The CreaTiviTy of Shrinking CiTeS: inTernaTional SympoSium
Improvisational Approaches to Shrinking Cities
1 October 2009
Terry Schwarz, Senior Planner Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative Kent State University 820 Prospect Avenue | Cleveland, Ohio 44115 www.cudc.kent.edu/shrink firstname.lastname@example.org (216) 357-3426
how can shrinking cities maintain or re-create urbanity while losing density? in the united States, cities that have experienced significant, on-going population loss resort to large-scale demolition efforts to reduce inventories of vacant and derelict buildings.1 although demolition is the tool of choice for combating decline in many shrinking cities, this strategy begs the question-what next? following mass demolitions, an abundance of vacant, unmanaged land becomes a dominant part of a city’s physical fabric. This real estate surplus represents the central challenge and the most potent opportunity for the creative regeneration of shrinking cities. The phenomenon of shrinkage undermines fundamental notions of urbanity and traditional perceptions of what cities should be. as such, efforts to regenerate shrinking cities through radical changes in physical form are often met with fear and resistance. however, in cities that have had experienced substantial losses, there are tentative signs that a more adventurous attitude is beginning to take hold—one that fosters a sense of experimentation and optimism. This attitude is captured in the following passage by rem koolhaas: The seeming failure of the urban offers an exceptional opportunity, a pretext for nietzschean frivolity. We have to imagine 1,001 other concepts of city; we have to take insane risks; we have to dare to be utterly uncritical; we have to swallow deeply and bestow forgiveness left and right. The certainty of failure has to be our laughing gas/oxygen; modernization our most potent drug. Since we are not responsible, we have to become irresponsible. in a landscape of increasing expediency and impermanence, urbanism no longer is or has to be the most solemn of our decisions; urbanism can lighten up, become a gay Science—lite urbanism. What if we simply declare that there is no crisis—redefine our relationship with the city not as its makers but as its mere subjects, as its supporters? more than ever, the city is all we have. 2 This paper is an exploration of the evolving physical form of shrinking cities and a discussion of an improvisational approach to planning and design in a context of uncertainty.
Improvising the City
The modern american city planning movement was born out of a desire to eliminate uncertainty and establish control over frequently chaotic urban conditions. inspired by the World’s Columbian exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the subsequent plan for Chicago in 1909, city planners and public officials across the country began to embrace a fixed and formal set of principles for managing development and shaping urban environments. Daniel Burnham’s famous edict, that one should “make no little plans” underscored this point of view-that order, control, and autocracy are key aspects of urbanity.3
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This formal approach to city planning is most relevant during periods of sustained urban growth. But shrinking cities operate in a state of heightened uncertainty and therefore require greater flexibility and spontaneity to respond to rapidly changing and often unpredictable circumstances. a common response to urban shrinkage is the reinforcement of existing planning regulations in an effort to stem a city’s losses. however, many of these regulations (particularly those related to land use and physical form) were created in response to growth conditions. enforcing growth-based regulations during a period of sustained decline is counter-productive, since shrinking cities need radical re-invention in order to begin the process of recovery. as such, these cities may offer an enticing and largely unrealized potential for deregulation. Zoning codes and other planning statutes were typically developed in response to density. When cities have many people living and working in close proximity, these regulations are necessary to protect public health and safety. however, where population has declined by 40% or more (as is the case in many older industrial cities in the u.S.) traditional planning regulations become increasingly irrelevant. in areas where population loss is the most pronounced, regulating development density, building setback, and land use may no longer be essential to ensure the public’s welfare. as such, population decline may reasonably lead to the relaxation or elimination of many municipal regulations. unfortunately, the more common response in shrinking cities is to strengthen, rather than scale back, the regulatory framework. a recent example from Cleveland, ohio involves the emergence of a robust informal economy-one that is frequently thwarted by pre-existing municipal regulations. a local newspaper recently reported on neighborhood entrepreneurs finding creative ways to generate income. one such entrepreneur, Zainab rahman, turned her front porch into a take-out restaurant. ms. rahman sold sandwiches and pastries to neighborhood residents that she prepared in her kitchen. She found an eager market for her products, but she shut down her operation when a city inspector warned her that she was not in compliance with city regulations for home-base businesses.4 liberalizing these regulations could help promote entrepreneurship and self-reliance at the neighborhood scale.
