The fallibility of cities is best observed in the fallen—in bankrupt municipalities, politically strangled and cheated towns and physically destroyed landscapes. Found in these wasted cityscapes—after the media and markets have rejected their bids for economic survival, left them for dead—is something unexpected: a moment of possibility and catalytic potential. Not all places find the necessary ingredients to create new growth, but when the right elements ignite, like a forest fire that rages through the hills, there is a specific chemistry, topography and pattern to regeneration, vibrancy and later resiliency.
Today, the best lessons about urban resiliency appear to be found in Berlin and Detroit. These cities, both formerly wealthy manufacturing centers, have undergone economic ruin, population decimation and, now, phases of creative and economic re-emergence, fueled by grassroots community movements and entrepreneurial new arrivals.
Several months ago, I traveled to these cities as a member of the UW Runstad Fellows, a small group of academics and land-use professionals. We were in pursuit of clues about how to design the kinds of places that people both desperately seek and that also foster commercial success—i.e., place capital. We sought to observe and document fractured instances of human connection and commerce, challenge commonplace thinking and status quo solutions, and find patterns of urban success, namely in civic resiliency.
Of course, no definitive lessons should be preached by a few urbanists traveling to Detroit and Berlin for a couple of weeks. Cities are dynamic, constantly changing, living structures.
But with that said, we feel confident stating the following: If cities are to continue to be places for humanity to excel, they must provide support and inspiration that stirs the soul. The following observations from the 2013 Fellows are intended to engage the curious city-maker in us all.
No matter the talent, the lone designer or the isolated developer will never create the most dynamic spaces. Open, engaging and diverse conversations, viewpoints and actions achieve the most innovative, timely solutions. And yet, a co-created, place-based approach hasn’t been the predominant development framework for the past 100 years.
The co-creation process within Berlin is observed in the fabric of its art and commercial districts. Markets are curated by developers with community and proprietor input, and private gardens are tended by their owners as well as passing volunteers. Yet, the most visible example of co-creation within Berlin was, and is, the constant recreation of the city through its very active street-art communities.
FIND MEANINGFUL VALUE
Our economy is driven largely by consumption—of the stuff we make, ideas we trademark and things we buy (whether we need them or not). It’s a system that sees growth as the only path to value. The financialization of everything over the past thirty years certainly accelerated our income inequality and financial crises. Finance was the biggest industry over the last fifteen years, representing more than twenty- percent of the S&P 500, just before it sucked the global economy into a black hole.
At the same time, the idea of community and commerce is in flux. People are craving human interaction—wanting authentic experiences, local food, meaningful work, honest relationships, and seeking experiences beyond just collecting things. However, we have prioritized the development of personal, private spaces beyond communal public environs, walling off people in subdivisions, office parks and strip malls to avoid the messy, unpredictable nature of urban life.
Detroit illustrated the foundation for its demise, taking a suburban approach to its economy and populace, which isolated and buffered people from meaningful interactions and co-creation. In Detroit, a city in decline since the 1950s, the eerie streets and vacant spaces between homes seemed to further isolate and divide people. However, as new residents arrived, vegetable gardens sprouted, and as nature takes back neglected lots, a mix of new people, spaces and activities are reconnecting social functions within these neighborhoods. Fostering a more co-creative urban mix of uses, people and places plants seeds for new resilient growth.
DIVERSITY = RESILIENCE
Inviting diversity, and more importantly its sibling, inclusion, provides resilience in economy, people and place. Berlin, with its many vacant spaces, soft rules and flexibility when it comes to ownership, is a magnet for young people, artists, entrepreneurs and visitors from around the globe, making the city a place of positive change and increasing diversity. This openness to outsiders is likely cultural, yet a city that offers such a reception, without first facing destruction, is a gift. In Berlin, locals say that no one owns Berlin, therefore everyone does. This openness fosters an invitation for further diversity.
In the neighborhoods of Detroit, I talked to several fifty-year residents who told me they weren’t originally from the city but places like Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Ultimately, the invitation for diversity and inclusion comes from realizing we are all visitors, even if born on the soil we stand on.
SPACES TO PAUSE
There is value in city spaces that allow people to pause, to break out of routine, to be vulnerable and engage strangers. The busyness of everyday life in many cities finds nearly everyone staring at devices, avoiding the present moment, disconnected from what is happening around them. Just watch couples in a restaurant or people waiting for a bus. Fostering places comprised of everything analog, where a shut-down is not required but desired, allows us to access the very creative, emotional parts of our brains over the neocortex. Cities with places to pause might just be some of the most creative, prosperous and healthy landscapes of the future.
In Berlin, Prinzessinnengarten offers the perfect pause, a respite in the middle of bustling Kruezberg. Where the Berlin Wall once stood, a disused piece of land was transformed into a garden inviting anyone to participate in harvesting, learning, pickling. It is a place to sit at rustic tables, conversing with others, eating meals of food from the garden.
Creativity and innovation (today’s currency) come from great spaces that allow us to share ideas with people who aren’t like us. In Berlin and Detroit, we observed inherent openness and idea sharing. There was no commoditization of the creative product and no thought of thievery, as sharing has the potential to make work better.
The co-working houses in Berlin were examples of fearless, shared, moving economies. At Betahaus, many creative designers shared their content with others in open forums, at pin-up sessions, one-on-one and through digital swapping to challenge assumptions and make their work better. Many Betahaus workers acknowledge the best input came from those outside the industry.
There is magic in the messy, unpredictable nature of great urban spaces. One of the core riches of urban life is that it provides opportunity for a diverse mix of people and activities to come together to foster unexpected outcomes. Markets, like Detroit’s Eastern Market, Berlin’s Markthalle Neun and Seattle’s Pike Place Market, have yet a deeper purpose for their existence beyond the sale of goods and services: to provide space for the semi-managed unexpectedness, public vulnerability and random connections that encourage innovation, purpose and urban resilience to take place. These are spaces of possibility, not prescription.
In summary, builders, designers and civic leaders need to let go of manicured urbanism. Sustainable, vibrant urban life is based on a collaborative, co-created vision of place that goes beyond its physical limits. Cities are always going to rise and fall, shine and disappoint, thrive and barely survive. Some cities will have great art and green spaces, places rigidly determined, and others are full of possibilities still to be written. And cities have always provided connection, commerce and protection and will do so into the far future. Fundamentally, the 2013 Runstad Fellows learned that we are the city, on whatever part of the globe that might be, writing the urban narrative, public and private, every day of our lives. We all create the city.