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American Cities: The Next Chapter

October 2012
October 2012

Reinventing the urban realm for the 21st century.

By Cathleen McGuigan, Editor in Chief

Detroit was the first real city I knew. I grew up less than an hour's drive away, and am old enough to remember when downtown Detroit had beautiful stores and restaurants, and where my parents might take me to shop for school clothes, followed by a fancy lunch. Later in the 1960s, I remember the news of cities burning and the term "white flight" — the race-based exodus that sealed the steady decline of industrial urban America.

Cathleen McGuigan, Editor in Chief
Photo © Michel Arnaud
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But for some years now, the country has been turning away from the suburban nation it became in the second half of the 20th century. New census data released in June showed that for the first time in 90 years, urban population growth outpaced suburban growth. Housing prices in some major cities are beginning to pick up — even in Detroit. "The change in living patterns could in part reflect evolving preferences for cities over the space and privacy of suburbs," suggested a story in the Wall Street Journal. A recent study of 10 top international cities conducted by Urban Affairs Review found a link between urban living and happiness: People like easy access to public transportation, shops, arts and sports facilities — and they like social connectedness.

Urban neighborhoods across the U.S. continue to gentrify and revitalize, often in small but significant ways, by building pocket parks, adding bike lanes, establishing farmers' markets — creating a kind of hipster chic, where any entrepreneur with a bucket of bright paint, planters bursting with flowers, and a few café tables can turn a gritty streetfront into an urban oasis. The U.S. pavilion at the current Venice Architecture Biennale, which earned a special jury mention, is showcasing 124 temporary or ad hoc civic projects — from the prototype day-labor station by Public Architecture in San Francisco to Fresh Moves, a mobile grocery in Chicago — that reflect the diverse passions and concerns of designers and citizens for contemporary urban life.

This era may well become known as the Century of the City, if we can only figure out how to build on what we have.

In this issue of RECORD, we explore the ongoing transformation of three American cities through architecture, urban design, and planning. Mayors and municipal governments have been leading the nation in policies that promote sustainability and quality of life, often partnering with local corporations, foundations, and institutions.

Oklahoma City is thriving, in part thanks to the oil and natural-gas business, and the energy companies have come forward to help promote good architecture —check out the Devon Energy Center by Pickard Chilton — and an urban realm enhanced for pedestrians and the public at large. The aging Rust Belt cities of Cleveland and Pittsburgh face more daunting challenges. But Pittsburgh, as its economy begins to rebound, is emerging as one of our greenest cities, with sustainable initiatives in landscape and architecture, including the construction of PNC Bank's new headquarters by Gensler, which will be the tallest naturally ventilated office tower in the U.S. Like Pittsburgh, Cleveland has a legacy of great institutions in health care, education, and culture that are key to current planning and architecture, in such projects as Uptown, an urbane new mixed-use development designed by Stanley Saitowitz/Natoma Architects on land owned by Case Western Reserve. With inexpensive rents and enough of a cool factor — a music scene, art galleries, microbreweries —Pittsburgh and Cleveland are attracting high-tech companies and young people, who demand and perpetuate a cosmopolitan way of life.

But no one is thinking these cities will be restored to the boomtowns they once were. Cleveland's population continues to shrink — from a high of nearly 1 million in the 1950s to around 400,000 today — and like a mini-Detroit, huge swaths of the metropolis are almost empty, sprawling silently between more vibrant neighborhood hubs. And let's not forget that such aging cities are full of people who aren't sampling boutique beer or checking out the latest iPhone app: They are poor and disenfranchised.

Some ideas of how to tackle urban problems may emerge, ironically, from Detroit itself. At the end of this month, the planning report from the Detroit Works Project will be released, after years of research, with input from a wide range of community stakeholders. In the short run, the report will recommend urgent steps to respond to the needs of its citizens — but over the long term it is likely to suggest the evolution of a new kind of city, with an urban fabric that is intermittently dense and porous and an infrastructure that is flexible and sustainable. The next chapter for American cities should build on our strongest institutions and historical structures while bringing innovative ideas and design tools to create an urban form of new possibilities.

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