Zainab Rahman (Cleveland Plain Dealer 26 April 2009)
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informal systems emerge in absence of accessible resources. 5 instead of criminalizing grassroots entrepreneurs, public officials in shrinking cities can begin to foster and support their activities. more flexible regulations can be developed that still maintain public safety and minimize the risk of creating public nuisances while enabling micro-scale innovation and creativity to flourish. With their abundance of low-cost properties and dispersed population densities, shrinking cities provide ideal conditions for informal networks to flourish.
informal networks and underlying natural systems can also play a role in the physical reconfiguration of shrinking cities. in the transect theory espoused by the Congress for the new urbanism, well-designed cities demonstrate a gradual and measured transition from a very dense and compact urban core to lower density urban, suburban, and eventually rural development patterns.6 The urban transect model corresponds with the biological concept of disturbance gradients in which human development patterns disturb or disrupt underlying natural systems to varying degrees. higher density development generally correlates with a more pronounced disturbance of natural systems. given the scale of vacancy in many shrinking cities, unexpected juxtapositions in land use have begun to occur and disturbance regimes are becoming uneven and unpredictable.7 Dense, urban neighborhoods may be perforated by unmanaged landscapes in close proximity to areas of intense development. Two processes are at work simultaneously: the disturbance of natural systems by on-going human development and the resurgence of natural systems as some neighborhoods depopulate and become “undeveloped.”
extreme sports forest orchard wetland community garden recreation
green corridor along railway
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Japanese Knotweed, an invasive exotic species, has become well established in former industrial areas in Cleveland, Ohio (Mill Creek Watershed Community Action Plan 2006)
This is not to suggest that shrinking cities are, as sometimes stated, “returning to wilderness.” it is inaccurate to assume that when people abandon a city, indigenous natural systems automatically reassert themselves. While vegetation can become rapidly established in places that have been vacated by human residents, the resulting landscape typically consists of invasive exotic species rather than any semblance of the native, predevelopment conditions. naturalization and urbanism are two processes, constantly in motion, shaped by changing patterns in human settlements and the perennial cycle of natural succession. a biological metaphor is often used to explain the phenomenon under way in older industrial cities…a city is like a living organism that grows and matures, then declines and dies. This is an inaccurate metaphor. a city is not a biological organism; it is more like a biological system. Decay in a biological system is not followed by death, but rather by transformation. if we guide the processes of decline and development carefully, deterioration can lead to re-growth in a new and more resilient form. given a long enough timeline, all cities grow and all cities decline because human settlements are constantly in flux. as such, urban design in periods of shrinkage must move beyond formal and static principles to allow for the development of a more fluid kind of city. functional landscapes and small-scale public intimacies that are attuned to the microlocal needs of shrinking cities can provide a counterpoint to the grand urban gestures which often emerge in periods of rapid growth. an example of the improvised landscape approach in Cleveland is the emerald fibers concept, an opportunistic and resource-driven response to native patterns of hydrology.8 like many cities in the great lakes region, Cleveland has an abundance of vacant land and of water. vacancy is visible, but much of the city’s hydrology is hidden. Streams and creeks were contained in culverts many years ago when the city’s rapid growth required the erasure of indigenous waterways. But now, as vacancy increases within city limits, Cleveland has an unprecedented opportunity to restore a more natural pattern of hydrology by prohibiting development on vacated land that is on top of, or within close range of, a buried culvert. from an ecosystems perspective, it was never advisable to build on top of water. By avoiding new development on sites that coincide with buried waterways, the city can begin assembling an extensive green network, one parcel at a time.
