization devoted to Midwest urban revival, Great Lakes Urban Exchange (www.gluespace.org), has been serving as a clearinghouse for information on this nascent movement and provides links to reference material.

Actually, the urban-downsizing (or, as they’re calling it, “rightsizing”) movement in Detroit has been in the news there this month, because Mayor Dave Bing has endorsed it.

The plan is to tear down 10,000 empty structures over three years in the 139-square-mile city. The city also wants to move residents out of isolated sections that aren’t worth the cost of maintaining.

“There are going to be areas in the city where there are no homes, no buildings, no commercial entities,” Bing told the Associated Press. “we’ve got to figure out what to do with that.”

In Youngstown, according to www.americancityandcounty.com, the city — once a major steel producer — has offered some homeowners up to $50,000 to relocate to more sustainable neighborhoods. In Flint, a Michigan city built up when the auto industry was booming, a remark made by the mayor last year — “shutting down quadrants of the city” as a way to marshal resources, according to Flint Journal — has set off a debate.

And in Cleveland, the Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and Neighborhood Progress Inc. of Cleveland have been working on a plan that, the Plain Dealer says, would have “streets crowded with boarded-up houses become oases of broad lawns and urban gardens.”

if there’s one thing being left unaddressed here it’s whether there’s a need for suburban downsizing, too (or instead). That would mean getting rid of some of the unsustainable new subdivisions and commercial development that have fueled exurban growth. The National Vacant Properties Campaign has said “rapid growth on the fringes of many metropolitan regions has sucked development from urban cores and inner-ring suburbs, leaving abandoned buildings and vacant properties.”

A lot of this growth has been based not on population need but real-estate speculation — developers continually building further and further out, trying to profit by luring people to follow. The recession has shown the bankruptcy of that “growth.”

Because of their environmental impact, these areas are unsustainable whether or not they are occupied. It’d be great to see regional architects and planners get together to find a way (a design competition?) to reduce the development and turn areas into sensitively designed “suburban wilderness.” And there are vast swaths of big cities waiting for the people who live there now.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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