Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Garden City Detroit

A great dialogue that happened a few weeks back over at Kaid Benfield's blog at NRDC (read it, the links, and the comments... good stuff) - about the fate and potential for Detroit. Seems that without reading the report - there's a lot of knee-jerk reaction to what has been percieved as 'bulldozing and planting sunflowers' as an urbanist theory. I posted a semi-long response with a wee bit of thought - and thought it a good idea to repost - as it's definitely a very important idea. The following mini-essay is the result.

Garden City Detroit: Landscape Urbanism in Action

"They paved paradise, to put in a 'lifestyle center'..." - adaptation from Joni Mitchell - 'Big Yellow Taxi'

The SDAT for the City of Detroit, was a good process and definitely began to coalesce into a vision - but was also a week long and should definitely not be construed as 'the solution' to what is a complex problem. I am going back to this topic often, as I was left with a permanent imprint from my short time there that is both innate fascination and specifically driven by the completely different nature of Detroit versus Portland in terms of urban evolution and issues.

One of the major points of conversation in the SDAT process was that people were (finally) beginning to acknowledge that the expansive and sprawling growth of the City of Detroit was not ever going rebound in terms of pure economics nor develop in the same way that created to initial urban form. And really this was way pre-recession - not a product of the recent downturn. People were relieved, as years of 'let's get the economy back and we'll be ok' mentality did little to create viable economic change nor good solutions for the City in general. This did acknowledge the urban flight problem, but set the only metric of success as full re-inhabitation, offering little in way of solutions.

Rather than provide a utopian 'garden' in the fabric of this shrinking city (thus my cringing at the analogy to 'english countryside' - the landscape provides a variable and adaptable field for a number of potential uses (to name a few: agriculture, open space, habitat, power generation, new industry, as well as vibrant good development) that were meant to become the next wave of urbanization. We were very specific in not taking any land 'off the table' for future development but rather looking at many empty acres that required infrastructure and upkeep. Agriculture is at best a productive use for land otherwise left fallow - at worst a temporary interim use for land until it is re-inhabited in, hopefully, a better way that takes advantage of good principles and gives people choice and options. If the size of Detroit in population rebounds - it still won't need the sizable urban footprint that it has - but the concentrations of population will provide dense centers. This is why 'urban growth boundaries' isn't appropriate - there's way too much land already.

I know this isn't 'urbanist' thinking but that's the point. The tenets of landscape urbanism, quoting Waldheim: "...describes a disciplinary realignment currently underway in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism. For many, across a range of disciplines, landscape has become both the lens through which the contemporary city is represented and the medium through which it is constructed.”

It's changing the way we think of urbanism (especially for traditional planning theorists) and definitely is in need of more discussion, but it sure makes a lot of sense, particularly in Detroit and other shrinking cities. The key is not thinking of the land or buildings for that matter as binary - either development or landscape - but always in flux and in need of intervention and evolution. Sometimes this means protection of cultural and historical resources. Sometimes it means, for lack of a better term, a redo. This is the key to our future - getting out of the idea that one direction leads on a direct and singular path - but that it is constantly forking and twisting to what inevitably will be different and much more wonderful than any planning process, no matter how well thought out, can envision.

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