Friday, September 5, 2008

Shrinking Cities

Poster advertising a Shrinking Cities exhibition.

During a conversation about design and urban planning the other night in Baltimore, someone commented on their desire to see the city grow its population. It was suggested that energies should go into repopulating all those empty houses, and reinvigorating abandoned neighborhoods with new residents. It's a classic way of thinking about cities: since the Industrial Revolution, major metropolises have been measured against steady economic and demographic growth. But that boomtown idea is no longer an accurate model.

While the world is urbanizing at an alarming rate, the truth is that population dispersement is happening in new ways. So while cities like Dubai, Vegas, and Shanghai boom, others, like Liverpool, Detroit, and Baltimore, stagnate. There are many cities globally that are shrinking and they may never reverse those losses. It's important to get beyond the "mine is bigger than yours" idea of population: Just because Baltimore hovers around 600,000 rather than its peak of over 1 million, it doesn't diminish its value or potential as a city. Rather than trying to recreate the city of the past, it would be a far more valuable exercise to consider how to design and plan for this new, shrinking city and to imagine the opportunities and challenges of a post-industrial, American town like Baltimore.

There are several groups around the globe studying Shrinking Cities. (And here's an article from 2007). I mentioned Daniel D'Oca and his firm Interboro architects in an earlier post. Dan and his firm have participated in studies of Detroit, which has been a particularly well-trodden case study, perhaps because its population has more than halved since 1950 (and their fate is not helped by the fact that their leadership is corrupt). Many have offered suggestions of what to do with Detroit, like tearing down the abandoned houses and letting the land revert to nature. Camilo José Vergara suggested the city memorialize its urban ruins with a themepark.

(Vergara did an interesting series of abandoned gas stations, capturing that "city as ruin" feel. Below are two examples)

City as a ruin: here, the gas pump looks sculptural

City reverting to nature: Makes me think of the talking heads: This was a discount store, now it's turned into a cornfield...(you got it)

What's particularly interesting about the work by Interboro, is that they both embrace the messiness of Detroit and see beyond the obvious. They explored hidden systems, and looked at the way that residents themselves created solutions to their shrinking city by purchasing abandoned lots and expanding their own personal land holdings. You can download a paper about their project from the Interboro link above. And you can read about it in the new book Verb Crisis.

Screen shot from the Interboro site.

Mapping the blot.

The other interesting observation by Interboro, which they outline in that article in Verb Crisis, is how the urban planner, the architect, the designer, should function as a ghostwriter of sorts. In addition to moving away from our old models of a city, we must also move away from our old ideas of planner as patriarch:

"What we're suggesting is that this starts with a new kind of advocacy that emphasizes the importance of identifying, and documenting progressive practices that already exist, but that are underappreciated and have little legitimacy. We think this would help drum up support for the programs, but it would also encourage us to think up new advocacy tools."