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, increasing in unproductive land and retaining a high majority of the region’s poor, unemployed and under-educated citizens. The current conditions of these cities can be traced directly back to many of the urban policies of the last century. Policies that allowed regional sprawl to decentralize the urban core, leaving behind underutilized and crumbling 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 desensitization to this condition than the media’s nonchalant reaction to Detroit’s crushing 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 again. After all, Detroit is still a city of 713,000 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—reprogramming its function, redesigning its urban form and architecture, and identifying and/or legitimizing 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 and social divides between race and opportunity; limits on urban growth with amended standards for permanent and transitional urban density; revised zoning that allows for more ingenuity in urban planning, building design, and ecological restoration; and new models of leadership and cooperation that facilitate a shared vision for the more productive and sustainable utilization of land and labor.

The Boom 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 marginalizing conditions that continue to have a devastating impact on everything from civic identity and participation to household wealth and health to 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 explanations for the depressed conditions of our legacy cities today.

So, how did we get here? 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 rail and automobile production industries offered these migrants unprecedented opportunities and freedoms to earn a living wage. Automobile pioneer Henry Ford’s revolutionary “five dollar a day” together with the five-day work week provided the average worker, with a high school education or less, the ability to afford a piece of the American dream—a car and a single-family home in a neighborhood with local schools, churches, play areas and shopping.

In some industrial cities, the migration propelled municipalities to expand through the annexation of neighboring towns, creating more spacious residential environments. In other industrial cities, there were fewer options for geographic expansion, resulting in rapid overcrowding and deterioration of infrastructure. As production technologies advanced, the regions around these overcrowded cities expanded to keep up with the pace of industrial innovation and growth.  But as we now know, in many cases this regional urbanization ultimately came at the expense of abandoning the city. In 1955, Detroit held over 55% of its region’s population, while today it retains only 15%. Simultaneously, issues of race and class became more spatialized as greater mobility in housing choice also meant furthering the preference for racial separation, a dynamic that remains 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 lending practice of redlining between 1934-1968 and the restrictive convents of the 1960’s had the effect of keeping people of color rooted in increasingly under-resourced neighborhoods. In more recent times, the aftermath of the sub-prime lending crisis of 2004-2007 (often predatory towards low-income households) has created a new portfolio of undervalued neighborhoods by adding unprecedented numbers of foreclosed properties to the housing market.

Similar to the correlation between housing access and abandonment, the growth of the suburbs led to the creation of suburban shopping centers  and malls which in turn precipitated the decline of the historic retail spaces of downtown main streets and neighborhood centers

The second program, the Federal Highways Act of 1956, facilitated even greater mobility of people and goods, meaning that people could live out side of the city and commute to jobs anywhere in the region. This lessened 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 require spatial concentration.[i]

It is important to note that running parallel to these place-based interventions, were 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 even today. 

Can Designers and Spontaneous Interventions help to reinvent the American City?

Try though they may, these legacy cities have not found solutions able to uplift city and citizen alike. Population loss, economic decline, and property abandonment all contribute to a growing supply of vacant urban spaces that are becoming canvases for spontaneous intervention. The depreciation of public sector resources and the urgency of maintaining neighborhood health and safety compels community organizations, designers and local residents to step in as the new agents of change, introducing innovative practices that require fewer resources and permissions from “top-down” authorities.

These trends suggest an opportunity for integrating new design innovations into public policy aimed at remediating longstanding structural inequalities and progressing toward a more just and inclusive city. Harvard professor Susan Fainstein suggests, the principle components of urban justice are equity, diversity and democracy.[ii] The concept of a just city has been at the forefront of national debate as various ad hoc communities are rising up to “occupy” public space in protest against the uneven allocation of wealth and power, reward and respect. University of Washington 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 a hard country… “[iii]

As designers, we must acknowledge that the “places of marginality” and the “places of opportunity” are one and the same. [iv]  As Americans struggle together in the challenged conditions of legacy cities and other such spaces, their efforts provide us an opportunity to consider how their innovative and entreprenuerial contributions are making a positive impact on making cities more just. Since some traditional, top-down public policy programs clearly further 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? We must embrace the fact that literally left behind in these cities are too often our most marginalized populations, the very folks who are disadvantaged by a lack of equity, access and justice. When we create interventions in these communities, some of which are already experiencing gentrification, we should be thinking about the possibilities of our work to expose the underlying inequalities of isolation and how it might raise the awareness and capacity of long-time residents to be their own change agents and participate effectively alongside other actors.

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 professional) and cultural designer (resident, community activist, social entrepreneur or other participant) can engage and build capacity through spontaneous intervention, then we might use this work to inform and alter the ways that design and community development are regulated, subsidized and effectively deployed in the future. Physical designers have the ability to create outcome and process innovations  that accommodate cultural differences and multiple, changing uses and users. For cultural designers, an even broader range of change agents have the potential to create innovations in participation that bring new and underrepresented voices to the table where design is happening and decisions are being made. The untapped skills and ingenuity of low-income residents can be harnessed via entrepreneurial ventures that take advantage of new crowd-funding networks. These ventures in turn can promote leadership development that identifies and educates young people so that they become involved in the process and ultimately sustain the capacity of the community.

As physical and cultural designers are empowered to further develop these ideas, our public policy makers must seriously examine what can be learned from the trend of spontaneous interventions and the people and organizations producing them. If  these spontaneous interventions were formally authorized and properly resourced as effective strategies to help redefine the American city, rather than only temporary installations to help bring greater safety, stability and civic activism to improve blighted communities, might they do more to inform 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 toward keeping our cities “alive” and the promise it might hold for transforming design and city planning practice as well as the values of access, equity and inclusion that should be deeply embedded in our policy making.

[i] Charles Waldheim, “CASE: Hilberseimer/Mies Van Der Rohe Lafayette Park Detroit”, edited by Charles Waldheim, (Prestel Verlag, 2004): 21.

[ii] Susan Fainstein, “The Just City”, (Cornell University Press, 2010): 5.

[iii] Sharon E. Sutton, “Creating Landscapes of Safety”, in “Architecture of Fear”, Nan Ellin, Editor, (Princeton Architectural Press, 1997): 249.

[iv] 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.