Design After Decline: How America Rebuilds Shrinking Cities

Design After Decline: How America Rebuilds Shrinking Cities

by Brent D. Ryan

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Almost fifty years ago, America's industrial cities—Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore, and others—began shedding people and jobs. Today they are littered with tens of thousands of abandoned houses, shuttered factories, and vacant lots. With population and housing losses continuing since the 2007 financial crisis, the future of neighborhoods in

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Almost fifty years ago, America's industrial cities—Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore, and others—began shedding people and jobs. Today they are littered with tens of thousands of abandoned houses, shuttered factories, and vacant lots. With population and housing losses continuing since the 2007 financial crisis, the future of neighborhoods in these places is precarious. How we will rebuild shrinking cities and what urban design vision will guide their future remain contentious and unknown.

In Design After Decline, Brent D. Ryan reveals the fraught and intermittently successful efforts of architects, planners, and city officials to rebuild shrinking cities following mid-century urban renewal. With modern architecture in disrepute, federal funds scarce, and architects and planners disengaged, politicians and developers were left to pick up the pieces. In twin narratives, Ryan describes how America's two largest shrinking cities, Detroit and Philadelphia, faced the challenge of design after decline in dramatically different ways. While Detroit allowed developers to carve up the cityscape into suburban enclaves, Philadelphia brought back 1960s-style land condemnation for benevolent social purposes. Both Detroit and Philadelphia "succeeded" in rebuilding but at the cost of innovative urban design and planning.

Ryan proposes that the unprecedented crisis facing these cities today requires a revival of the visionary thinking found in the best modernist urban design, tempered with the lessons gained from post-1960s community planning. Depicting the ideal shrinking city as a shifting patchwork of open and settled areas, Ryan concludes that accepting the inevitable decline and abandonment of some neighborhoods, while rebuilding others as new neighborhoods with innovative design and planning, can reignite modernism's spirit of optimism and shape a brighter future for shrinking cities and their residents.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Named one of Planetizen's Top 10 Books for 2013

"A great read, a valuable contribution to current planning discourses on shrinking cities. This is a book that will be noticed not only in the United States but also abroad."—Journal of the American Planning Association

"Brent D. Ryan has produced a well-written and well-researched narrative about the development of many older American cities. Especially, the case studies about Detroit and Philadelphia are as interesting to read as they are well documented."—Journal of Housing and the Built Environment

"Design After Decline is an important addition to the study of urbanism 'after the fall.' Ryan brings to this surprisingly little-researched topic an impressive expertise in planning as well as a belief in the social impact of good urban design. As he shows, the many failures and few hard-won victories of late twentieth-century urbanism must be understood if we are to recover a genuine American urbanism in the course of the twenty-first century."—Robert Fishman, University of Michigan

Product Details

University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date:
The City in the Twenty-First Century Series
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Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

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In the summer of 1993, on break from architecture school, I paid a visit to friends in the city of Detroit. I knew of Detroit's fearsome reputation, and the city's vacant lots, burned-out homes, and bleak, empty skyscrapers confirmed Detroit as the paradigm of urban blight. The sense of emptiness was overpowering; I was shocked to see that even the city's train station, designed by Warren and Wetmore at the same time as their Grand Central Terminal, had been left open to the winds of fate. Entering the station's burned-out, rubble-strewn great hall early one morning, I felt as if I was walking into the ruin of America. To me, Detroit was a half-dead declaration that the decades-long attempt to rebuild what were then known as "declining" American cities had utterly failed. What place was there for optimism in such a landscape?

As I researched cities further, I discovered that optimism did exist in Detroit and other Rust Belt cities such as Philadelphia and Cleveland: new housing was being constructed in small quantities, some commercial areas were thriving, and downtowns still attracted visitors for sports, conventions, and tourism. But my overall sense of disappointment was scarcely allayed by the scattered new neighborhood developments that I saw in declining cities. Many of them seemed to imitate suburban developments, complete with iconic culs-de-sac. In the late 1990s public housing towers began to disappear, replaced by townhouse communities allegedly modeled on the historic city but to me more reminiscent of suburban condominiums. The overall effect of these "revitalization" efforts struck me as not only formally unadventurous but sadly underscaled against the evident abandonment of declining cities. Was no one else noticing North Philadelphia and Detroit, I wondered? Why weren't we doing anything about these places?

