Open/Closed and Turning Urban: The Opportunities and Challenges of Urban Growth and Decline

Within one week of attending the Open/Closed conference in St. Louis, I found myself at another conference, Turning Urban: Innovation in Megacities, at the University of Virginia. I often think about the connections between Charlottesville, Virginia, where I study, and St. Louis, the site of my thesis in landscape architecture.

Physically connected by I-64, the cities also share historical connections. Thomas Jefferson, Meriweather Lewis and George Rodgers Clark were born in the Charlottesville area, and their roles in westward expansion are honored in both St. Louis and Charlottesville today. In the 20th Century, each city was transformed by city plans authored by St. Louis-based firm Harland Bartholomew and Associates (HBA). In each case, “slum clearance” recommended by HBA resulted in lasting tensions surrounding the racialized landscape.

Even with these connections in mind, it seemed absurd to find myself in two conversations about urbanism in one week – one addressing the issues surrounding population decline, the other on population explosion. But as I learned about the challenges and opportunities facing growing cities, I was reminded of Michael Allen’s (Preservation Research Office) comment at Open/Closed: many parts of St. Louis today, in their vacancy, resemble St. Louis as illustrated by Compton and Dry in their 1875 Pictorial St. Louis.  A similar thought was expressed by Jörg Dettmar in 2005,

Clearly the demands of the suburban growth zones and of shrinking cities are very different at first glance. In one case, there is great economic pressure and need for space, in the other there is shrinking and retreat. From a structural perspective, however, under both conditions an urban space consisting of a patchwork of built and open spaces arises.

When urbanization processes are viewed fundamentally, growth and shrinking belong together.

{This compilation of plates from Compton and Dry’s 1875 Pictorial St. Louis shows the heterogeneity of the urban landscape surrounding the Pruitt-Igoe site (highlighted in yellow).  Trees are highlighted in green, karst topography is indicated in blue.  Industrial structures are indicated in red.}

The opportunities and challenges of urban growth and decline are indeed very similar. In each instance, citizens, planners, architects and landscape architects must make decisions regarding the distribution of city infrastructure, including parks and recreational spaces; energy supply and demand; social services such as schools, and storm water management and environmental protections. In growing cities, action must be taken to set aside land and establish this infrastructure; in shrinking cities the opportunity exists to reject dysfunctional infrastructure and experiment with new forms and configurations.

Open/Closed provided me with a clearer image of the challenges facing St. Louis, and the realities of living with vacancy. The attendance levels and panelists evidenced a growing commitment to rebuild St. Louis socially and physically, and it was encouraging to observe a healthy debate regarding how the city should be rebuilt. But the dialogue surrounding rebuilding seemed, from my perspective, to be more reactive than proactive, focused on fixing St. Louis or finding a solution, rather than innovation or invention.

These efforts to “fix problems” seem, on a basic level, to come dangerously close to the silver bullet redevelopment and renewal efforts the city has unsuccessfully focused its efforts on for decades. They address individual problems, rather than advocate holistic change. They represent an effort to rebuild St. Louis to what it once was – rather than what it could be.

When Lewis and Clark left Charlottesville for St. Louis, they weren’t setting off on America’s greatest vacant land tour. They were charged with surveying land and discovering opportunities. The vacant land tours held at Open/Closed were a great start in terms of providing a sense of the conditions on the ground. Could the residents, in the coming months, work to survey the opportunities these lands present and map out new futures? Discussion of “right-sizing” the city seemed to be limited to the “Reuse/Reviable” panel – but these plans, which accept a smaller urban population as a given, provide a system for thinking about vacant land as an opportunity, rather than a liability.

In the Ruhr Valley in Germany, vacant land became an opportunity for new recreational spacesthat also commemorate the region’s industrial heritage. In Youngstown, Ohio, vacant land has become an opportunity to restore wetlands and create a wetlands mitigation bank. In Detroit, vacant land represents an opportunity to introduce a new industry –localized agriculture— into the city. Regardless of whether St. Louis ultimately pursues a right-sizing plan, participating in the regional and global dialogue about shrinking cities might help identify new, alternative uses for vacant land throughout the city.

Megacities planning might also provide useful inspiration and precedents for rebuilding St. Louis. Speaking at Turning Urban, David Bragdon, Director of Sustainability for New York City, described the city’s PlaNYCas in part an effort to overcome the effects of disinvestment in urban infrastructure throughout the second half of the 20th Century. Because federal funds were available for construction of new highways and new buildings, maintenance of existing infrastructure was deferred.

This problem should sound familiar to St. Louis – and PlaNYC’s cross-department and cross-disciplinary planning, focused on areas including parks, brownfields remediation and water quality might provide inspiration to St. Louis. The effort to see these goals as not only cross-disciplinary, but also hybrid (improved water quality allows new recreational uses in waterfront parks) is an example of the holistic planning that might help to rebuild St. Louis.

A second theme of Turning Urban was the importance of community organization: appreciating the degree to which informal planning processes and sharing of resources thrive where top-down planning fails. That Open/Closed was a planned and executed “without big donors or big checks” illustrates that community members already feel empowered to discuss concerns and share knowledge and resources.  I hope that this community will stay active – but won’t let the city off the hook.

I want to be clear that I’m not letting my own profession off the hook either. My biases as a landscape architect will be clear when I say that I could imagine some of St. Louis’ vacant land used to identify the city more closely with the rivers that led to its prosperity in the first place. If vacant land were planted with hardy native plants, a new “urban wilderness” recreational experience could be created – while simultaneously providing forage for migratory birds and reducing storm water runoff, improving Mississippi River health.
But if landscape architects are going to advocate these types of alternatives, we also need to make our specialized knowledge available – not just to clients, but to community members – and we need to advocate funding, financing, and tax-credit options that will make these alternatives available and attractive.

Within the academy of design, I think that we often tend to select projects and sites that represent extreme conditions, rather than the everyday. My own thesis project, Framing a Modern Mess, certainly falls into this category of projects in its focus on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and Pruitt-Igoe sites.

I hope that the questions I’m exploring and information I’m gathering through the study of two conspicuously large and vacant sites will have value outside of the academy, and help provoke some new alternatives in thinking about vacant land throughout St. Louis. It’s time to survey the opportunities available; share skills, knowledge and resources; to participate in a broader dialogue about urbanism and imagine new urban forms.