How cities can renew themselves while staying true to their origins
Cities are composed of buildings, people, transportation networks, schools, hospitals and children. They are living entities, always growing and changing while developing their own unique culture and identity. Adapting to these changes can be challenging, and a city’s ability to redesign itself to fit the changing business environment can determine its survival.
Take Detroit, for example. It originated as a French missionary fortress in the 1700s and by the early 20th century had grown to be one of America’s largest cities by investing in industry. Known as the Motor City, Detroit is home to the headquarters of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, which design and manufacture our most prevalent mode of transportation. Dominating the American automobile market for much of the 20th century, it became a hub of commerce and industry and expanded rapidly. The mansions and architectural marvels built by the economic elite of the Gilded Age added to the physical power of the city while the working class population constructed equally strong bonds in the labor unions.
But current census reports do not look good for Detroit. Violent crime rate is 3.38 times the national average, and the population has dropped 25 percent in the last decade. The auto companies were hit hard by the recession, and Michigan has lost nearly 860,000 jobs since 2000. They are currently ranked as the poorest city in the country.
There are some who see these once-great cities as a thing of the past. There is no way to save them now that their manufacturing is out of date and the foundation of the community is becoming obsolete.
While these voices dominate the media, others are prepared to work toward a creative solution by making a difference in their own communities in a manner that helps the city move forward while remaining true to its origins.
Restructuring Higher Education
Studies have proven again and again that success depends on education, and there are numerous campaigns in the United States dedicated to supporting students to achieve academically. Yet only one in three students who attend college complete a degree. Katherine von Jan and Courtney Dubin, two women from New York, suspected the problem lie in the structure of the system itself. They formed a nonprofit called Derring-do to take on the challenge of restructuring higher education to suit the needs of students. Derring-do is based in Westchester, N.Y., and Manhattan, but it serves a broader nation-wide audience.
Dubin described Derring-do’s mission as “supporting students and designing winning experiences by learning and listening to them and designing from there.”
Derring-do engages in ethnographic research in order to shape education to fit its diverse audience. They also investigate what captures the attention of youth by, for example, collaborating with video game designers to discover if learning could become more like a game. Derring-do philosophy dictates that the potential and skills students already possess should be validated and their education should build upon these experiences.
Dubin said, “We are all good at something, and the way our system is designed now is one-size-fits-all.”
Derring-do believes their initiatives help college students persist in their education, and the benefits go directly into the community and economy.
Dubin explained, “If you make the most of talent and connect them to opportunities in the city through the university, they’re more likely to stay there because they’re more connected to the city beyond the university level.”
She believes a skilled and educated populace renews a city with new ideas for enterprise while the inspiration of an entrepreneurial young-adult provides the energy for progress.
Urban Design: The Art of Placemaking
Downtowns can be so crowded with buildings and cars that the people working and living there are in danger of being forgotten. People need an appropriate space to interact in order to feel comfortable and welcome in a city, a process that Project for Public Spaces calls “placemaking.” PPS is a non-profit planning, design and educational organization based in New York City. When founded in 1975, PPS began working on revitalization projects in New York City, but it now acts as a consultant for community projects across the country, as well as internationally. According to their website, their mission is to help people “create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities.”
Some cities use the approach of investing in large, intricate sports stadiums or arts centers, but it can be equally effective and certainly more economical to build a public square or park.
PPS Vice President Ethan Kent said placemaking can help revitalize a city.
“Our work was to bring people back downtown again to areas that had a negative perception,” he said. “It’s about activating key areas around assets that are there and bringing people to the street and building cities around small businesses and public destinations.”
According to their philosophy, a carefully envisioned public square can enhance livability and become an anchor for downtown development. When city residents gather for social, cultural and political events, they foster a common bond. The simple presence of downtown workers eating lunch, families picnicking or dog-owners taking their pets out for a walk foster a sense of community and contribute to the vibrancy of the city.