I was well aware that older American cities had gone through a substantial rebuilding process only a few decades earlier, during the heyday of Modern architecture. My hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, was littered with the concrete and steel remnants of such efforts—an unfinished highway, a gargantuan arena, and lots and lots of empty land marked the results of the last time urban planners had tried to "save" the city. New Haven showed that the death of these so-called "urban renewal" policies had not been such a bad thing for the city—the brutal clearance of city neighborhoods ended, as did the construction of alienating buildings such as Roche and Dinkeloo's Knights of Columbus tower. At least the federal government was no longer subsidizing the dislocation of urban residents, and cities were no longer celebrating their own "sacking," as Jane Jacobs (1961, 4) had trenchantly put it. Architects were mostly building their large-scale work in the suburbs or on other continents, and many urban-renewal-era Modernists like Paul Rudolph had finished out their careers overseas in tremendous style. As I learned more about urban planning I saw that planners too had abandoned the notion of utopia; rather than projecting new visions, they sought to patch, support, and assist the modest but sincere visions espoused by city dwellers. In places like Boston, with a robust economy and substantial historical urban fabric, this postrenewal approach seemed to be working well.

But what about shrinking cities like Detroit? As far as I could see, not much at all was happening to help the Motor City, or the depressed areas of a half-dozen other large declining cities that I came to know well: Cleveland, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Chicago's south and west sides. The overwhelming modesty of these cities' 1990s rebuilding lacked Modernism's arrogance, but these projects also seemed to say that the future of shrinking cities was now the single-family detached home, perhaps constructed by a small nonprofit organization and housing a fortunate low-income family. Social planners celebrated this "community-based" rebuilding, but the tools and scope of this rebuilding, as far as I could see, were limited to the generic models provided by the suburban building industry and to the feeble funding still being provided by the federal government. If this constituted a victory over urban renewal, it seemed a pretty hollow one, for most shrinking-city neighborhoods were being abandoned, not reconstructed.

Unlike Jane Jacobs's "attack on current city planning and rebuilding" (1961, 3) in the Death and Life of Great American Cities, I found it hard to blame an obvious actor for the parlous condition of America's shrinking cities. The "master planners" of the 1960s were retired, large-scale neighborhood clearance was no longer occurring, architects were not building anything substantial outside of downtown facilities, planners claimed to represent the people, and city politicians all claimed to want to help their cities. It was clear that the failure I was witnessing, if one even perceived this urban shrinkage as failure, was a collective one, attributable to the entirety of actors responsible for rebuilding deteriorated, low-income, depressed areas of cities. There was no single actor to blame. The federal government mostly left cities to their own devices through decentralized funding mechanisms such as block grants; public-private coalitions worked hard to activate cities, but they focused on places like downtowns where developers could make money; nonprofit corporations struggled to generate and sustain modest amounts of housing; urban designers, where they even existed, were regulators more than they were builders.

But where cities like Boston and San Francisco were evidently on the way back from decline as early as the 1980s, it was equally clear that the departure of urban renewal had left shrinking cities like Detroit and Philadelphia adrift. The professional, political, aesthetic, and theoretical unity that had motivated Modernism had withered away, and in its place was a growing desolation, filled haphazardly and modestly by rebuilding strategies that were mostly not formal strategies, by planning departments that had lost the ability to plan; by real estate developers who quite sensibly wished to maximize profits; and by communities, most of them racial minorities, that sensed the scale of their problems but that had a collective memory of urban renewal and feared insensitive outside interference. Amid a narrative of urban revitalization success stories, I suspected that I was also witnessing the concealment of failure, for no one could convince me that a place like Camden, New Jersey, represented a policy or design success.

This book is my effort to better understand and explain what I saw happening in America's shrinking cities in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s. My central argument is that the end of urban renewal in the mid-1970s brought both a sense of relief and a sense of disillusionment: relief, because urban renewal projects like the federally sponsored Cedar-Riverside New Town In-Town in Minneapolis treated existing neighborhoods with great brutality; and disillusionment because these developments also projected a vision of the future that was nothing if not optimistic. The late-1970s projects that followed them, such as Charlotte Gardens in the South Bronx, possessed neither this brutality nor any of this optimism. Instead, these projects set a tone of small-scale, incremental rebuilding that would continue, at least in city neighborhoods in the United States, for the next thirty years. From this sequence of events emerged a narrative of brutal Modernist urban renewal, and of restorative contextual design, that remains in force today. But I suggest that this argument elides an alternative narrative in which Modernist urban renewal, recovering from the insensitivity of the 1960s, reformed almost exactly at the same time as the federal policies driving urban redevelopment collapsed. To make this argument, I review the experience of the Greater London Council Architect's department, which designed a reformed Modernist version of social housing that corrected for many of the errors of the 1960s, at least until this organization too was shut down.

