Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 16 – 30)

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Shades of Green’s 630-square-foot Pacific Heights rooftop garden / Ive Haugeland

San Francisco Rooftop Terraces That Rise Above It All The San Francisco Chronicle, 6/16/17
“Just in time for summer, three local landscape designers share the San Francisco rooftop terraces they’ve transformed from barren wastelands to inviting urban escapes.”

Planned WWI Memorial Would Harm Historic Park, TCLF ArguesCurbed, 6/20/17
“It shouldn’t be any surprise that The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) is pushing against the National Park Service’s planned WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C.”

Lack of Coordination on Obama Center, Tiger Woods Golf Course Threatens Jackson Park RedesignThe Chicago Tribune, 6/23/17
“Before he became America’s foremost landscape architect, shaping Chicago’s Jackson and Washington parks as well as New York’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted was a fervent abolitionist.”

Creating a Garden Oasis in the CityThe New York Times, 6/23/17
“Samira Kawash and Roger Cooper bought their Park Slope brownstone five years ago with the idea of giving big dinner parties and enjoying lazy afternoons in the extra-large backyard.”

Highland Park’s First ‘Green’ Stormwater System CompletedThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 6/26/17
“The first, and so far only, green infrastructure solution to flooding in Highland Park’s valleys is completed along Negley Run Boulevard — a 1,100-foot bioswale that will intercept an estimated 600,000 gallons of water running off pavement annually.”

This Is the Landscape Architect Nantucket’s Elite Have on Speed DialArchitectural Digest, 6/27/17
“Neighbors on Nantucket’s eastern end have more than faded red chinos and a desirable zip code in common; many have landscape artist Marty McGowan, too.

South Brooklyn Waterfront: A Model for Urban Manufacturing

Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green

The Wall Street Journal reports that 79,000 people work in manufacturing in the New York City metro area, down from 190,000 in 1990. However, the long downward trend may be ending: manufacturing employment increased by 1,300 over last year.

Perhaps some of that uptick is the result of the city government’s efforts. Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city and state leaders have focused on revitalizing the city’s manufacturing economy, preserving what’s left of it in places like the Garment District and building up existing clusters of industrial production. In a tour of the Sunset Park neighborhood in the South Brooklyn waterfront, as part of the American Planning Association’s annual conference, we learned about the efforts of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which manages industrial properties owned by the city.

There couldn’t be a more appealing locale for the rebirth of American urban manufacturing than the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which was built before World War I to support the war effort. In some 4-million-square feet spread over two buildings — each the size of the Empire State building if it was laid flat on the ground — there are 110 businesses, employing 3,500 in manufacturing and distribution.

Brooklyn Army Terminal / Crain’s Business

As seen from the tour, contemporary manufacturing looks much different from the big factories of the past. Small urban manufacturers are making everything from salad dressings and luxury clothes to 3D printed objects and advanced technological parts.

Out of the 3.1 million square feet now online, there is a 90-plus percent occupancy rate, explained Will Stein, an official with NYCEDC. He said an additional 500,000 square feet will soon be operational. “Every New York City Mayor has a project at the Terminal. Mayo de Blasio’s project is this expansion.”

In addition to using the traditional metrics, NYCEDC evaluates possible tenants based on “how many manufacturing jobs they offer, the quality of the jobs, benefits, and opportunities for growth.”

Coming in September is the DIY TechShop, which will feature 3D printers and CNC machines. “It will be like a gym membership. Members can use the machines and other services.”

The Terminal is incredibly accessible. For workers, the subway express stop is a 5-10 minute walk, and there’s a nearby ferry terminal. There are many options for freight transit as well. “We are close to the Gowanus Expressway, and the rail line is connected to the yard.”

Work is underway to make the 100-year-old building designed by architect Cass Gilbert even more sustainable. “We put in energy-efficient windows and solar panels on the roof. We are adding LED lighting throughout the building and motion sensors inside to reduce energy waste,” explained the Terminal’s Dave Aniero.

The building itself has a fascinating history. At the height of World War II, there were some 30,000 workers moving ammunition, supplies, and soldiers out to war. Trains used to come right through the building. A crane that slides along the top of the Terminal would take material out of the trains, drop them in slots that cantilever out, so they could be easily taken into the building, sorted, and then moved via elevator or crane back to the trains. And, during the Korean War, “Elvis was shipped out of here.”

Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green
Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green
Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green

Nearby, there are other manufacturing and distribution centers. The Bush Terminal, a campus of 11 buildings, has about 50 tenants. The 72-acre South Brooklyn Maritime Terminal, now in development, seeks to bring back marine industries. And there’s the 4-million-square-feet privately-owned Industry City, which will combine commercial office and industrial space.

Bush Terminal, which is also managed by NYCEDC, will soon undergo a $136 million upgrade. But already there are some nice amenities: bike lanes bring workers from the campus and residents of the Sunset Park neighborhood to the new Bush Terminal Piers Park, which was built by NYCEDC, designed by landscape architects at AECOM, and is now managed by the NYC parks department.

Bush Terminal / Jared Green
Bush Terminal / Jared Green
Bush Terminal / Jared Green

“It’s really a neighborhood park. We wanted to improve the public space and make it safer,” said Ryan White, also with NYCEDC.

Bush Terminal Piers Park / Jared Green

What do these projects have to teach other cities seeking to revitalize their urban manufacturing? A lot. Cluster industrial manufacturing and distribution facilities into districts near existing transportation infrastructure. Reuse warehouses and facilities. Make them attractive, sustainable, and accessible to the public. Spend the extra money on bike lanes, sidewalks, and amenities like public parks. They are worth it.

Now NYC just needs to create more affordable housing for the blue-color workers it hopes to lure back to the city. That’s the missing piece in the city’s strategy.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 1 – 15)

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“Houston Bridges,” designed by SWA Group / Godofredo A. Vasquez, Houston Chronicle

The Next Trend in Luxury Apartments Is Having Personal Rooftop Farms for Residents Business Insider, 5/3/17
“The farm-to-table movement is taking hold at a luxury New York City condo complex.”

How the Obama Presidential Center Could Reshape Jackson Park Curbed Chicago, 5/3/17
“The Obama Foundation has finally taken the wraps off of the preliminary design for the upcoming Obama Presidential Center for Chicago’s Woodlawn community.”

The High Line Conundrum Slate, 5/9/17
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A city in the throes of rapid demographic change, where rents are going through the roof, wants to convert an overgrown freight railway into a selfie-ready linear park.”

Making Houston Freeways a Little Less Ugly The Houston Chronicle, 5/9/17
“Billboards notwithstanding, nothing installed along the freeway can be too distracting, the Texas Department of Transportation mandates. It’s a safety issue.”

NYC’s Awards for Excellence in Design Winners Emphasize Resilience Post-Hurricane Sandy Curbed New York, 5/11/17
“The projects this year were lauded for their sustainable designs, for the attention they paid to enhancing the community, and their detail to preserving historic elements (where it mattered).”

Landscape Architecture Gets Its Rightful Due in Exhibit, Book The Chicago Tribune, 5/12/17
“Landscape architecture is all too often viewed as a stepchild of architecture — a mere adornment rather than an integral part of the environment that shapes how we live.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 1 – 15)

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The Chicago Riverwalk / Christian Phillips

Sasaki Unveils Design for Sunqiao, a 100-Hectare Urban Farming District in Shanghai Arch Daily, 4/2/2017
“With nearly 24 million inhabitants to feed and a decline in the availability and quality of agricultural land, the Chinese megacity of Shanghai is set to realize the Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District, a 100-hectare masterplan designed by US-based firm Sasaki Associates.”

New Urban Parks and Public Spaces to See in 2017 Curbed, 4/3/2017
“The urban park, from well-manicured, small lots in residential neighborhoods to massive, city-defining landmarks such as Central Park, have long been centerpieces of city life. But in an age of climate change and evolving urban-planning concepts, parks are being viewed through many different lenses.”

Dallas Approves Construction of a New 3-acre Park in Former Downtown Parking Lot Arch Daily, 4/6/2017
“Joni Mitchell, Dallas has heard you. The City Council of Dallas has decided to un-pave a 3.2-acre parking lot—in place since 1921—and put up a paradise in the form of Pacific Plaza Park.”

Homeowners Want Their Landscapes to Stand Out on the Block Houston Chronicle, 4/7/17
“The backyard was once just about having trees, shrubs and annuals for pops of color. Today local landscape architects and designers say that stylish outdoor spaces are getting as much consideration as the homes they’re attached to.”

