Archive for the ‘Architecture and Urban Development’ Category


This essay will appear in Grace Lee Boggs’ Living For Change column of the Michigan Citizen.

Manufacturing can save our cities.  We should not view it only as dying.   Instead, we must rethink it within a “community-scaled” framework that produces products, jobs, skills, relationships, and stronger neighborhoods.

The familiar narrative about manufacturing in the U.S. begins at the turn of the 20th century.  Manufacturing gave us prosperity.It gave us global economic power. It created a robust middle class.  It ramped up at unprecedented scales to meet the demands of mass consumption, particularly in the automobile industry.  Cities like Detroit (“Arsenal of Democracy”) and Philadelphia (“Workshop of the World”) were hailed as success stories of the Industrial Revolution.

This revolution did not last forever.  Deindustrialization began in the post World War II years.  With automation the number of workers required on the line declined significantly.  As the labor movement grew in strength, companies left for the suburbs. Today corporate urban flight extends overseas, and the bastions of American industry struggle with the devastating effects of disinvestment and rising unemployment rates.

Economic development solutions for de-industrialized cities often fall into two categories.  The first looks at the physical conditions of thousands of derelict buildings sitting idly across the landscape and devises programs that rehabilitate neglected industrial buildings for commercial or residential uses.  E.g.  former factories are converted into luxury condos. The second approach focuses on job creation by building a “knowledge-based” economy. Advances in digital technologies have sped up globalization, placing a premium on jobs in this sector. To become a “knowledge city”, cities invest in research institutions that develop technological innovations in science and engineering. Advocates believe that cities with a strong knowledge economy will increase their global competitive edge.

These prevailing approaches do not leave much room for viewing  manufacturing as part of the equation for urban revitalization .  Should every abandoned factory become high-end residential lofts? Is the knowledge economy the panacea for all de-industrialized cities?  Instead,  manufacturing is caricatured as an industry encumbered with union lobbyists or associated with a dying era, one that should step aside for the Information Age.

A Brooklyn-based non-profit is demonstrating the viability of community-scaled manufacturing.  Through the acquisition, rehabilitation, and management of neglected industrial spaces, Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center has transformed six properties into top-rate facilities.  These buildings mainly house custom-made artisanal operations, like woodworkers, upholsterers, and fabricators.  Over 100 businesses reside in GMDC’s buildings, supporting over 500 workers. The majority of employees are residents from the surrounding neighborhood, showing that community-scaled manufacturing can deter fears of gentrification and displacement.

Economist E.F. Schumacher said, “If you get too many useful machines , you will get too many useless people”. By encouraging  the reuse of supposedly obsolete industrial infrastructure, community-scaled manufacturing is a place-based strategy that  roots manufacturers in their local areas. It addresses workforce development concerns about the lack of skilled workers. The apprentice-style education provides a way for people to discover and develop their own abilities.

Thus manufacturing becomes a step towards broadening  hands-on opportunities for many people. Jobs in trade and craft are good skills;  community-scaled manufacturing recovers the societal value of jobs in which people make things.  Its inherent small-scale demands a localized economy and has the capacity to advance craftsmanship, promote education, and build stronger communities.

Manufacturing can, should, and is taking place in our cities.  More communities are recognizing the need to localize  goods and services.  The local food security movement reflects this understanding.  Community-scaled manufacturing can realize similar outcomes. It has the ability to bring the consumer closer to the producer, decrease the ecological footprint of manufacturing, improve local economies, and encourage self-sufficiency. We can let go of the old way of manufacturing – its polluting factories and menial labor — and embrace the future of community-scaled manufacturing.

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We featured Kian Goh at the Unspoken Borders Conference this year, during the Talk20 session.   Having Goh be part of the conference was fantastic, particularly because of her direct engagement with the queer community on design issues.  One of her projects is featured in our hot-off-the-press publication.  She was also recently interviewed by the American Institute of Architects – be sure to listen to the mp3 of the interview.  She articulates the importance of promoting social justice through design.  Though she specifically speaks to an architectural audience, her words resonate well with other design fields.

Detroit’s abandoned Chin Tiki restaurant has been razed.  This New York Times article alludes to rumors about a new hockey arena planned by the Ilitches. Yikes. The last thing that area needs is another big development. The Cass Corridor, once home to Detroit Chinatown, is a portal to downtown Detroit and imposing a large sports stadium will further hurt the already-damage the urban fabric of the neighborhood.  There’s no doubt that Chin Tiki participated in the exoticism of Asian cultures yet there seems to be a loss of historical significance  and cultural memory resulting from its absence.

…the loss of Chin Tiki is an example of bad city planning…with the right people behind it, Chin Tiki could have been a downtown success story, like the once-mothballed Cliff Bell’s, the deco-style jazz club nearby that reopened recently.

