Monday, October 12, 2009

Homesteading on the urban prairie

The large spaces in cities weigh heavily on urban function. They are evidence of really really bad policies carried out in the past. They cry out for really really good interventions in the future. Ecologist Rodrick Wallace, co-author of A Plague on Your Houses, has pointed out the policies that led to the burning down of New York, Newark, Detroit and other cities replaced urban renewal when that program became the target of citizen protest. The replacement policy -- planned shrinkage -- itself went out of vogue, but has had a recrudescence lately. Politicians and policy makers have proposed planned shrinkage for Youngstown, Flint, Detroit and other cities with substantial amounts of vacant land. The proponents of planned shrinkage argue that the best thing to do is to consolidate functions in the best developed parts of the city and let the semi-deserted places be bulldozed, and left fallow for later development.

Walking past a very large empty block in Newark, NJ, I considered this proposition. What is left unsaid in the paens to planned shrinkage is that such upheaval is the cause of social disruption and disease which is impossible to control. Indeed, the fallout of planned shrinkage in New York includes a chilling list of epidemics that includes AIDS, crack, violence, asthma and obesity, as well as associated social problems like high rates of infant and maternal mortality, school failure, and delinquency. What sane society would choose such a self-destructive path?

What is the sane alterative? I have seen glimpses of it in cities all over the US, where people are working to restore the urban ecosystem, using a combination of tools designed for careful recovery. They must restore the space, protecting what exists and rebuilding where needed. At the same time, they must get people excited about the possibilities for their own living in the restored space.

I saw this two-pronged approach come alive this weekend at the Valley Arts District Open Studio Stroll in Orange and West Orange, NJ. The Valley was an industrial center, but its big factories are now silent, and much of the area abandoned. Out of years of community planning came a vision for making the Valley an Arts District. For several years this plan has been pursued by builders building, artists creating their works, and organizers gathering people. In "don't you love it when a plan comes together" fashion, the places were finally open, the art ready for display and the people eager to come. The joy and excitement were palpable, the experience fulfilling, the possibilities for more development nearly endless.

The existence of large spaces in cities is unnatural and intimidating, but it should not automatically lead us to think, "Oh let's bulldoze the whole thing." We can reknit cities, restoring the urban ecosystem, by systematic application of the principles of careful recovery.


Anonymous said...

Just found this site doing a search for Main Street New Jersey, the DCA program. You may like what we've started here down in Beachwood:

I could sent long hyperlinks to specific Main Street revitalization articles we've written, but if you just peruse through the site you'll see em all.

Erik Weber
Director, Beachwood Historical Alliance

Mindy Fullilove said...

I found your site at and I loved all the posts about your city. I can't wait to visit! Thanks for telling me about it.