The 11th Street Bridge Park Isn’t Just a Vanity Project The Washingtonian, 4/12/17
“The 11th Street Bridge Park will physically connect both sides of the Anacostia River. It’s a 1,200-foot-long, pedestrian-only expanse that will let people stroll between Capitol Hill and Anacostia. The big question is whether it will socially connect them.”

You Should Care About Preserving This Lake Park BridgeMilwaukee Magazine, 4/12/17
“Do Milwaukeeans care about their Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks and the current and potential value they offer? If the answer is yes, the debate about preserving the elegant Ravine Road Bridge in Lake Park deserves the attention of every concerned citizen.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 1 – 15)

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The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative / Image: Michelle & Chris Gerard

America’s First Sustainable Urban Agrihood Is Growing in Detroit Curbed Detroit, 12/1/16
“This week, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) revealed its plans for the first Sustainable Urban Agrihood in the North End.”

Living with the Legacy of Capability BrownThe Telegraph, 12/5/16
“The rolling terrain of this part of flat-landed Lincolnshire is not of the Exeters’ making, but Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s, the world’s most famous landscape architect, who worked on the estate from 1754.”

Will the South Bronx Be Getting a Hudson Yards of its Own? The Architect’s Newspaper, 12/7/16
“New York State has announced it will cap a South Bronx railyard and build a large development on top to energize the borough’s economy.”

Celebrating a Rousing Year, From Public Spaces to Preservation The Chicago Tribune, 12/8/16
“Even without the global spotlight that accompanied last year’s first edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2016 was rousing year for the art of architecture in Chicago.”

Sexy Infrastructure and Other Notable Developments in 2016 The Huffington Post, 12/12/16
“Judging by the heaps of praise for projects, including Governors Island in New York City, Chicago’s Navy Pier, the Lower Rainier Vista at the University of Washington in Seattle, and plans for Dallas’ hugely ambitious 10,000-acre nature district, infrastructure is sexy.”

Environmental Justice a Growing Concern Among Landscape Architects

Shanghai / Flickr
Shanghai / Flickr

Environmental justice, which is about the fair distribution of environmental benefits and costs, is a “growing concern” among landscape architects across the globe, said Kurt Culbertson, FASLA, Design Workshop. For example, in ASLA’s 2016 Student Awards, 68 percent of the award-winning designs focused on environmental and social justice. 

At the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, global perspectives on the subject were offered by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, Turenscape; Senator Kamel Mahadin, ASLA, MK Associates; and Mario E. Schjetnan, FASLA, Grupo de Diseno Urbano.

Good intentions for people and the environment can lead to bad results if they are pursued in an unfair way. Yu focused on villages demolished to create an urban greenbelt around Shanghai. In the name of “good will,” 100 square kilometers, comprised of thousands of villages surrounding the city, were demolished to make way for another population explosion in Shanghai, which has expanded 4 times in 20 years.

Villages were demolished and parks were built, but to what end? “Goodwill may not necessarily lead to a good or justifiable result,” said Yu.

Green space is central to the equitable growth of cities, said Jordanian Senator Mahadin, who was a landscape architect before becoming a politician.

The Jordanian city Aqaba, which has grown by over 180,000 people in recent decades, has handled it’s growth successfully, in part because it is one of the “few cities in the Middle East with a master plan that holds green space” as important.

The master plan holds that the Port of Aqaba – the only one in Jordan – should not be further developed, but held for the people. “Cities are not painted by landscape architects or architects, they are painted by the people.” 

Aqaba 2012 Master Plan / Aqaba Development Corporation
Aqaba 2012 Master Plan / Aqaba Development Corporation

Mahadin made a pitch for more landscape architects to push for environmental justice through politics. “Lead by example.”

“Landscape is a human right,” Schjetnan argued. Landscape has the ability to de-marginalize people and integrate them into society.

Preserving landscape is especially critical in developing-world cities, which are “not developing, so much as developing too quickly through accelerated growth. Four-fifths of the world is like this,” he added, “neither developed nor undeveloped – just growing too quickly.”

In Schjetnan’s Mexico City, and many other exploding cities, landscapes are deteriorating due to worsening problems with congestion, natural resource depletion, water and air pollution, especially for those communities with lower incomes. 

