16 January 2008

How NOT to Redevelop the City

In response to a posting on the Brick City blog (with the above photograph) regarding the redevelopment of "blighted" residential areas of the city, I responded with the comments below.
[You can find the original uncropped screenshot here.]
Brick City posted the above image under the title "City Struggles." Along with the image are the following questions:

What do we do with areas like this?

Do we let a developer come in and create a New Town St. Charles or Winghaven? Do we build suburban style housing on the existing street grid? Do we restore the homes that are currently here and build historic replicas around them?

What should we do?

My comment:

Of the three alternatives you've laid out, I would answer, "No, no, and no."

Bringing in a developer to wipe a clean slate (bulldoze history, culture, and people) might be economically viable, but it displaces the existing residents literally and figuratively. This is wrong. Not merely in a moral sense, but with respect to the overall costs to society and the environment. Displacing people and communities simply pushes problems around and creates a defensive, separatist attitude.

Building suburban style housing on the existing street grid would be disastrous. The street itself would be destroyed except for the use of the automobile. If you're going to go suburban, you might as well rip up the sidewalks. It won't really matter all that much if you maintain the street grid or modify it. The suburban house is a poor model to follow in general and in an urban setting, it is positively destructive and deadening. It results in people being alienated from their environments and from each other.

Restoring the existing homes should absolutely be considered. Even if the cost is greater than the cost of demolishing and rebuilding, there is a sense of history and place inherent in these structures that can help to guide new construction in the area. A completely clean slate is a bad way to start. Why? Because it allows developers / builders / designers to effectively ignore the context and the site's history. Doing so paves the way for anonymous, lowest common denominator, completely "non-offensive" real estate driven investment (i.e. profiteering).

What should we do? Let me think of this a little, although I believe there is a suggestion in my above comments of the appropriate course of action which mediates between complete obliteration of the existing fabric and an attempt at historical replication.

An outline: Rebuild using the principles established by the urban design as it existed. That is, replicate the conceptual fabric for creating a new community that is based directly upon the pre-existing situation. Then, build structures that are honest, direct expressions of the needs, functions, materials, and construction methods used in creating the new homes.

So the figure-ground image of the fully developed neighborhood might resemble the pre-existing figure ground (but not replicate it). The homes would varying in style and type. The homes would not need to necessarily be brick or follow the typology of the existing buildings. Consideration for the existing buildings should be a factor in the design of the new structures, but not the primary determinant of the exterior form.

Otherwise, the exteriors become false masks over suburban crap without character or meaning.

Does that help at all?


  1. You're quick to throw out the label "suburban crap" when one could just as easily afix the "urban crap" label to the neighborhood in question. The neighborhood as it exists today is an example of a failed community, most likely the design of the buildings had nothing to do with its demise but I see no reason to place the old architecture on such a pedestal. There's already a resurgence of interest in the ranch style housing of early 60's era suburbia, and if you wait long enough people will eventually cherish the bland suburban designs of the 90's and 00's. Not because these designs are unique but because of the emotions such designs elicit in the beholder. Take a look at the 1900 era brick housing in St Louis, a lot of it is no less cookie cutter than some of the tract housing out in St Charles. I take offense to your unrestrained dislike and hatred of current suburban planning and design, it reflects poorly on your openmindness. Other than that I enjoy reading your blog.

  2. Dear Anonymous

    Thank you for your comment. I fully admit to being biased and becoming emotionally charged over issues related to suburban development.

    I'm going to consider your thoughts and let my emotions rest while the rest of my mind catches up.

    Thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate the feedback.

  3. I reread my comments and they come off kind of harsh at the end, so sorry for that, I am a suburbanite and its a frustrating to deal with the labeling and I got a little defensive. I agree that the city is in need of revitalization and that suburban flight isn't necessarily helping matters, but keep in mind that there are suburbanites out there who are open minded and even support the city but choose to live outside it due to economic factors (crime, schooling etc). If I could afford to build a brick house in the city, pay for private schooling and hire an architect believe me I would but in the meantime I choose to make the blandness of suburbia my home. Suburbia is reliant on the auto, but it isn't inherently antisocial. That is totally dependent on the residents, and many city neighborhoods are equally separatist and removed due to the attitudes of the residents. Street planning and sidewalks can only go so far in ameliorating the spread of a neighborhood community, at some point the residents need to take matters into their own hands.

    Its easy for me to throw stones, while its not easy to maintain an interesting blog that doesn't offend one person here or there. So don't mind me, carry on!