Fifty-one years after Jane Jacob’s seminal work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, our nation is still marked by a portfolio of “legacy cities” – a recently adopted term-of-art developed by the American Assembly at Columbia University describing the phenomenon of American cities that have been losing population, growing in unproductive land and retaining a high majority of the region’s poor, unemployed and under-educated. The current conditions of these cities can be traced back to many of the urban policies of the last century that have allowed regional sprawl to decentralize the urban core, leaving behind crumbling and excessive infrastructure, antiquated and inflexible land use regulations that discourage innovation, and concentrations of generational poverty resulting in weakened civic capacity. There is no better illustration of our collective immunity to this condition than the media’s nonchalant reaction to Detroit’s dramatic 25% population loss over the last decade, and the suggestion that for some cities, “death” may be a more viable option than “life”.
We must reject the notion that American cities of this type cannot become productive and competitive places to live, work and play. After all Detroit is still a city of 717,000 residents, including families and children – what would become of them if death were chosen over life? Instead, this condition should inspire us as designers and planners to take on the task of “re-inventing the American City” - the reprogramming of its function, the redesign of its urban form and architecture, and the identification (and legitimizing) of a new and expanded range of protagonists with the authority to act. The resurgence of our legacy cities and the neighborhoods within them depends on a willingness to embrace more innovative infrastructure technologies that reduce the spatial divide between race and opportunity; to put limits on urban growth with amended standards for permanent and transitional urban density; to revise zoning that allows for more ingenuity in urban planning, building design, and ecological restoration; and to consider new models of geo-political leadership and cooperation that facilitate a shared vision for the more productive and sustainable utilization of land (place) and labor (people).
The Boon and Bust of the American City
Issues of equity, inclusion, race, justice, access and connection are still unresolved in many American communities, leaving a context of urban landscapes where the work of uplifting people and place remains a large task. These issues have created a series of marginalized conditions that continue to have a devastating impact on civic identity and participation; household wealth and health; and social equity and justice. The impacts of regional sprawl, urban abandonment, race and class segregation, and economic, spatial, social and civic isolation have been well documented as explanation for the depressed conditions found in our legacy cities today. So, how did we get?
Several American cities saw the beginning of their population growth fueled by the “Great Migration”, the period between 1916-1930 where nearly 6 million African Americans migrated from the rural south to the industrialized cities of the north. The transportation industry (rail and automobile production) offered the migrant worker unprecedented opportunities and freedoms to earn a living wage. Automobile pioneer, Henry Ford’s revolutionary “five dollar a day” and the five-day work week system provided the average worker with only an high school education or less the ability to afford the fruits of his production labor and a piece of the American dream - a car and a single-family home located in a neighborhood with local schools, churches, play areas and shopping[i].
In the some industrial cities, the migration propelled municipalities to expand the limits of the city through annexation, creating more spacious residential environments within the city, while in the other industrial cities, there were fewer options for expanding the city and as a result, these cities experienced rapid overcrowding and deterioration of infrastructure. As production technologies advanced, the regions around these cities expanded to keep up with the pace of industrial innovation and growth. But as we will come to learn, this regional urbanization came at the expense of abandoning the city. For example, in 1955 Detroit held over 55% of the region’s population while today it retains only 15%. Over the same period, issues of race and class became more spatialized and remain very present in today’s regional geography. These trends were in part facilitated by a series of urban programs and practices implemented between 1933-1954 that offered the first opportunities for class ascension and a better quality of life outside the congested city. Two such programs are of particular note.
The first, the Housing Act of 1949, allowed returning war veterans, among others, to purchase homes in the less congested suburbs, while the practice of redlining (1934-1968) and restrictive convents (1960’s), limited equal housing opportunity for people of color and consequently rooted their families in the underinvested neighborhoods of the city. In more recent times, the aftermath of the sub-prime lending crisis of 2004-2007 (believed to have been predatory towards low-income households) has created a new portfolio of undervalued neighborhoods by adding an unprecedented numbers of foreclosed properties to the housing market. Similar to the correlation between housing access and abandonment, the need for convenient amenities in the suburbs drove the demand for new models of retail, creating the suburban “shopping center” (Town and Country Shopping Center, Whitehall, Ohio, 1949) and the suburban “shopping mall” (Northgate Center, outside Seattle, Washington, 1950), while the historic retail spaces of downtown main streets (Detroit’s Woodward Avenue) and neighborhood centers (Chicago’s Bronzeville 35th Street) became empty and obsolete.
The second program, the Federal Highways Act of 1956, facilitated even greater mobility of people and goods, lessening the dependence on the city for concentrated dwelling, production and jobs. As early as 1925, Henry Ford was either prescient, or some might argue an instigator, by arguing that industrial production did not have to be concentrated and that the necessity of these spatial conditions was only a stage of development rather a requirement of industrial development[ii].
It is important to note that running parallel to these place-based interventions, significant social movements involving education (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954) and civil liberties (Civil Rights Act, 1964) that were aimed at dismantling the 1876 Jim Crow laws that endorsed “separate but equal”. However, despite the best intentions and positive outcomes of these important public policy reforms, many citizens of color in legacy cities remain in segregated isolation. Economic isolation continues through regional sprawl that limits access and opportunity; social isolation through restricted choice to quality housing and education; spatial isolation through physical boundaries that divide; and civic isolation through the scars of the late 1960’s era of civil unrest and the resulting disinvestment that erodes pride of place.