Mexico City expansion / Dual Warez
Mexico City expansion / Dual Warez

In the developing urban world, many more landscape architects and designers, particularly from minority groups, are needed if the goal is more just cities. 

Ending “Code Talk” about Gentrification

Brooklyn anti-gentrification activists / Kirra magazine
Brooklyn anti-gentrification network activists / Kirra magazine

“When we talk about gentrification, there is a lot of ‘code talk’ that is often very subtle,” said Timothy Cassidy, ASLA, a landscape architect with Bernardon, at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. That code talk is a way to hide the racial nature of a process in which a group of mostly-white newcomers move into a neighborhood predominantly made up of people of color, renovate buildings, increase property values, change the character of the place, and then, eventually, displace the existing community.

Cassidy said gentrification is often described as an incremental process, with code words like “renovation, renewal, and revival.” The problem with these seemingly-positive words is they convey the “idea of improvement,” but it’s not clear who these improvements benefit. In many cases, developers, which are “external forces,” jump in and reap the benefits with new high-rise luxury developments, particularly with adaptive reuse projects. Existing communities that may have made incremental improvements over the decades and inadvertently laid the foundation for gentrification lose out and then eventually lose their neighborhood, too.

The problem is most pronounced in the communities nearest the central business districts. This is because of some larger shifts. “The suburbs are now dead. Nobody wants to move into a single family home anymore.” Instead, companies have moved back into downtown cores. And their surrounding neighborhoods, with a range of entertainment options, are now the place to “live, work, and play.” With inner-city neighborhoods now in higher demand, increased competition means neighborhoods once cheap and undesirable are now more valuable. For Cassidy, the ultimate question is: “Can you tell people where to live?”

Unfortunately, existing studies of gentrification may not tell the full extent of the story. James Brasuell, managing editor at Planetizen, went through study after study, pointing out their limitations. For example, an often-cited 2015 report on the state of the housing marked in New York City from the Furman Center at New York University said gentrification was occurring in 15 out of NYC’s 55 neighborhoods. But the researchers made these conclusions looking at only one measure: rents. Furthermore, the report was largely financed by banks who may have an interest in downplaying any of the negative effects of gentrification.

Another study by Governing magazine, also widely cited, showed that gentrification is up 20 percent in 50 cities since 2000, in comparison to only 9 percent over the 1990s. However, he said the study only relied on “inflation adjusted home values and the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees.” And a footnote in the study showed that for a city to be eligible for gentrification it had to be in the bottom 40 percent of household income numbers. “Right off the bat, the study tilts the table.”

Brasuell researched and found all the possible measures used to studies to analyze gentrification. These include average rent, median home values, median incomes, percentage who are renters, population density, housing types, proximity of transit, parks, and schools — which he thought all failed to measure the complex experience of being gentrified. One scholarly study even used fried chicken restaurants and coffee shops as indicators, which he found absurd.

He identified some of the policies that are pro-development, that spur on gentrification. These include: upzoning, which is about expanding the envelope of development options in a neighborhood; regulations that reduce parking; increased redevelopment powers; loan policy reforms; and bonuses developers receive for increasing density.

There are also a set of policies cities can use to mitigate the worst impacts of gentrification, that are anti-development. These include: downzoning, which involves reducing the types of development that can occur; building moratoriums; improved tenants rights; rent control programs; inclusionary zoning that promotes an intermix of affordable housing in development projects; condo conversion protections; tax abatements; community land trusts; limited equity coop housing; and others.

He cautioned that given the complexity of these topics, planning and design media should not simply use terms like investment, revitalization, and redevelopment in their stories. “These empty euphemisms really create more of a problem.”

And that flowed into Cassidy’s broader critique of the prevailing analyses on gentrification. “We need to look at the impact on neighborhood composition and character rooted in community identity. When change occurs, it triggers an emotional response that’s beyond empirical measure. It’s an existential change in which neighborhood familiarity is gone. Your community literally disappears before your eyes, which is emotionally draining.”

Kelly Majewski, Affiliate ASLA, an urban designer at Superjacent in Los Angeles, delved into the ethical responsibility of landscape architects and designers in gentrifying cities. She wondered if the “spirit of a place can guide ethical building.” She said community “authenticity, distinctiveness, and narrative” are worth preserving, even if “change has become a constant.”

