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Filtering by Tag: shrinking cities

People versus place, chicken or egg – how and whether to restore America's "older and colder" cities

Related to my post yesterday on the repurpose agenda, I found a bit of give and take in the blogs today with Richard Florida at The Atlantic and Ed Glaeser at the New York Times. People versus place as the focus of restorative investment seems to be the subject; chicken or egg seems to be the challenge. Ed Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor, writes in the Economix column of the New York Times that the bulldozing of shrinking cities would be a pretty good idea. I may agree with him, but there is something in his spirit, as well, that does not feel right. Glaeser recalls the history of settlement of the Midwest since the 1900's and more specifically their emptying later in the century. He refers to the outmigration as a "move to sun and sprawl" as if climate and pavement were the choice. I seem to recall other motivators, like highly competitive tax breaks to corporations and strong anti-union cultures, being the catalyst for those who provided the jobs to move, causing those who needed the jobs to follow. This was not a climate seeking move but a political and economic one. Rather than arguing against benefits to the emptied cities of the North, Glaeser might want to try supporting some more sustainable incentives that might keep people where the infrastructure is, rather than building new infrastructure in the rural south where no demand existed before.

Richard Florida's commentary on the subject of shrinking cities, and more specifically on the notion of bulldozing portions of some American cities, also carries some mixed spirit and a bit of false optimism. He agrees with Glaeser that a good policy is to encourage and enable mobility so that people can get to the places where they want to be. We are in a tremendous economic crisis right now because of financial manipulations that have devalued properties, cities, and personal nest eggs. Mobility is in most cases, I suspect, not a matter of education and talent, but of being stuck at the wrong place at the wrong time, having believed in the sustainability of corporations and the trust of financial institutions. To be in New York or California or Toronto and say to the General Motors worker in Michigan or Ohio, "c'mon, get a move on," seems to suggest Florida's agenda is to reinforce his migration data but make superficial his consideration of both current and historical underlying forces.

I appreciate booth Glaeser's and Florida's focus on people, but I am not ready to give that primacy over place. The "benign" or other neglect of shrinking cities no doubt makes less desirable places, reduces the social and economic diversity of a place, and reinforces both further outmigration and abandonment of infrastructure as well as otherwise unnecessary, consumptive, and perhaps overbuilding of new infrastructure in other places. That is, which is chicken, which is egg.

With them, however, I'd be very interested in exploring the potentials and benefits in forward-looking policies, practices and planning that would make Glaeser's "older and colder" places more sustainable physically and, therefore, economically and socially supportive. I expect that encouraging growth by transplants to other places (moving Lake Michigan to Arizona?) may eventually generate shrinking cities in other places as mobility makes money nomadic.

Building in cornfields, part deux

Early Detroit, French "ribbon farms"

Tabula rasa” was a term frequently used by Elizabeth Diller the other night in Charlie Rose’s interview of the Diller Scofidio+Renfro principals. She was using the term to describe an approach they took that implied that each project began with a fresh look, uninhibited by considerations of experience, precedent or philosophy.

The term had been on my mind recently, perhaps through a direct reference but, I think, more through reflection on what seems to be an accelerating number of explorations and interventions focusing on the city and cities in general, but in the domain of this interest, on Detroit specifically. The history of the stories of the decline of the city has been more recently joined by a rapid flow of articles, photo journals, studies, and now competitions all informed by a general (accurate) impression that there is not much left, and that therefore the city is a tabula rasa on which to test, impose on, intervene with, and explore new concepts for the city and for “city,” and, as we’ll see, for “farm.”

I have written briefly about this before. In a quick recap, I had been recalling the concept of “building in cornfields” first advanced by a client, an executive with Chrysler, in the late 80’s. We were in the process then of designing and building a new palace for Chrysler very shortly after its emergence from near bankruptcy with the benefit of a government loan. As we erected four million square feet of new headquarters and technical facilities for them on what had been a large farm north of the city, Chrysler was in effect abandoning Highland Park, a city completely surrounded by the city of Detroit, and the clusters of shops, labs, plants, offices, design studios and other facilities that had been its home, and the home of its workers, for decades.

It was natural to give at least some passing thought to the exit strategy, to the impact of the void that was being left behind. This executive suggested that the best thing they could do was demolish the buildings and plant corn. “Everybody wants to build in a corn field,” he said.

Now, 20 years later, the first step in that vision, that strategy, is apparently about to take place. Among the reports on the web site of the Detroit Free Press today (the “newspaper” is no longer printed but 3 days a week, another casualty of the large outmigration from the city), was the announcement that Hantz Farms was an entity, part of a suburban financial services firmproposing to till and plant an initial 70 acres of the land in the lots and plots that have become progressively abandoned in the steady intentional and incidental shrinkage of the city (there are more than 40 square miles of vacant property in the city) . This would become, in effect, the largest “urban farm” in the world.