Can Designers and Spontaneous Interventions help to reinvent the American City?
Many legacy cities continue to struggle with successfully implementing a transformative revitalization agenda. Many have tried to utilize reinvestment tools predicated on a model of market-driven urban growth that have not proven to be enough to uplift legacy cities and the citizens who inhabit them. In these cities, population loss, economic decline, property abandonment are contributing to a growing portfolio of vacant urban spaces that are becoming the canvases for spontaneous intervention. The depreciation of public sector resources and urgency of maintaining neighborhood health and safety is compelling the emergence of community organizations, designers and local residents to act as the new agents of change by introducing innovative practices that require less resource or “top-down” authority.
These trends suggest an opportunity for integrating new design innovations into public policy aimed at remediating longstanding structural inequalities and progressing towards more urban justice and inclusion. Harvard professor Susan Fainstein suggests, “[the] principle components of urban justice are equity, diversity and democracy.”[iii] Recent newspapers, cable news programs and make-shift communities “occupying” public spaces around the country, have ignited an ongoing discourse about the concept of a just city by challenging the presence and absence of distributive justice in our country –questioning whether our allocation of wealth, power, reward and respect are contributing to a greater common good and creating places that are more equitable, diverse and participatory. University of Washington scholar, Professor Sharon E. Sutton observes “[in] the last half century, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in personal freedom, mobility individual rights, and the reorienting of culture around individual needs. While this loosening of restraints on individuals has had many positive outcomes, it has simultaneously led privileged Americans to loose sight of struggling together in hard country – of being together in a place and manner that has limits. Without such disciplined limitations people have become incapable of addressing the harsh realities of poverty, greed, ignorance, and prejudice that are part of the human condition. “[iv]
The collaborative efforts of spontaneous interventions seem to offer one example of how American’s are “struggling together” in the hard country of the legacy cities. Now may be the time to assess what contributions spontaneous interventions are making towards achieving a more just city. If we believe that some traditional, top-down, public policy programs are furthering the spatialization of economic and social inequities in our cities, what might the trend of these less formal initiatives teach us about a more balanced distribution of access, power and inclusion? As designers, we must acknowledge that the “places of marginality” and the “places of opportunity” are one in the same. [v] Therefore, we must embrace the fact that within these places are too often our most marginalized populations - poor families, children, the unemployed; special needs populations (elderly, disabled, ex-offenders), the homeless, and the under- and uneducated – the very folks who find achieving and benefiting from equity, access and justice most inaccessible. When we create spontaneous interventions in these communities, some of which are beginning to tip towards gentrification, we should be thinking about the possibilities of how our work might begin to expose the underlying inequalities of isolation and how it might raise the awareness and capacity of the long-time residents to be their own change agents as well as participate effectively alongside other authorities.
If we begin to embrace design as not only an outcome, but also as a process by which the physical designer (architect, planner or other design professional) and cultural designer (resident, community activist, social entrepreneur or other community participant) can engage and build capacity through spontaneous intervention as example, then we might be able to use this work to inform and alter the ways in which design and community development is regulated, subsidized and more effectively deployed in the future. As physical designers, we have the ability to create outcome and process innovations in the ways we design formal and informal public open spaces that accommodate cultural differences; housing typologies that accommodate changing household compositions; formal and informal spaces for production that promote entrepreneurial ventures; buildings that accommodate multiple uses and users, and public realms that promote openness in a post-9/11 context. For cultural designers, a broader range of change agents have the potential to create innovations in civic participation that bring unrecognized voices to the table of design and decision-making; new digital or in-person networks for funding entrepreneurial ventures that harness the untapped skills and ingenuity of low income residents; and leadership development that identifies and educates young people to become involved and ultimately sustain community capacity.
As we empower the physical and cultural designer to further develop these ideas, we must also encourage our public policy makers to seriously examine what can be learned from the trend of spontaneous interventions and the people and organizations that are producing them. Should these installments be formally authorized and properly resourced as effective strategies that can help redefine the American city? Rather than being viewed only as temporary installations that help to bring greater safety, stability and civic activism to blighted communities, can these interventions do more to inform more permanent strategies for neighborhood revitalization, zoning, community development programs and long-term civic capacity building? Let us take a close and thoughtful look at this spontaneous body of work and recognize its contributions towards keeping our cities “alive” and the promise it might hold for transforming design and city planning practice and values of access, equity and inclusion that should be deeply embedding in our policy making.
[i] Charles Waldheim, Lafayette Park
[iii] Susan Fainstein, “The Just City”,
[iv] Sharon E. Sutton, “Creating Landscapes of Safety”, in “Architecture of Fear”,
[v] For a discussion about place as a source of inequality, as well as a context of transformation for low income communities, see Sharon E. Sutton and Susan P. Kemp, “Introduction: Place as Marginality and Possibility”, in “The Paradox of Urban Space, Inequality and Transformation in the Marginalized Communities”, edited by Sharon E. Sutton and Susan P. Kemp, (Palgrave McMillian, 2011): 4-5.