If a landscape architect sees gentrification happening in a community, then “it’s too late; policy and planning have already made an impact.” But she also argued that efforts to slow gentrification with projects that try to undertake the “just green enough” approach won’t work. These kinds of park and other public space projects call for making improvements that may please locals, but are not so grand as to attract outsiders. Majewski said “these projects don’t make a ton of sense; they are both inclusionary and exclusionary at the same time.” And, furthermore, how does a landscape architect decide where to stop: will that one extra tree make it too nice?

Designers can ensure they don’t inadvertently contribute to gentrification by working with communities in developing their own visions. “If communities can plan out their vision before a rezoning process, they can get ahead.” She pointed to a planning initiative started by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as a model: the Planning for Livability, Affordability, Community, Economic Opportunity and Sustainability (PLACES) program, which creates a larger role for communities in planning processes. For example, the Bridging Gowanus process and the East Harlem neighborhood plan were empowering and helped ensure that “growth advances community goals.”

In the Q&A, Charles Cross, ASLA, an African American landscape architect with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, stood up and said the “landscape architecture profession must diversify” if it wants to play a greater role in fighting gentrification. In a recent survey of graduating landscape architecture students, African Americans are still at only 3 percent of the student body. Much more work needs to be done to ensure landscape architects look like the communities they are helping.

The Resurgence of Downtown Detroit

John Varvatos boutique, downtown Detroit / John Varvatos
John Varvatos boutique, downtown Detroit / John Varvatos

“The opportunities Detroit has today are a logical evolution from its past mistakes and disinvestment. To an extent, change wouldn’t be possible without that,” explained Kent Anderson, ASLA, founder of KH Anderson, in a tour of downtown Detroit during the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). He added that Detroit native Dan Gilbert, the founder and owner of Quicken Loans, who has bought up nearly 80 buildings downtown over the past decade, is largely responsible for the resurgence today. “Gilbert recognized the time was right for setting a new direction.”

Anderson raced us through a tour of downtown, explaining the history of the area and how the city got to where it is today. We raced in part because almost none of the crosswalks in this still car-centric city alotted adequate time to cross the expansive, multi-lane streets.

The city was founded by the French in 1701 as a fur trading outpost. In the early 1700s, the British took over control. In 1760, they were defeated by the American revolutionaries, but they largely maintained control over the growing city until the end of the 18th century, when the Americans retook it. In 1805, a fire started by a baker destroyed much of the city’s core. August Woodward, who was “trained in classics at Columbia University,” stepped in to create a new urban plan — a hexagonal plan with a set of radials, modeled on Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C.

Woodward Plan / Map of the Week
Woodward Plan / Map of the Week

Many called Woodward a “charlatan and a fool; he was not the most popular guy.” But somehow much of his unique plan was implemented.

Woodward plan aerial, 1920 / State of Fred
Woodward plan aerial, 1920 / State of Fred

Woodward’s plan established small parks as nodes. Only a few of these remain today, Anderson said. In fact, so much was lost to misguided urban renewal efforts, which ran from the 1950s to 1970s. “Urban renewal also destroyed a lot of cultural heritage downtown,” wrecking particular havoc on important African American arts and music communities.

Anderson explained the state of the original immigrant communities — Corktown for the Irish, Chinatown, and Greektown. Only Corktown and Greektown now remain. In the 80s and 90s, Greektown offered the “only nightlife in Detroit.” To lure tourists, they created a “trappers alley, with trinket shops,” which failed. They then went in for casinos, which now frame the narrow streets bustling with restaurants and baklava shops.

Greektown, Detroit / Jared Green
Greektown, Detroit / Jared Green

In rapid-fire mode, Anderson pointed out the fate of many of the towering buildings built many decades ago, during the city’s golden age. The former Wayne County Building, built in the 1880s, is now viewed as a “dinosaur” by the local development community and has sit empty for years.

Old Wayne County Building / Crain's Business
Old Wayne County Building / Crain’s Business

In the late 1950s, a cornice fell off a building downtown, killing a pedestrian. The city demanded building owners secure the cornices on their buildings, but to lower costs many just removed them, as seen in this charismatic but incomplete flatiron building. “If you see a cornice restored today on an older building, it’s most likely fiber composite.”