PPS consults on projects across the country, as well as internationally. The nonprofit has collaborated with more than 2,500 communities to work on projects such as the Boston Market district, the George Mason college campus and currently the Buffalo, N.Y., waterfront. While working with each unique community, PPS staff facilitates the discussion and inspires ideas, but the vision itself must come from the client.
Kent commented that an outsider cannot dictate the best way to physically represent the identity of the community.
“Our job is more to work with the community to define and articulate their own vision,” he said. “We recommend that it is contextual, and we recommend hiring local designers.”
Construction projects are designed to be consistent with the original architecture and layout of the streets. Since the designs are usually quite simple, volunteers in the community can easily become involved in the construction, ensuring a low-cost, high-impact project. In the view of PPS, the optimal result of one of their projects is to empower a community to renew their downtown with a fresh, welcoming environment to revitalize the economy and build a local identity.
Olivia Mendoza is a Buffalo resident whose family has a boat and enjoys visiting the waterfront, but she remarked that the waterfront is certainly underdeveloped and under-utilized. However, it is important to her that the development is not too commercialized or generic.
“I think they’d have to be cautious between trying to put in things they think will be great and things that people will actually use,” she said. “I wouldn’t want it to utterly change the idea that Buffalo associates with the lake already.”
When informed that an outside organization was consulting on the project, Mendoza commented that external support could be beneficial because she doesn’t trust the local government to successfully undertake a project of this size.
She said, “It’s always been talked about, but it’s never been done, and perhaps having that extra experience behind them to help could be a very good thing.”
“Imported from Detroit”
At first glance, television commercials do not appear to be a viable source of urban renewal. However, their ability to access and emotionally affect a large audience gives this medium significant influence.
An excellent media campaign is the “Imported from Detroit” Chrysler commercial. The full advertisement ran during the Superbowl and features Detroit-born rapper Eminem. The featured car drives through Detroit presenting the camera with a tour of the city’s landmarks. An unseen and husky-voiced narrator proclaims the victories in Detroit history but also exposes its imperfections. The commercial effectively celebrates Detroit’s roots while promoting progress in the future and announcing a call to action. Details on how progress will be achieved are vague, but the emotional impact was clear.
The message was so inspiring in fact that “Imported from Detroit” has become the tagline for a new advertising campaign—this one selling the city itself. Those who wish to support Detroit can purchase merchandise from Chrysler, such as T-shirts, hoodies and bumper stickers declaring the commercial’s tagline. Chrysler, in turn, has donated a portion of these profits to organizations that serve the community, such as the Boys & Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity and Think Detroit Police Athletic League, which also serves youth.
The Detroit Free Press printed an unsigned editorial about the commercial.
“There’s an internal, individual aspect to the renaissance of Detroit that’s integral to the economics and politics of making it happen,” the editorial stated. “Detroit doesn’t have an image problem. It has an abundance of real problems. But seeing ourselves in a new and positive way is part of the solution. And if that vision is shared with a mammoth national TV audience, then we had better measure up to it.”
The fact remains that while the commercial perhaps did not persuade viewers to purchase the car, it did foster a sense of pride among Detroit’s inhabitants, injecting the community with new energy. It remains to be seen if this is enough, but it is certainly a necessary step toward revitalization.
Constructive advice on this subject is found in an article by John Carroll, a Penn State information sciences and technology professor, who stated that when we modify something with a strong sense of history, “we are intervening in a situated practice, altering the social, organizational and technological context which supports that practice and within which that practice emerged.”
He is warning us that any change we make to a single part of the complex network that sustains a city can have a widespread impact. While many people want to revitalize American cities and ensure their survival, we must proceed with caution. It is important for these renewal efforts to make changes and improvements but always remember the origins they are building on. Inspiration for renewal comes from recognizing all that was accomplished in the old model and viewing the redesign for future success as a way of protecting that legacy.
Moriah Petty is a freshman journalism major who is reppin’ Twin Cities, Minn.—born and raised. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.