In the United States, a review of the population and housing trajectories of the largest cities during a fifty-year trajectory from 1950 to 2000 demonstrates that the end of modernist urban renewal in no way interrupted the downward economic trajectory of many of these large cities. In places like Philadelphia and Detroit, losses continued uninterrupted after 1975, suggesting that no single policy regime was destroying (or saving) these places. In the middle chapters of this book, I offer detailed histories of these cities' neighborhood redevelopment efforts, which distinguishes my study from more traditional studies of downtown development, such as that found in Frieden and Sagalyn (1989). Detroit and Philadelphia were both heavily industrial cities, but otherwise they were quite different in terms of geography, design, housing stock, social trajectories, and experience during the urban renewal decades of the 1950s and 1960s. In particular, Philadelphia carried out its rebuilding with greater sensitivity, utilizing urban design and planning judiciously and generating some substantial successes, such as the Society Hill and Yorktown developments, even as it made some of the same mistakes as other cities. Detroit, conversely, was in some ways a much newer city with a recent and relatively disposable housing stock, and its midcentury redevelopment set a precedent of substantial displacement and destruction that arguably contributed to the city's precipitous decline in the 1970s and 1980s. Certainly by the time market interest began to return to these cities around 1990, Detroit had not only fewer intact neighborhoods but also a weaker capacity to redevelop itself intelligently.

Without any centralized housing, planning, or urban design policy, Detroit thus focused on attracting developers to build market-rate housing with the aid of city subsidies. In the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood, for example, this strategy achieved notable success, but developers imposed the proviso that the only marketable housing model was the suburban single-family home. After some initial success with the heavily subsidized Victoria Park development, the Detroit process went awry when the city ran out of the easily developable large parcels that urban renewal had generated in the 1970s. The next large Jefferson-Chalmers project was an unmitigated disaster, as the city had to condemn inhabited homes in order to provide a site large enough to meet the demand of a politically connected developer selling market-rate houses. In a struggle reminiscent of the 1960s, bitter community protests delayed the development for years. Detroit headed into the market crash of 2007 having achieved little redevelopment success outside of those few areas where developers were willing to build.

In Philadelphia, a city that actually had less market-rate demand for housing in the 1990s than Detroit, the city pursued an interventionist social housing strategy in its hardest-hit neighborhood of Lower North Philadelphia using momentum from the election of an ambitious new mayor in 1993. Over the next seven years the city carried out a series of social housing developments whose mostly uninspired designs were guided by a larger-scale spatial planning strategy of some sophistication. As the market recovered and then boomed after the turn of the millennium, the city's policy of building low-density social housing persisted. At the time of this writing (2010), suburban-style social housing was still being constructed even as developers were building high-density, mixed-use housing only a few blocks away. Nevertheless Philadelphia's rebuilding strategy made sense from the policy level, if not the design level, and multiple reformed Modernist design precedents existed from the 1960s and 1970s to provide a guide for better building in the future. No such precedent existed in Detroit except for tabula rasa urban renewal projects like Lafayette Park that denied the validity of the existing city.

As the cases of Philadelphia and Detroit suggest, the development precedents from the past thirty years are not exactly promising, and shrinking cities today are focused more on demolition than construction strategies. Moreover, the currently dominant theories of everyday, landscape, and new urbanism all have limitations in the context of shrinking cities and their neighborhoods. That said, I do think there is cause for optimism. In particular, the design trajectory of reformed Modernism that was mostly cut off around 1980 may still reconcile projective design with the social expectations of shrinking-city residents. To establish a new trajectory for shrinking-city rebuilding, I lay out a set of five design and planning principles: palliative planning, which argues that action is important even if full recovery is unlikely; interventionist policy, which argues that serious problems demand equally serious responses and that the decentralized action of the past thirty years has been ineffective in responding to the scale of shrinking-city problems; democratic decision making, which argues that planners must consider the needs of shrinking cities' least able and empowered residents as a central concern; projective design, which argues for rekindling the future-oriented spirit of Modernism while retaining the humanism required for any social design intervention; and patchwork urbanism, a theory that portrays the landscape of the future city as a patchwork of settled, partially empty, reconstructed, and empty areas. Shrinking cities, and cities in general, will always be incomplete, always in flux, yet always moving toward a better future under the aegis of the previous five principles. I conclude with a portrait and illustrations of a "semi-topian" future for a typical shrinking city.

Many of the economic changes, social shifts, and physical deterioration that have afflicted cities like Detroit and Philadelphia are irreversible. But I believe that the recent history of inconsistently managed change is one that can motivate urban designers, planners, and politicians faced with the prospect of future change to reconcile disciplines, reorient policy directions, and reformulate design strategies to face problems head on. In many ways, shrinking cities represent the richest opportunities that currently exist for urban designers in the United States.

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Meet the Author

Brent D. Ryan teaches urban design and public policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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