Detroit's Flatiron building / Flickr
Detroit’s Flatiron building / Flickr

Walking down to the waterfront, we saw a prime example of a “fortress building,” the Renaissance Center, which was home to Ford’s headquarters, and now hosts GM. The building, towering and unfriendly, was another urban renewal effort, built in the 1970s. As race relations hit new lows after the riots and white flight, “there was a fear of cities,” Anderson said, hence it’s fortress-like nature.

Renaissance Center, Detroit / Wikipedia
Renaissance Center, Detroit / Wikipedia

Henry Ford the 2nd decided to bring Ford’s workers back to the urban core in an effort to “stop the decline of downtown, but the building had no connection to anything. Employees would drive in, park in the building, take a tube to their desk, take another tube to the cafeteria, and, then, at the end of the day, drive home.” Anderson called it a “failed” effort, despite a renovation by architects with SOM from 1995-2000, which introduced a somewhat inviting entrance and interior circulation system, and fake palm trees. “It just looks like an assembly line in here; people seem afraid to move the tables.”

Renaissance Center interior / SOM
Renaissance Center interior / SOM

Exiting the rear of the Renaissance Center, we came out at the Detroit Riverwalk, which was created in 2000 to connect the waterfront to Belle Isle, an island park. “It’s highly used, very successful.” We walk through a plaza more-recently created by Hargreaves Associates.

Detroit river boardwalk / Jared Green
Detroit river boardwalk / Jared Green

Then make our way to the vast Philip A. Hart plaza, another urban renewal effort, created by SmithGroupJJR with a fountain and sculpture created by the great Modern artist Isamu Noguchi, and another “failed, lonely space,” unless there is some massive event.

Dodge foundation in Philip A. Hart Plaza, Detroit / Wikipedia
Dodge foundation in Philip A. Hart Plaza, Detroit / Wikipedia

Decades of disinvestment in downtown Detroit means that many of the city’s Art Deco gems escaped the wrecking ball, and now stand as beacons of resurgence, as they attract new shops and cafes in their ground floors and companies in their towers. Entering the Guardian building, the tour group gushed over the intricate Native American motifs carved set in the ceilings. But not everyone was awed: a man who works there saw our tour group and said: “I don’t know why anyone come to see this building; it’s so old and outdated.”

Guardian building, Detroit / Wikipedia
Guardian building, Detroit / Wikipedia

Then on to one of the finest examples anywhere of how landscape architecture can drive a downtown’s resurgence: Campus Martius Park. The park, which occupied a central node in Woodward’s plan, was a central meeting space for over a century, but over 1980s and 90s, it was slowly eviscerated, becoming a glorified traffic circle with a statue. In the early 00s, the Detroit 300, a group representing old Detroit money, invested in creating a new park. The result, which opened in 2004 and was designed by Rundell Ernstberger Associates from Indianapolis, is a dynamic 1.2-acre space, often called “Detroit’s living room,” packed with performance stages, moveable chairs, lush greenery, multiple restaurants, and an urban beach. In the winter, there’s also a skating rink that draws tens of thousands.

Campus Martius Park / Campus Martius Park
Campus Martius Park / Campus Martius Park
Campus Martius Park / Show Me Detroit Tours
Campus Martius Park / Show Me Detroit Tours

For Anderson, Campus Martius Park “provided a glimpse of what was possible,” and served “as the stimulus for getting things started, just before Gilbert committed to downtown.”

Walking up Woodward Avenue seeing every storefront occupied by a hip restaurant or shop, it’s clear how far Detroit has come in the past few years due to a coordinated development effort, largely led by the private sector. “What’s important to understand is it wasn’t one building or so-called impact project this time around, unlike past efforts to revitalize the downtown. This time, it is a strategic approach involving many buildings with an intent to connect them with a network of public and semi-public spaces where everything works together to reveal the unique character of downtown Detroit and transform it.”

To further accelerate the process of turning Woodward Avenue into a live, work, play hub that can draw in people from the outskirts of this 140-square-mile city and the suburbs, a new streetcar, financed by the private sector, is expected to start running later this year. Anderson said Gilbert and other local developers, who are turning old vacant office buildings into apartment buildings that will bring upwards of 5,000 units onto the market, are confident “the entire district will soon be filled up.”