Of course, the potential of urban agriculture in Detroit has been made robust by the failure of the leadership of its leading industries to act responsibly and embrace a concept of a sustainable business through a sustainable product. China, a country that itself is rapidly urbanizing and turning its farms in to cities, has developed a vision and a strategy to become the world leader in the development of the systems and products that has resisted and actively lobbied against for years. Planning to become a world leader in the development of electric and hybrid vehicles within three years, China will be doing what the Obama administration has been trying to get GM, Chrysler and Ford to do while they protest that it is impossible to achieve within the decade. Already suffering from a failure of vision and commitment, already on the brink of bankruptcy, the American companies will now feel even more pressure.

So the industry responsible for its urbanization is now responsible for its de-urbanization.

People are leaving Michigan at a staggering rate. About 109,000 more people left Michigan last year than moved in. It is one of the worst rates in the nation, quadruple the loss of just eight years ago. The state loses a family every 12 minutes, and the families who are leaving -- young, well-educated high-income earners -- are the people the state desperately needs to rebuild.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Ouroussoff referenced the faulted and failed urban development policies of the past as part of the reason for turning Detroit into what he calls a ghost town. He seems to accept the notion of a tabula rasa in the cases of many American cities. He calls for radical new solutions, destruction rather than repair, and extravagant imagination.

In this miserable context of continuous erasure, there is this delight of infill attention. Among the attention Detroit is getting includes these--

Rouse [D] is an international ideas competition focusing on "re-inventing the city of Detroit through the use of digital computation methodologies." The organizers of the competition acknowledge the extensive history of other intentions to restore or reinvent the city. They believe that their approach, however, may actually be a catalyst to action and accomplishment. In the context of a tabula rasa approach, they suggest that "every city has its history and Detroit is no different, but now it’s our turn to “bounce back” and maybe not in the traditional or conventional way, but in a new, unprecedented way that is specific to the one-of-a-kind condition Detroit presents to us. So the solution too, will be one-of-a-kind specific to our Detroit." It is a competition about place, illustrating ideas for specific sites in Detroit, and accepting both micro and macro approaches.

The jury is intriguingly international and includes, David Pigram of SUPERMANOUEVR, Marc Fornes of THEVERYMANY, Skylar Tibbits of SJET, Michael Ashley of MASH-ARKT, David Jackowski of ALVATRON STUDIO, Peter Macapia of DORA, Brian Dubois of 2:37AM / 2:37AM STUDIOS and Jason K. Johnson of FUTURE CITIES LAB. Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich of PATTERNS will act as the competition exhibition's keynote speakers.

Detroit UnReal Estate Agency is about documentation. They say they will "produce, collect and inventory information on the 'unreal estate' of Detroit: that is, on the remarkable, distinct, characteristic or subjectively significant sites of urban culture." The tabula rasa for them is acknowledged in their intention to aim "at new types of urban practices (architectural, artistically, institutional, everyday life, etc) that came into existence, creating a new local ‘normality’ and a new value system in the city of Detroit." Rejecting the "renovation" tendencies of Richard Florida, and the "artistic" opportunities in urban ruins, they  instead seek to "support stimulus strategies for urban transformation...and, simultaneously, to re-interpret and built on the value of decay as well as the intrusion of wildlife in the city." Among the questions they pose as a means to generating new concepts is "How to imagine a new equilibrium between the city, the human communities and the natural elements (plants, water, wilderness)?"

Detroit Unreal Estate Agency has a similar international origin. It is a project of Partizan Publik centered in Amsterdam. They call themselves a "think and action tank devoted to a braver society." Their intention is to "explore, produce and implement social, political and cultural instruments which generate positive and sustainable change to people and their surroundings." The Partizans are Christian Ernsten (founder) and Joost Janmaat (founder), as well as, Amir Djalali, Bart Blaauw, Arthur Huizinga and Jeroen Visser.

[bracket] is at the core of the matter, developing a web publication about farming in general, but with a number of urban farming proposals and with Detroit specific explorations. [bracket]'s platform for its first issue, On Farming, is broad. "Once merely understood in terms of agriculture, today information, energy, labour, and landscape, among others, can be farmed," they say. "Farming, beyond its most common agricultural understanding is the modification of infrastructure, urbanisms, architectures, and landscapes toward a privileging of production."

Bracket, also international in scope, is supported by the Graham Foundation and is a collaboration of Archinect and InfraNet Lab. They put together an annual publication intended to document "issues overlooked yet central to our cultural milieu that have evolved out of the new disciplinary territory at the intersection of architecture, landscape, urbanism and, now, the internet...a publishing platform for ideas charting the complex overlap of the sphere of architecture and online social spheres."

One of its projects, entitled "Your Town Tomorrow (Detroit 2007)" explores the form and history of the farming that was at the foundation of the city, noting that "it has been over three hundred years since Count Ponchartrain sent word back to Paris describing Detroit’s landscape as '...so temperate, so fertile and so beautiful that it may justly be called the earthly paradise of North America.'” The brief implies an exploration of a return to the agriculture that lies under the industrialization and de-industrialization of the city.

With all of this as promise, in a sense, the concept of "tabula rasa," seemingly so free, clean, and airy, nonetheless seems to carry a bit of baggage. Considering the concept, it seems there are at least 6 ways to think about, employ or resist it.