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Culverted streams in Cleveland, Ohio
Parcel-based restoration of hydrological systems
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Incremental establishment of Emerald Fibers network
restoring streams to their natural condition streams is vastly expensive and it is unlikely that all of Cleveland’s culverted waterways will ever return to their predevelopment condition. however, the city can assemble vacant properties along the actual (or approximate) paths of buried creeks and streams, re-establishing native landscapes on these properties to restore surface hydrology. The culverts would remain intact, for now. But these emerging strands of vegetation would direct rainwater along more natural paths along the surface. These are not intended to be manicured green spaces or engineered storm water features. instead, the vision is to restore an approximation of Cleveland’s pre-settlement landscape-slightly wild and beautiful green fibers-which could evolve into high-functioning natural landscapes. The resulting green network would be transformative. as these renaturalized landscapes meander through city neighborhoods, they may become the green stitches that hold together an increasingly fragmented and fragile city.
The temporary use of vacant sites is another improvisational technique for shrinking cities. Temporary uses provide a way to experiment with non-traditional design ideas, repair damaged or missing social networks, and foster future development opportunities. Through the development of a rapid prototype, an approximation of a future, permanent use is created and tested in a temporary public context.9 The rapid prototype model provides a new means of public engagement for shrinking cities. instead of asking the public to respond to sketches and models of design and land use alternatives, temporary interventions enable the public to experience an approximation of these alternatives and determine their preferences based on these experiences.
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in a Cleveland example, a vacant and contaminated property creates a public nuisance and detracts from adjacent property values. a permanent landscape will be designed for the property once remediation has been completed. however, the time frame for this remediation has not been determined, so the site is likely to remain in a fallow state for the foreseeable future. using the rapid prototype model, a temporary landscape is being designed, one that is intentionally low-cost to implement and flexible in its components. This prototypical landscape can be easily adapted in response to the ways people use the space and this process of adaptation will inform the future design decisions for the permanent landscape.
Temporary landscape as design prototype for a contaminated vacant property (Architects for Humanity, Cleveland Chapter and the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative)
in shrinking cities, there is a need to simultaneously respond to current conditions of vacancy and loss, while anticipating prospects for stabilization and future growth. With an improvisational approach, cities are better equipped to harvest the opportunities that are present in on-going cycles of growth and decline. rather than commit to a rigid and formal course of action, designers and policy makers in shrinking cities must remain light on their feet, but focused and purposeful in their actions. Through strategic deregulation, the development of ecologically-sound transitional landscapes, and the widespread deployment of temporary use initiatives, shrinking cities can define a new form of urbanism—one that is flexible, responsive, and ultimately sustainable.
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Notes in Cleveland, ohio approximately 1,000 vacant houses are demolished each year. in 2009, 2,000 houses are slated for demolition. (figures from the City of Cleveland, Department of Building and housing) Comparable demolition figures can be found for other declining cities in the uS such as flint, michigan and Buffalo, new york.
rem koolhaas and Bruce mau, “What ever happened to urbanism,” S,M,L, XL. new york: monticelli press, 1995, p. 971; personal correspondence with Jerry herron, Dean of the honors College at Wayne State university, December 2008. Carl Smith, The plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the remaking of the american City. Chicago: The university of Chicago press. pp.34-53.
3 4 olivera perkins, “neighborhood entrepreneurs trying to ‘make ends meet,” The Plain Dealer, 26 april 2009.
personal correspondence with kari Smith, Technische universitat Darmstadt, 21 July 2009.
5 6 Duany, andrés. “Transect planning.” Journal of the American Planning Association, vol. 68, no. 3, Summer 2002, american planning association, pp. 245-246
This is clearly the case in Cleveland, ohio, where wildlife and vegetation are becoming re-established in the interstitial spaces between remaining areas of dense development.
7 8 The emerald fibers concept for Cleveland, ohio used the biomimicry principles of Janine Benyus as outlined in Biomimicry: innovation inspired by nature.new york: harper perennial, 2002, pp. 146-167.
David kelley, “Design as an iterative process” iDeo: principles of product Design lecture, 10 october 2001.
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