Rendering of M-1 Streetcar line, Woodward Avenue / Next City
Rendering of M-1 Streetcar line, Woodward Avenue / Next City

Indeed, a taxi driver I spoke to on the way to the airport said he had move out of downtown because his rent doubled in the past year in response to new demand. He believes people need to make at least $55,000 a year to live downtown now. But he wasn’t complaining. “Detroit has been waiting a long time for this to happen. I was just shocked they raised the rent so fast.”

Anderson believes after years of failed revitalization efforts, this is Detroit’s chance. “We’ll see how things go over the next five years, but I believe the city has gotten it right this time. Everyone is on the same page for the first time.”

Duany: The Promise of Suburbia Has Been Betrayed

The transect / PlaceMakers
The transect / PlaceMakers

“The promise of suburbia — to live in nature amid the easy flow of cars — has been betrayed. Sprawl is not sustainable; its growth chokes on itself,” argued architect and urban planner Andrés Duany at the Congress for New Urbanism in Detroit.

Duany calls for using New Urbanism, an approach he and others have promoted for the past few decades, in order to “preserve nature.” New Urbanist developments can preserve nature because they can “make cities places people love to live in,” so they stop moving to the suburbs, contributing to sprawl. New Urbanist communities, he argues, are also inherently healthy and just, because there people “walk, so they don’t get fat,” and “you don’t need a car to get around.” In contrast, car-based communities are “un-just,” because the old can’t drive cars and the poor can’t afford them. Some 50 million Americans don’t have cars.

New Urbanism can also result in a more balanced relationship with nature. “In Europe, they had to integrate with nature. In contrast, in America, our relationship with the wilderness has been adversarial.” But Duany argues that if we use his model of the transect, which shows how cities can become denser as they move from untrammeled nature on the peripheries to dense urban cores, “we can bring nature into the city. Wildlife habitat can be assigned everywhere. The transect is also for bringing nature in.”

Sprawl, Duany argued, is rooted in a dendritic, inefficient, car-based system that must be overthrown with a new grid-based, walkable system. Furthermore, it’s one system or the other: “sprawl and new urbanism are incompatible and can’t be intermixed.”

Unfortunately, the “enemy” — sprawl — is backed by a range of “powerful” forces. There are “whole professions, like traffic engineers, who are vested in this system.” The solution is to provide these “administrators” with a new set of guidelines they can manage. “They just want to administer something. Let’s just change the manual, and then we can change what they administer.”

He envisions New Urbanist communities in which there are multiple choices that coincide with human nature, and the stages of life. These communities have a dense core that can sustain nightlife, which is critical for young people, “whose job it is to date and mate.” Once they’ve mated, they find a starter home, perhaps just out of the core. As they grown older and wealthier, they move closer to the periphery, where they have a larger house immersed in nature. Then, when they retire, they move back into a smaller apartment in the urban core.

Furthermore, human nature is to form hierarchies, and New Urbanist communities simply enable that basic tendency. “We can break up communities into wealthy mansions, mid-range, and low-range housing.” But for Duany, the key is they all live near each other in walkable communities, which enables a local economy, e.g. the maid and nanny live walking distance from the mansions. Duany is also all for allowing people to chose whether they want to live in a homogeneous or diverse community.

Duany said New Urbanists have enabled these kinds of neighborhoods by participating in writing the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Hope VI standards, which enabled 270,000 units of affordable housing to be added in a subtle way to mixed-income communities. “We can integrate but keep the housing for the poor to 10-20 percent.”

He concluded that 30-60 percent of Americans want to live in New Urbanist developments where this kind of set-up is possible. “We just need to level the playing field to let the market operate.” In these communities, “life is better; people are more satisfied.”

F. Kaid Benfield, senior advisor to PlaceMakers, and author of the great book People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, followed Duany, making many of the arguments outlined in his book. However, he further emphasized the need to better “integrate nature into the urban fabric,” perhaps going beyond what Duany and the New Urbanist’s transect offers. “We need nature inside cities, the kind that fits well.” For Benfield, that largely means mid-size (8 acres or less) and pocket parks, along with lots of trees, green complete streets, and all other forms of small-scale green infrastructure. As an example of a perfect-sized park, he pointed to Russell Square in London, “which is a great size — just small enough to reach but large enough to escape in.”

While landscape architects and designers may find some things to agree with here, what was left out of this discussion was the idea of cities as ecosystems. University of Virginia professor and author Tim Beatley, with his biophilic urbanism, shows that dense, walkable cities like Singapore and Wellington, New Zealand, can also be more biodiverse and create those rich connections to nature that sustain life for many species, even in cities.