More urgently, Detroit should steer away from relying on big box entertainment venues placed in the heart of the city, where a tangle of freeways already intersect once-intact neighborhoods. What Detroit needs is to find a new direction for the economy, one that could foster small local businesses, less auto-dependent infrastructure, and even promote urban agriculture/community gardens.

This is one of the few, if only, student-run conferences at PennDesign that explicitly explores the intersection of race, politics and design. The theme, “Ecologies of Inequality”, investigates the systems and institutions that create and perpetuate disparities in public health, transportation, economic access and spatial disenfranchisement. It will also feature projects that are using design to develop new systems of equality and justice.

We’ve got an amazing line-up, so check out the website when registration opens on February 15.

The Philly Chinatown community is once again fighting to maintain their survival.  Threats to Chinatown’s future began as early as the projects that brought the Vine St. Expressway (I-676), Market East and the convention center  during the urban renewal period.  Because of the fast-track nature of the casino proposal, the community and its allies are put in a tough position to respond quickly, and the op-ed sums up the questionable package put forth by the mayor. Perhaps Philly activists can take a cue from Detroit’s anti-casinos struggle. Detroit former mayor Coleman A. Young challenged the anti-gambling activists to go beyond merely protesting the construction of casinos and to answer the question: if not casinos, what kind of development could save our city?

Thanks to Joanie for sharing this op-ed with me.

IT’S HARD TO imagine how answering a call to revitalize American cities could go wrong for Philadelphia, but somehow it happened.Last month, the Nutter administration submitted a $2.6 billion wish list for President-elect Obama’s economic stimulus package. Out of 400 cities, Philadelphia ranked No. 2 in the amount of money requested. And second on the city’s list (in dollars) was $125 million for the redevelopment of Market East in anticipation of a proposed casino.

Never mind that city officials rushed through a rezoning process saying the casino itself would be the catalyst for development in the area. Never mind that four months later, there isn’t even a plan in place. Continue Reading »

This just came across my inbox! I’m very excited to see Obama and efforts to promote investment in urban infrastructure. Someone has also put up a website that lets you vote on specific urban policy issues. I’m not sure whether this site is officially connected to Obama’s administration, but it’s worth checking out. Maybe if there is enough internet traffic, it will pick up on Obama’s radar screen!

Obama to Create White House Office of Urban Policy

November 12, 2008 8:59 AM

On National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” yesterday, longtime Obama family friend and Obama-Biden transition team co-chair Valerie Jarrett said that the president-elect would, as pledged during the campaign, create an Office of Urban Policy.

Jarrett said the office would “have a comprehensive approach to our urban development,” who will be an “advocate for cities” within the White House, taking “all the variety of different federal programs and help target them in a logical and systematic way.

“For those of us who have worked in city governments across the country, we recognize how invaluable that person will be,” she said.

Obama discussed this idea in June in a speech before the U.S. Conferen.

“Yes, we need to fight poverty,” he said. “Yes, we need to fight crime. Yes, we need to strengthen our cities. But we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution. Because strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America. That is the new metropolitan reality and we need a new strategy that reflects it -– a strategy that’s about South Florida as much as Miami; that’s about Mesa and Scottsdale as much as Phoenix; that’s about Stamford and Northern New Jersey as much as New York City. As president, I’ll work with you to develop this kind of strategy and I’ll appoint the first White House Director of Urban Policy to help make it a reality.”

– jpt

UPDATE: ABC News Polling Director Gary Langer points out that Obama lost small towns and rural areas by 8 points, won suburbs by a scant 2 points, and won cities (population 50,000+) by 28 points, 63-35 percent. (That includes a 59-39 percent margin in cities with a population of 50,000-500,000, and an even wider 70-28 percent margin in cities with more than 500,000 residents.)

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Huma Khan

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My letter to the editor in response to the Architecture Issue of the NY Times Magazine was published. In it, I had expressed disappointment at the lack of perspectives from landscape architects, and the recognition of the influence of landscape architecture among our favorite “starchitects” whom were prominently featured in several articles. Maybe they’ll come out with a Landscape Architecture Issue!

Letter to the Editor, NY Times Magazine:

The architecture-themed issue, “The Next City” (June 8), was a wonderful exploration of how today’s cutting-edge architectural firms, like OMA and MVRDV, are exploding the boundaries of conventional architecture. However, I would have liked to have seen perspectives from landscape architects, or what some refer to as “landscape urbanism.” Even architects like Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi and Stan Allen are turning toward landscape architecture to infuse and renew their own architectural-design strategies. Planning cities by single buildings was, and continues to be, a shortsighted strategy. To truly design our urban centers, we must now think of the city as a landscape of infrastructure (transportation, utilities) and systems (ecological, social, institutional).

