Design After Decline

“Design after decline, how America rebuilds shrinking cities”  was a conference by Brent D. Ryan, assistant professor of Urban Design and public policy in MIT, that took place at Columbia University last October 16th enclosed in their LiPS program (Lecture in Planning Series).

Is a Doctoral work based on the cases of Detroit and Philadelphia, both shrinking cities, following twin narratives since the High Modernism’s end (which Ryan illustrated through projects as the Golden Lane from Peter and Allison Smithson, in London, or the Plan Voisin for Paris by Le Corbusier)

In the moment when High Modernism collapses, Brutalism is out. It appears the reformed modernism, the postmodernism or neotraditionalism. In planning, the figure of the master plan comes out.

Is a time when the planning profession went through a crisis (as it is nowadays…), and the reformed planning becomes market friendly, based on the private sector and the real estate development (there is when, in my opinion, the wrong tendency in planning starts).

Ryan exposed then a series of interpretations of these happenings:

– Aesthetic revolution, the end of brutalism

– Policy revolution, power to the people, bye to the state (Jane Jacobs)

And possible alternative interpretations:

– Aesthetic revolution: innovation overtaken by conservatism

– Policy revolution: farewell to the benevolent state, hello second gilded age

– Modernism undone by political, social, economic crisis.

Once he set the scenario, he went on to explain the specific situation of the city of Detroit and the city of Philadelphia; since both of them have lost a huge amount of population, shrinking from 1950 to 2000.

He argues that this was caused by a series of reasons, starting with social, economical and physical problems, the revolution’s unhappy ending and the potential for practical resolutions.

In the case of Detroit, nowadays it presents a landscape of abandoned industrial buildings, not in use anymore, and houses built in wood, setting a temporary building environment. Commercial buildings are abandoned in which was supposed to be main streets.

The physical target of his investigation are a series of neighbourhoods in both cities: Jefferson Village, Victoria park and Clairpointe in Detroit, LudlowYorktown and Poplar Nehemiah in Philadelphia.

Those neighbourhoods eradicate the feeling of a city; the only way to make those cities appealing for people is to transform them into a suburban area…

As conclusions on the analysis, he exposed how the fabric of those cities will never be reconstructed, they will never come back to the inhabitants they had in the 50s, and planners should keep that in mind.

Also, landscape urbanism is a quite dangerous strategy for shrinking cities. Shrinking cities are poor; they don’t have the budget to create those high budget landscape urban projects (He gave the NY High Line project as an example).

He bets on a come back to Modernism social planning. What should the rebuilding pattern be then? He proposes, and I find it quite right, a mixture of new housing and remaining landmarks (the industrial heritage of the city), not doing tabula rasa.

It was a very interesting lecture. Now that I live in the US, is more accessible for me the access to examples showing the terrible problem of the vacant spaces in American cities… something really challenging for the future urban planners.

Even I don’t agree completely with the pattern of planning he showed at the end, based on a more decentralized strategy of filling out vacant spots of the city (making difficult the creation of a real network or the sense of community that belongs to a bigger urban settlement), he pointed out a huge problem on this cities, that so far are more worried in not loosing more population or increase it rather than how to achieve that.

What are the possible solutions? What can planners do? During the lecture, I had the feeling that, going over all this periods in urban history, the political speech was lost in the way, where has it been after the High Modernism? Isn’t it the fact that the control of the planning process has been in the real estate companies hands since then a symptom that the architects and planners have lost a strong way to engage with the social issues?


One response to “Design After Decline

  1. Pingback: Are we ready to face the shrinkage of a city? | Open Source Urbanism

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