Detroit Halts Its Decline

 

Detroit's Revival / The Bell Towers
Detroit’s Revival / The Bell Towers

In Detroit, Michigan, there has been 50 years of continuous population decline. But that decline finally stopped this year, said Detroit mayor Michael Duggan, to rousing applause, at the Congress for New Urbanism, which met this year in this resurgent rust-belt city. In the 1950s, the city topped 1.8 million people. Last year, it slid to a new low of 677,000 but is now holding steady. A model of the car-centric city, Detroit tops 142 square miles; it can fit San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan within its boundaries. Some 400,000 single family homes had been built within the city limits, because “every car factory worker could afford one.” Now thousands of vacant buildings and lots litter neighborhoods.

The decline of manufacturing coupled with “racist policies” eventually inflicted their toll. Banks red-lined whole swaths of the city, going as far as even building a four-foot wall in one community at 8 Mile and Wyoming to ensure “African Americans would not be allowed to buy homes past there.” After years of injustice, what followed were destructive riots that tore the city apart and further accelerated white flight to the suburbs. By the end of the 60s, “us versus them politics had taken over.”

Today, Mayor Duggan, the first white man elected mayor of the majority-African American city since the mid-70s, with 90 percent of the vote, said the city is “open to everyone, black or white, gay or straight.” The city is moving beyond the divisions of the past with a new agenda that focuses on improving services for everyone and concentrating development in order to create an “authentic Detroit” urban experience.

Duggan said one of the first things he fixed was all the streetlights. Instead of burnt out bulbs, all of Detroit’s streets are now lit at night. He also ensured that ambulances, which used to arrive up to an hour after a resident called 911, now make it in 8 minutes, which is less than the required average time.

Given the wealthy suburbs of Detroit still offer a great draw, “we can’t compete with them.”  Instead, Detroit must offer a new urban experience by leveraging “the tight urban grids” and building in more density. “We want to create more 20-minute neighborhoods” using light-rail, transit-oriented development, and the riverfront. Duggan recruited Maurice Cox, who was planning director for New Orleans and Alexandria, Virginia, to lead these efforts. With Cox, Duggan wants to create an “authentic Detroit experience” that can pull people in from the suburbs and elsewhere.

Duggan also wants to spread the benefits beyond downtown. “We have an enormous responsibility to make sure every neighborhood has a future.”

Carol Coletta, senior fellow at the Kresge Foundation, which has been committed to supporting the city’s resurgence for years, said that as Detroit rebounds, there are already concerns about gentrification. But she argued that “there are a lot of people in Detroit who wouldn’t mind a little gentrification if it results in new houses and shops.”

Coletta pointed to a number of studies, arguing that communities actually must gentrify, given the alternative is often a “slow, often-unnoticed deterioration.” Once that decline sets in, it’s nearly impossible for the community to rebound. “Only 105 communities out of the 1,100 deemed high poverty in 1970 have rebounded over the past 40 years.” And today, there are now 3,000 high-poverty communities, and the number of poor have grown from 2 million to 4 million. “Over the past 40 years, we’ve tripled the number of poor communities and doubled the number of poor, which is an abysmal record.”

To ensure “more poor communities don’t displace poor people with their lack of opportunities,” we need to use “government incentives, foundation funds, and market forces” to increase investment without displacement. “Mixed-income communities are the goal because they increase life outcomes.”

However, moving the poor to wealthier communities in order to create mixed-income places is “slow and expensive.” Instead, she called for a special effort to “ensure low-income neighborhoods benefit new people coming in and to create incentives to get the wealthy to move to poor areas.” With equitable gentrification, “we can accelerate the benefits and share them.” Coletta also called for dramatically increasing the supply of affordable housing in these gentrifying neighborhoods, beyond what Portland, Oregon, and New York City, have accomplished, and called an end to the “just green enough” movement, which calls for adding new parks and other amenities to poor areas, but not any that are so nice they will raise property values.

“The ‘just green enough’ idea is craziness born of real frustration. We need more quality neighborhoods, not less. We need new parks, libraries, trails, gardens, and re-imagined community infrastructure in places that offer good options at all price points. Equity is not about being opposed to thriving, appealing cities. That’s actually central to equity.”