  1. It's the wrong approach--There is no such thing as a tabula rasa. No matter the level of destruction, abandonment and decay,there is, resident in this place, a lingering memory of rights and wrongs that should never be dropped, overlooked or assuaged, and will always make its play.
  2. It's the right approach--Every tendency to bring complexity to this kind of problem is to defer its
    solution; the approach should be unencumbered and should uncover and deliver its effectiveness through simplicity, clarity, cleverness and insight brought from freshness, innocence, care, and creativity.
  3. It's not a physical concept--Declaration of the city as without fact and without history allows you to see what you want to see, not what is there;it is a political act that is about power not benevolence, about dominance not compromise.
  4. It is essentially a political tool--When everything else about the city's administration is corrupt or collapsing, when an entire half century can be measured only in decline, when the effect of its politics and policies has created the tabula rasa, the right approach is a political approach and should engage new modes of representation and administration.
  5. It is at its best as a physical concept--Perception is reality. The complication and compromise involved in almost every plan that acknowledges the political and social eliminates the ability
    to see things in new way; approaching the land and space as open and clear will allow new ideas to be implanted, leading more effectively to new perceptions generating more effective politics, plans and policies.
  6. He who throws the first stone--Those who promote and use the tabula rasa approach should be without sin; the concept has a sense of purity associated with it and its intentions and executions should be free of self interest and of the taint of past acts.

I'd be pleased to have your comments about any of the topics in this post.

As I write this, I've been interrupted by comments from my wife who has picked up Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road. She is reading it's post-apocalyptic vision in the context of the economy, not of the the bomb. She carries the sense of the tabula rasa in that case as gray, not the white (or green) I have been imagining.

She conjures up an image of a park in downtown Detroit, a "neighborhood" very close to the CBD and immediately adjacent to the city's newest and best high school. It is difficult, as you move through the area, to see someone who is not disabled in some way, moving on crutches, in wheelchairs, hobbling, or in grocery carts. There is no "order" in this neighborhood, and the streets are effectively public space for anything, not simply thoroughfares. There are only scattered buildings around, windowless, odd elements conjuring some sense of an earlier time before they, too, are demolished and memory erased. There are those who come to the park in generosity to prepare food on outdoor grills and around whom, on a sensed or known schedule, huge numbers of homeless gather, aroused from their otherwise dispersed sleeping areas around the park.

In this case, it is no job, no health, no home, no place, no security, no resource, that makes up the tabula rasa. And it is expanding.

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Projects for a shrinking city

Photo Credit:  Courtesy Of The Artist Via Museum Of Contemporary Art Detroit, via Washington Post I thought I'd pass along this article in its entirety. It's about some small moves in Detroit that are continued indicators of new settlement patterns in the transition to new futures in difficult places and times.

Featured in the article are Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope. Gina is an architect and artist and currently heads a very clever retail/consultancy called Design 99. Mitch is an artist who contributed to the great Shrinking Cities project and was a founding member and curator at Detroit's MOCAD.

The New York Times

March 8, 2009 Op-Ed Contributor For Sale: The $100 House By TOBY BARLOW

RECENTLY, at a dinner party, a friend mentioned that he’d never seen so many outsiders moving into town. This struck me as a highly suspect statement. After all, we were talking about Detroit, home of corrupt former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, beleaguered General Motors and the 0-16 Lions. Compared with other cities’ buzzing, glittering skylines, ours sits largely abandoned, like some hulking beehive devastated by colony collapse. Who on earth would move here?

Then again, I myself had moved to Detroit, from Brooklyn. For $100,000, I bought a town house that sits downtown in the largest and arguably the most beautiful Mies van der Rohe development ever built, an island of perfect modernism forgotten by the rest of the world.

Two other guests that night, a couple in from Chicago, had also just invested in some Detroit real estate. That weekend Jon and Sara Brumit bought a house for $100.

Ah, the mythical $100 home. We hear about these low-priced “opportunities” in down-on-their-luck cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland, but we never meet anyone who has taken the plunge. Understandable really, for if they were actually worth anything then they would cost real money, right? Who would do such a preposterous thing?

A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

Admittedly, the $100 home needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced. But Mitch plans to connect their home to his mini-green grid and a neighborhood is slowly coming together.

Now, three homes and a garden may not sound like much, but others have been quick to see the potential. A group of architects and city planners in Amsterdam started a project called the “Detroit Unreal Estate Agency” and, with Mitch’s help, found a property around the corner. The director of a Dutch museum, Van Abbemuseum, has called it “a new way of shaping the urban environment.” He’s particularly intrigued by the luxury of artists having little to no housing costs. Like the unemployed Chinese factory workers flowing en masse back to their villages, artists in today’s economy need somewhere to flee.

But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends.

In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.

Toby Barlow is the author of “Sharp Teeth.”

Another perspective in the same day's issue:

All Boarded Up

Previous related posts:

Lawlessness and cannibalism rule the streets

How many does it take?

Detroit wildlife

After the crisis--Macomb interventions

Utopian visions--building in cornfields

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