Urban Mechanics

Rebuilding the Engine of the Old Industrial City

Something profound is happening across America. During a historic economic recession and against seemingly insurmountable odds, local leaders in some of our nation’s hardest-hit industrial cities are making progress toward revitalizing their communities—and design has emerged as an essential strategy in addressing these challenges.

While these cities vary widely in size, history, and circumstances—think Baltimore, Buffalo, Detroit, and Youngstown— they tend to share a set of interrelated challenges, what Kresge Foundation President Rip Rapson calls the “wicked problems” of their condition:

  • Long vacant or underutilized land where heavy manufacturing once thrived;
  • A prevalence of empty and/or decaying buildings;
  • Diminished tax bases that make it difficult to fund even basic municipal services;
  • Aging inner-city populations; and
  • High rates of poverty and unemployment/underemployment.

Despite the complexity and gravity of these problems, Rip remains optimistic. He sees transformative potential in those cities that have been called rustbelt, frostbelt, weak-market, and post-industrial. He sees an opportunity to realize a new vision of beauty, sustainability, livability, and economic vitality built on “radically different concepts of the city’s physical form.” And he’s not alone—neither in his optimism nor his call for an overhaul rather than a tune-up.

Toni Griffin is a highly skilled urban mechanic. She is an architect, urban designer, educator, and two-time alumna of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design (MICD). With support from the Kresge Foundation, Toni has worked with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing to develop a comprehensive, citywide strategic plan. Her advice…think BIG. Whatever the individual circumstances of these older industrial cities may be, they’ve all reached “a moment in time when large, transformative change is required to improve the overall health of the city.”

Of course this begs the question of where to begin. Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. As Don Carter of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture points out, these cities are already primed for smart growth, with walkable neighborhoods, affordable housing, historic downtowns and main streets, strong universities, leading medical centers, established philanthropic groups, beautiful city parks, and celebrated cultural amenities.

They also have the development density needed for public transportation; the space to grow internally on underutilized land without having to spend money on new sewer, water, and road systems; and an abundance of water that is the envy of sunbelt cities.

A public art installation in a vacant office building in downtown Detroit stands as a testament to the determination of the city’s residents. Photo by

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, they have the spirit of the people who have remained. As Don explains, “Call it strength, resilience, persistence, bull-headedness, whatever—they’re still there. And they’re saying, ‘Well, we must be able to do something to fix this.’”Of course transformative change doesn’t just happen. It requires leadership—strong, persistent, diverse leadership—which is exactly what Phil Henderson and his colleagues at the Surdna Foundation look for when selecting communities to support. In particular, they search for a combination of three groups of leaders.

  • Political leaders, including mayors and other elected officials;
  • Third-sector leaders from philanthropic and nonprofit organizations; and
  • Business leaders with demonstrated interest and commitment.

Through national design leadership programs, including the Sustainable Cities Design Academy, the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, and Great Schools by Design, the American Architectural Foundation helps to establish these critical leadership assets in more than 70 cities each year.

Jay Williams—executive director of the Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers, former mayor of Youngstown, and an MICD alumnus—echoes the need to cultivate a diverse network of leadership, stressing the role that local leaders play in helping guide residents through the psychological process of accepting change. This point is well worth a moment of reflection. Transformative change, no matter how beneficial, demands sacrifice, compromise, and reinvention.

As Mayor Williams explains, “One of the things I’ve found most rewarding as a mayor is that once you decide—and I mean decide collectively—to lead a community through that change, they can realize that while things are different, it’s not necessarily the end for their community.” Without that realization, residents may fall victim to inertia, holding onto the past rather than contributing to a vision that moves the city forward.

City Councilwoman Carol Rimedio-Righetti inspired 34 Choffin High School students to transform this abandoned Youngstown gas station into a message of hope. Photo by Marc Moss (Creative Commons)

Not surprisingly, when I interviewed Rip Rapson, he too trumpeted the virtues of diverse yet collaborative leadership: “When the problems are as densely interrelated as they are in any urban context—transit is related to land use is related to education is related to safety—there needs to be a response that is similarly cross-sectoral, cross-disciplinary, and ultimately able to integrate a wide variety of potential responses, not just a single response.”

Are you starting to see a pattern here? Design challenges are by nature complex. We will need a complex matrix of design leadership to address them. AAF is helping to create that matrix, by educating local leaders about the power of design and inspiring them to take up the mantle of design in their communities.

Budget shortfalls, higher than average crime rates, historic unemployment—in such a climate, many local leaders in older industrial cities dismiss design as a luxury. Not Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (who is also an MICD alumnus). He preaches that design has a fundamental influence on the full spectrum of urban life, and he is committed to leveraging design for the benefit of his constituency.

In April 2010, Mayor Nutter addressed some 300 mayors, federal officials, design professionals, and other key decision makers in the design process at the National Mayors Summit on City Design. Convened in Chicago by the National Endowment for the Arts, American Architectural Foundation, and U.S. Conference of Mayors, the Summit marked the 25th anniversary of MICD. Mayor Nutter framed his comments around a phrase as powerful as it is simple: “design matters.”

According to John Grady, senior vice president at the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, Mayor Nutter practices what he preaches: “For Mayor Nutter, first and foremost, it’s all about leadership. He has put his credibility and energy behind a lot of these initiatives in a way that shows people that the design process is going to be important. He has re-energized our entire Planning Commission and given them a role and the resources to think about a comprehensive plan for the first time in 50 years. And he’s been extremely smart and thoughtful in the whole approach to the issue of sustainability.”