I was disappointed to hear that Detroit’s Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced the sale of 92 city parks last month. Many of these parks are probably small, abandoned and surrounded by other empty lots. Reportedly, the city wants to generate some revenue and spark development by selling these pocket parks.

There are enough vacant properties to stimulate development in Detroit, and I don’t see why the city can’t examine other approaches to revitalizing areas that are not designated parkland. Turning to parkland reveals a sense of desperation. It’s probably true that many of these parks are eye-sores and hardly ever used (what child would want to play on rusted, broken swings?), but selling off a city’s parks, no matter how small, is a short-sighted approach to city planning.

Whether it’s due to poor leadership, too much bureaucracy, or lack of resources, it’s unfortunate that the city is unable to improve these neighborhood parks. With the elimination of these neighborhood parks, the city cannot bank on the larger city parks (Belle Isle, Palmer Park, Rouge Park) to attract more residents, especially without an adequate public transportation system. During my experience working with youth who lived in northeast Detroit, few, if any, had even been to Belle Isle, which is considered one of the most well-known parks of Detroit.

Coincidentally, I’ve been researching the history of Detroit parks and greenspaces for my landscape theory class. As cities grew with Industrialization in the late 19th century, pioneering planners, such as Frederick L. Olmsted, advocated for the integration of public park space, in order to promote the public and environmental health of urban centers. In 1921, Detroit had become a national leader in park and recreational activities and hosted the annual convention for the National Association of Park Administrators. Hundeds of park administrators from around the country flocked to Detroit to learn how its park system accommodated a growing populace, and to view Belle Isle’s spectacular architecture and park design. (Though Belle Isle has been stripped to its bare essentials, with the closing of the zoo, aquarium and other attractions within the last 10 years).

I’m not necessarily arguing for the city to seek a return to the early 1900s because we clearly live in a different social and urban context today. But I do support innovative and visionary leadership to city planning and repairing the fabric of our urban communities. What would it look like if the city partnered with the local community to identify the needs of their neighborhoods? How can communities self-strategize to bring and maintain resources in the city? What does the city value, and how do those values manifest the kind of development we are encouraging in the city? Can we invite city designers and planners to rethink Detroit?

Click below for the list of neighborhood parks for sale: Continue Reading »

Earlier this week, an article in the Detroit News broke a story about Ilitch Holdings purchasing the Detroit Masonic Temple in the Cass Corridor neighborhood. For those unfamiliar with Detroit power names, the Ilitches own pretty much all the major entertainment and sports real estate in the city, as well as the Little Caeser’s pizza business. It’s no doubt that when the Ilitches put in money in an area, the neighborhood will transform.

The Cass Corridor (not to be mistaken, or replaced by, “Midtown”) definitely needs some major uplift.  Perhaps the Ilitches will bring enough resources to bring the beautiful Masonic Temple to its fullest grandeur. Question for me is, how is the neighborhood going to change with the Ilitches as its newest resident?  I used to live in the Cass Corridor, and the news gives me mixed feelings. I don’t mind big developers who want to put resources in a cash poor area, but this kind of transformation usually comes with the heavy, unrelentless hand of gentrification. Since leaving Detroit, I have been given the opportunity to observe how various paces of gentrification is playing out in urban communities like Brooklyn, DC and Philadelphia. At times it is very quiet, taking its time over a span of 15 years, like the neighborhood I stayed in Brooklyn. Or, it takes place in the jolting changes  in areas of northeast DC, where people (non-residents) wouldn’t even give it a second’s thought to go to those neighborhoods three years ago.

The Cass Corridor can’t remain what it is currently, where vacant lots and abandoned buildings remain and where the police dump homeless folks, drug addicts and other people falling through the system’s cracks. Nor do I advocate for the presence of the Ilitches, whose impact may repeat the kind of gentrification that occurred under the shadows of Detroit Tiger’s Comerica Park stadium, erasing historic Brush Park, a once-predominately black neighborhood now largely replaced with cookie cutter new urbanism architecture.

It would be shameful if we can’t recognize the neighborhood in five years. The kind of “gentrification” the Cass Corridor needs is the kind that we have few models of, and the closest thing I can point to is the type of development that Avalon Bakery has brought into the Cass Corridor.  The owners set up shop on a blighted city block, fostering five more local businesses to open their doors on the same street. Today, there are people walking, bustling, biking, taking care of each other on the block.

The Cass Corridor is also hotbed of amazing community initiatives that are doing more than just transforming the way the neigborhood looks. The Cass Corridor is home to Detroit Summer, Back Alley Bikes, the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation, a slew of community gardens, and the historic Detroit Chinatown. I hope that these community entities will get together to put some stakes in the ground, and secure a strong community structure.

More for full text of article: Continue Reading »