For much of his first year in office, Mayor Nutter focused on sustainability, stressing equity, open space, management of resources, the economy, and development of the skill sets necessary in such an economy. These efforts led to the production of the Greenworks blueprint, which is in the process of transitioning from paper to place. Some initial achievements include new bike trails all over downtown Philadelphia, the expansion of the Schuylkill River Trail, and enhanced access to the city’s waterfronts for city residents. Reclaiming and repurposing the waterfront has incredible potential to reinvigorate Philadelphia.

As John explains, “Huge stretches of Philadelphia’s 36 miles of waterfront used to be heavy industrial areas: railroads, shipping, ship building, petroleum refining; nasty, noisy enterprises that were deliberately isolated from most of the population. Today, people want to recapture those areas for modern use. It’s a huge design challenge—but we’ve learned that we can turn away from the old kinds of heavy industry and still retain a focus on industry.” Through design, the Philadelphia waterfront is gaining a new identity, and the changes already achieved are only the beginning.

Any city with strong design leaders in the public sector is fortunate—particularly if that strength extends beyond the mayor’s office to the other halls of city government. For cities struggling to revitalize and reinvent themselves, this leadership base is critical. Herein lies a problem for many older industrial cities. As Phil Henderson explains, “One of the observations we have is just how thin the bench sometimes is, particularly in the political arena behind these visionary mayors, into the political leadership teams—just how few people there are, in some cases, who are really interested in and able to sustain high-quality, innovative work over time.”

In other words, a visionary mayor is essential but not sufficient. To tackle the long-term process of transforming a city, it takes a village. Building civic capacity and engaging citizens broadly is critically important. According to Toni Griffin, “the city leaders need committed partners who are dedicated to creating a shared vision. A city government, particularly in these times of constrained budgets and capacity, cannot do it themselves. And cities aren’t built by the public sector alone.”

Phil Henderson and Rip Rapson believe philanthropic foundations are well positioned to become a new locus of design leadership, especially in older industrial cities. These stable institutions, anchored in the communities they serve, are capable of seeing long-term initiatives from start to finish. As Rip explains, the philanthropic world is in many ways uniquely qualified to catalyze collective action:

“Like the private sector, it has discretionary capital to contribute to a project. Like the academic sector, it has a long timeline and is very comfortable creating a sound empirical base underneath whatever needs to happen. Like the government, it’s able to pull people together in common purpose, communicate the work, do the convening, articulate the notion of a broader community, and present a set of ideas.”

Philanthropies also typically have close ties to some of the most disadvantaged communities in cities—exactly the communities that tend to have the most difficulty realizing transformative change.

For more than a decade, the American Architectural Foundation has been on the ground in cities across America helping decision makers understand the critical role that design must play in their leadership portfolios. AAF also strives to provide them with the knowledge and momentum they need to realize the potential of design in their cities. We are energized by the efforts of our partners in the philanthropic community to help promote design as a driver for a new era of urban vibrancy.

For example, the Surdna Foundation has been focusing on sustainable communities, emphasizing sustainable environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures. To help fuel these initiatives, they are turning to the process of community-driven design. As Phil Henderson explains, “If you care about having high-quality places for people to live that offer economic opportunity, have low environmental impact, and embrace the local culture, design is both a tool for achieving that and an expression of that goal.”

A successful design process starts with good questions. For Detroit, Rip Rapson and his colleagues at the Kresge Foundation have posed some compelling ones. For example, “How will the community use the process of design to re-imagine connective tissue within a civic infrastructure created to serve two million people, not the current population of 800,000? What are the design moves that the city will need to make in order to mesh that new system with the old one?”

These are difficult questions, but Rip is confident that the design process can help us find the answers we need: “In Detroit, the power of architecture and design to either reinforce form, fill in form, or create new form is extraordinary.” In search of solutions, Rip believes design will be “phenomenally important.”

While the challenges facing older industrial cities at times seem overwhelming, we have great cause for hope. After several decades of suburbanization, cities are rapidly coming back into favor. As John Grady explains, “Retiring baby boomers are coming back downtown, and young professionals graduating from college aren’t viewing it as the American dream to move out onto a three-acre piece of land with a new house on it. That’s a huge opportunity for cities.”

With the necessary support, local leaders can seize this opportunity to use design as a catalyst for transforming their communities.

Special thanks to:

  • Don Carter, FAIA, FAICP, LEED AP, David Lewis Director of Urban Design and Regional Engagement, Remaking Cities Institute, Carnegie Mellon University
  • John Grady, Senior Vice President, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation
  • Toni L. Griffin, President, Urban Design and Planning for the American City; Professor of Architecture and Director of the J. Max Bond Center, Spitzer School of Architecture, The City College of New York
  • Phil Henderson, President, Surdna Foundation
  • Rip Rapson, President, Kresge Foundation
  • The Honorable Jay Williams, Executive Director, the Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers; Former Mayor, the City of Youngstown, Ohio

Ron Bogle became the seventh President and CEO of AAF in July 2002. During his tenure, he has developed and launched five national design initiatives, including the Sustainable Cities Design Academy and Great Schools by Design. He has also guided AAF in its role as the managing partner of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with AAF and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

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